Like Talk Therapy for Humans, Bark Therapy Helps Dogs!
Originally published in slightly different form on August 31, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.
How a Sheltie Named Duncan Helped “Cure” My Dog Freddie’s PTSD
In 1993, when my Dalmatian Freddie first developed PTSD, he was having daily panic attacks brought on by any number of noises coming from the city streets: the air brakes from a city bus, a loud horn honking, the gate being closed on a beer truck, etc, etc, etc. We lived 4 city blocks from Central Park, where we went every morning so Freddie could play Frisbee or chase sticks. In the park, Freddie was fully alive, and completely happy. But most days it was pure torture to navigate our way there without some sudden noise causing an all-out panic attack.
I had been training dogs for only a few years at the time, but I was constantly studying the subject, looking for answers on the best ways to train these wonderful animals, but more importantly the best ways to help them deal with emotional issues.
Just prior to the onset of Freddie’s PTSD I went through what I call my Karen Pryor phase, where I was fired up by the seemingly unassailable truth Ms. Pryor merrily puts forth in her book Don’t Shoot the Dog! Pryor was convinced about the complete and total effectiveness of operant conditioning techniques. To Pryor—and to me at the time—behavioral science seemed to be as inevitable as the law of gravity.
The trouble is, no matter how hard I tried, nothing I could find in the OC bag of tricks was of any help to Freddie. Nothing, nada, zippo. And while each of Freddie’s attacks didn’t last very long, they kept happening, over and over, day after lonely day.
I began talking to any and every dog owner I knew, hoping to find something that would keep Fred from going into what seemed like constant episodes of pure terror. One person I spoke to was the owner of a Sheltie named Duncan. Duncan and Freddie often played together in Central Park when they were young pups.
Duncan’s owner commiserated with my dilemma, then he said, “You know, come to think of it, Duncan used to be afraid of thunderstorms.”
“Really?” I said. “How did you fix the problem?”
“Oh, I didn’t. Duncan did it on his own.”
“Okay. How did Duncan fix it?”
“Well, one day he barked at the lightning, and he was never afraid of thunderstorms again.”
Of course, I thought. Instead of going into the flight part of the fight-or-flight response to danger, Duncan was fighting back, he was “attacking” the thing that scared him.
Luckily, I had already taught Freddie to “Speak! on command” So for the first time in months I was actually looking forward to his next panic attack, just to see if what had cured Duncan might cure Freddie as well.
We were on our way to the park when the next attack came, which was initiated by a loud noise from a delivery truck. Poor Freddie’s ears went back, his tail went between his legs, and he seemed ready to run in any possible direction.
I held the leash firm and calmly said, “Freddie, speak!”
I tried it again.
Finally, on the 4th or 5th try, a deep rumbling bark emerged from Freddie’s throat. And when it did he was instantly a different dog. His ears pricked up, his tail and shoulders returned to normal, his breathing became light and steady and his eyes looked up at me as if to say, “Why are we just standing here? I thought we were going to the park…”
Over the course of the next few weeks I used this technique repeatedly until a funny—or I should say wonderful—thing happened. Freddie’s panic attacks became much less frequent.
Does It Work With All Dogs?
Sort of. But there’s an important caveat: when using this technique with some dogs, the barking gets them too revved up to be able to settle down. For such dogs the next step, after releasing the bark, should be to give her something to bite or hold with her teeth and jaws, or even better, play tug-of-war with the dog. With some dogs you have to help them along by teaching them how to carry a toy or stick in their mouth.
So how do you teach a dog to speak in the first place? And what do you if the dog won’t stop barking once he’s started?
How to Teach a Dog to “Speak!” and Be “Quiet!”
Teaching a dog to speak on command is fairly simple. You start by showing the dog a treat. You tease her with it, then growl a little. Then you bark a little. Keep teasing her with the treat, keep barking and growling.
At some point—it might take 3 seconds or it might take 30 minutes—either a bark or a small noise of some kind will start to tickle the dog’s throat. When it does, immediately give her the treat, then say “Speak!” as she takes it in her mouth. Repeat several times, and you’re done till the next session. It’s important to re-teach her the command in different locales, at different times of day, etc.
Note: It took Freddie over 30 minutes of frustration, on his part and mine, before he finally uttered a sound. It’s easier if you do your training at a time of day when your dog’s emotions are already primed for barking, for example when you first come home.
Once you can reliably get the dog to speak on command, the next step is to teach her what “Quiet!” means.
Tease her with a treat. Say “Speak!” and as she barks, keep repeating the command. Get her to bark 7 or 8 or 10 or 15 times, however long she seems able to sustain the barking. Then interrupt her by giving her the treat and saying “Quiet!” in a hushed, not angry, voice.
Again, repeat several times, then re-teach her the command in different locales, etc.
Once the dog is totally reliable with the “Speak!” command you can begin to use it to dispel all kinds of fears. For instance, I had 3 dogs staying with me on the 4th of July. Two of them had been taught to speak on command, and one hadn’t. Once the fireworks started, and the sound of “thunder” began to roll in, the two who’d been taught to speak on command were unfazed by the racket, though one did have to be reminded to bark at her fears before they went away. The other dog, the one who hadn’t been taught to bark at her fears, was quite trembly for some time.
Does the Barking Cure Work on PTSD?
Severe traumatic stress creates a lasting imprint that’s difficult, though not impossible, to erase. But teaching a dog to bark when he’s frightened can help reduce or alleviate some of the fears he or she may be feeling in the now moment. Again, it’s a matter of switching the dog’s survival responses from freeze or flight to the fight component.
With Freddie I had to do a few other things beside have him bark when he was in a panic before his symptoms disappeared entirely. But I think that speaking on command was the first chink in his PTSD armor.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1.) If part of the dog’s PTSD symptomology involves excessive barking, this technique may seem to be counter-productive so you have to go slowly.