Are Pet Dogs More at Risk for Developing PTSD?
Originally published in slightly different form on August 29, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.
Seeing the Forest and the Trees
It has become clear in the past year or so that dogs can suffer from PTSD. Most of the media attention has been focused on U.S. military dogs who’ve suffered trauma during wartime deployment. However, military dogs are “a special breed.” They come from hardy stock, chosen for their working character. During training they’re tested to withstand the rigors of combat. It’s rare for a dog who’s afraid of loud noises or is unable to focus on his job under chaotic conditions to ever make it into battle. Bottom line: these are tough, well-trained dogs with nerves of steel.
Certainly the kinds of trauma our military dogs experience goes beyond what we would normally expect a pet dog to endure. Yet imagine how difficult it is for dogs who haven’t had such rigorous training and who don’t come from the same genetic lines to be put into a stressful or traumatic situation, particularly one they can’t escape from.
Since I first wrote about Canine PTSD I’ve had occasion to work with a number of dogs whose behavioral problems could probably fit into that category. Yet in some cases I didn’t see the forest for the trees, or rather the forest and the trees. Here I offer the second in a series of case histories where I originally didn’t think PTSD was a factor, and am now either convinced that it was or feel that it might have been.
This case falls into the latter category. It took place about 5 years ago, back when Canine PTSD wasn’t on my radar screen and probably not much on anyone else’s either. It involves a sweet, sensitive white boxer named Fancy.
Fancy was about 5 months old when her owners first contacted me. She had a mild case of separation anxiety; she wasn’t barking and whining or destroying the furniture, just soiling the carpet. Another problem was her frantic barking at other dogs, particularly at the dog run. She never bit any of them, but had been bit herself a few times. Finally, she had an irrepressible tendency to jump up on anyone who made eye contact or said hello; i.e., she was over-friendly.
Fancy had kennel cough as a puppy, which developed into pneumonia when she was about 3 ½ months, during her social development phase. She wasn’t allowed contact with other dogs during that time. Then, once the pneumonia developed she was kept in cage at the vet’s office for 4 days and 4 nights. She had an IV tube in her leg, and had to wear a Victorian collar. When her owners came to visit every night after work, she was wildly happy to see them. Unfortunately, this meant that the vet techs had to restrain the poor dog by surrounding her and clamping down hard to keep the IV from coming out and the Victorian collar from coming off. This only made her wiggle harder and struggle more to get free.
An unfortunate effect of her illness was that Fancy had to be kept away from other dogs for around the first 5 months. She was taken on brief walks, and kept away from other dogs. However, I don’t believe that if a dog isn’t introduced to other dogs and humans during a “critical period,” she’ll never be socialized. I’ve known too many dogs who had little or no socialization during that period and were very adept socially, while others who’d been socialized too much became anti-social as a result. Fancy is walking proof that the socialization period isn’t as critical as once thought. She’s very social but under certain circumstances she starts to panic.
During the first few days of working with her outdoors, I noticed a that when she met a dog at the dog run whom she wanted very badly to play with, she liked to start her games very close to me, practically on top of me, or if I were sitting at one of the benches, practically under my feet. Unfortunately, the closer she played to me, the quicker things got out of hand. If I encouraged her to run away from me and chase the other dog, or let the other dog chase her, she was free of all worries. It was only when she began to play in cramped quarters that the fear would rise.
For the first few weeks we didn’t do any obedience work. At 5 months Fancy was too young. Instead I encouraged her to play with me, I got her to chase me around the park, played fetch and tug with her, and did what’s called “The Pushing Exercise,” where you hand feed a dog in such a way that she's up on her hind legs and pushing into you as hard as she cane while she eats (created by former police dog trainer Kevin Behan), all of which I think should be the first points of attack for almost all behavioral problems, particularly PTSD.
After 3 days of getting Fancy to play and to push into me while eating, her owners called to ask if I’d been working on her fear of sidewalk grates. I hadn’t known she had that problem, but some of the things I’d been doing---especially “The Pushing Exercise”---had apparently been working.
Bad Socialization or Unintentional Traumatization?
Since Fancy went through a short but intense period of separation from her owners, so her body was constantly producing stress hormones and neurochemicals during an important stage where her young brain was still developing. This had a serious effect on her behavior. I also think there’s a direct connection to being clamped down on by the vet techs and some of Fancy’s behaviors around other dogs.
Being kept locked up in the crate was stressful but it wasn’t a critical factor. She’s fine with being kept in a crate and even goes in on her own. This indicates that the experience which caused her PTSD wasn’t being crated but was probably being “kept calm” by the vet techs.
But was the result really PTSD?
It’s hard to say. However, the fact that the other dogs at the dog run weren’t showing aggression or doing anything to set her off suggests that a part of her is still trying to break free from the grip of those well-meaning vet techs. Remember, in the park, where there’s ample space for running, Fancy has a lovely time playing with other dogs. She’s happy, carefree and easygoing. She’ll often initiate play in new and inventive ways.
Ultimately, while we don’t know for sure that Fancy’s issues with other dogs are truly a result of PTSD, I think it’s important to keep our minds open to the possibility that a persistent behavioral problem involving survival---type behaviors such as fear and aggression may very well have its basis in a stressful traumatic incident, one that the dog, for one reason or another, seems compelled to re-live over and over.
What to Look For
I think this shows that in some cases the external events surrounding a case of Canine PTSD can be deceiving. Remember, the primary cause of this disorder is an event or series of events that stimulate sustained feelings of fear and danger, where there is no possible escape or where escape actually compounds the danger and compounds the dog’s stress. Fancy desperately wanted to escape from the grip of these strangers (the vet techs), and make contact with her owners, but couldn’t.
It’s unfortunate that Fancy had to endure this problem and that I wasn’t aware fully aware of it at the time. She’s an otherwise sweet-natured, good-hearted, happy dog. Her owners are always getting compliments on how well-behaved and well-trained she is.
Now that we’re aware of the possibility that Fancy may have PTSD we can start re-doing some of the things that helped her initially: “The Pushing Exercise,” playing tug-of-war outdoors, and working on impulse control. Most importantly we can afford to be a bit more patient with her. After all, NONE OF THIS IS HER FAULT.
Fancy is a wonderful dog. She’s making progress. Some days are better than others, but that’s probably true for most of us as well.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”