Why Do Some Dogs Develop PTSD While Others Don’t?
Originally published in slightly different form on December 20, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.
PTSD Develops in Different Ways in Different Dogs
This is the 4th in a series of case histories of dogs who may have suffered from PTSD, which statistics suggest may be much more common in pet dogs than it is in military dogs.
This series of posts is meant to be a helpful diagnostic tool for veterinarians, shelter and rescue workers, as well as dog owners and dog trainers to hopefully prevent more cases of Canine PTSD from going undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. (A Canine PTSD symptom scale can be found here.)
The first case history (of my own dog Freddie) can be found here. In Freddie’s case, I witnessed the original trauma first-hand, and saw the resulting behavioral disorder that developed very quickly as a result. There was no guesswork. This is the easiest type of case to diagnose, the one where the owner was witness to the original trauma.
A second case involved a boxer named Fancy whose stress was probably the result of being kept in a crate at the vet’s office during an important social development phase. Fancy’s story can be found here.
A third case, of Noodles, a dachshund, who was biting his owners, his dogwalker, and eventually me, can be found here. Noodles was easier to diagnose than Fancy because his affect and behaviors were off the charts.
Now comes the story of Odysseus and Penelope (Oddy and Penny), two miniature schnauzers who were attacked by another, much larger dog, while out on a walk. Penny actually came pretty close to dying from her wounds, and was in the hospital clinging to life for several days. She pulled through, but, oddly enough, didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress. Oddy, on the other hand, who wasn’t hurt as badly, did.
Why the difference?
First it’s important to understand how the dogs’ personalities differ. They’re roughly the same age. Penny is about two months older than Oddy. She’s also much smaller; Oddy is almost the size of a standard schnauzer. And while they have some surprisingly similar character traits in some ways, they’re also quite different.
When I first met them, I found that Penny was very playful, a little mischievous, and liked to roll over on her back for tummy rubs. She was much smaller than her “brother,” but seemed to be in charge of things. She also seemed to dislike going on walks, which I thought might have been a repercussion from the attack, but was told that she’d always been like that.
Oddy, on the other hand, didn’t know how to play except with Penny. He also exhibited more tension, stress, and showed less emotional elasticity than his “sister.” For instance, I never saw him roll over on his back for a tummy rub or for any other reason.
They would play together every day, but if Penny found another dog she liked to play with Oddy was unable to join in. All he could do was stand there, barking at the interloper.
Penny had been a part of the household since puppyhood while, for various reasons, Oddy had been kenneled at the breeder during certain important developmental phases, and hadn’t been brought into the household until he was nearly six months old. I don’t know for certain that this accounts for the difference in their responses to the traumatic event, but there is evidence showing that children in foster care may be five times more likely to develop PTSD following a trauma than kids raised in a traditional family setting.
Personally, I believe that the dog-human bond which develops during puppyhood bears some important similarities to having a normal childhood with loving human parents.
All that aside, there may be another reason Oddy was more affected by the event emotionally, though Penny sustained the most physical damage.
Life-Threatening Physical Injuries & Narcissistic Hypercathexis
In 1920 Sigmund Freud wrote about the symptoms of PTSD (then referred to as “war neuroses”). He said that “two characteristics emerge prominently: first, that the chief weight in their causation seems to rest upon the factor of surprise, of fright; and secondly, that a wound or injury inflicted simultaneously works, as a rule, against [their] development.” (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” 1920, Freud Reader, 598.)
So even though Penny sustained the most physical damage during the attack, she didn’t develop symptoms of PTSD, while Oddy, who had the least damage, did. It also explains why, generally speaking, a soldier who isn’t seriously injured is strangely more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD than those whose wounds are more significant.
First, I think it’s important to understand why Freud refers to what we now call PTSD as a neurosis. Neuroses are anxiety-based behaviors or sets of behaviors, where the energy invested in them is out of balance, either with the normal reasons for producing such behaviors or with the amount of energy that might normally be expended on them. In dogs the 1st neurosis might be something like humping inanimate objects or chasing cars, and the 2nd might manifest as separation anxiety or obsessive guarding of toys or other objects. Second, most if not all neuroses are the result of repressed emotional energy. And this can be true in both humans and dogs.
In Freudian terms, the mind’s “control panel” (the ego) has the job of deciding which internal and external stimuli (excitations) should be a) paid attention to, b) ignored, c) have their energies blocked (repressed), or d) have their energies projected (cathected) onto persons or objects in the environment including the subject’s own body. So the gross physical trauma—the sheer mechanical force that accompanies a serious, life-threatening injury—demands that none of the mind’s energy can be wasted on “mere trifles;” it all has to be projected onto and into the body itself so as to facilitate and enable healing. Or as Freud put it, “the physical injury, by calling for a narcissistic hypercathexis of the injured organ, would bind the excess of excitation.” (610)
Meanwhile, for the subject whose injuries aren’t as serious, those emotional energies aren’t projected onto the body, instead they’re repressed by the mind, resulting in what Freud called “the compulsion to repeat,” which is one of the chief features of PTSD (i.e., the subject is unconsciously (and helplessly) compelled to repeat the initial trauma over and over).
Furthermore, Freud made it quite clear that fright, fear, and anxiety were not synonyms; they represented clear distinctions in how we relate to danger. Anxiety, he said, “describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one. ‘Fear’ requires a definite object of which to be afraid. ‘Fright,’ however, is the name we give to the state a person gets into when he has run into danger without being prepared for it; it emphasizes the factor of surprise.” (598.)
Dogs vs. Human Subjects
Once again, if we look at the stories we hear from veterans about how their PTSD developed it’s not uncommon to hear them say that the danger “came out of nowhere,” or “I wasn’t prepared for what happened.” And since PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder, and anxiety is a state of “constantly expecting … danger or preparing for it,” this makes total sense.
While I don’t believe dogs think about their experiences, or try to explain or understand them through internal monologues, I think the basic principles can still be applied.
If I’m right, then Penny’s injuries necessitated that whatever mental or emotional energy she had available at the time be projected solely on to the tasks of self-preservation and healing. And unfortunately the excess energy the trauma had stimulated in Oddy had no place to go. It got stuck inside his body, with no form of release, which in turn created an unconscious compulsion in him to repeat the event, over and over.
Luckily, I was able to work things out with Oddy, using tug-of-war and impulse control games so that eventually, he became more relaxed and was able to play in a normal fashion with no memory of the trauma.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”