Canine PTSD:—Fancy the Boxer

Are Pet Dogs More at Risk for Developing PTSD?

First published at PsychologyToday, August 29, 2012.

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. In 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 over a year ago I’ve had occasion to work with a number of dogs whose behavioral problems could 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 a series of case histories where I originally didn’t think PTSD was a factor, and am now convinced that it was. The case of Fancy, the boxer, falls into the latter category. It took place 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. Emotional Compression? Fancy was a little over 4 months old when her owners first contacted me. She had developed 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 the other dogs, 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; in other words, she was overfriendly. Fancy contracted kennel cough as a puppy, which developed into pneumonia when she was about 3 ½ months (i.e., during her social development phase). She wasn’t allowed contact with other dogs during that time. After the pneumonia developed she was kept in cage at the vet’s office for 4 days and 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, Fancy 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 being ill was that Fancy had to be kept away from other dogs for several weeks. She was only taken on brief walks during that period. However, I don’t believe that if a dog isn’t forced to interact with 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. Benefits of the Pushing Exercise

During my first few days with Fancy 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 with the other dog. 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 played in cramped quarters that the fear would rise. For the first month we didn’t do any real obedience work. 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,” all of which I think should be the first points of attack for almost all behavioral problems, particularly PTSD. After 3 days of doing the pushing exercise every evening, her owners called to ask me if I’d been working on her fear of sidewalk grates. I hadn’t, but "The Pushing Exercise” solved a problem I wasn’t aware of. Fancy’s separation anxiety is long gone now. The dog run is still hit-and-miss, so her only playtime with other dogs is during off-leash hours in Central Park where she’s able to move around more than at the dog run.

She also plays with her friends when she comes to my place for day care or when I board her overnight. However, if she feels hemmed in by a strange dog outdoors, her hackles still come up and she still reacts. But I’m able to settler her down quite easily by having her push for food. Bad Socialization or Traumatization? As I noted, Fancy went through a short but intense period of separation from her owners causing continual daily feelings of stress. So her body was constantly producing stress hormones and neurochemicals while her young brain was still developing, which may have had a lasting effect on her behavior. I also think there’s a direct connection to being clamped down on by the vet techs and some of her 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” (compressed) by the vet techs.

But is it really PTSD? It’s hard to say. However, the fact that the other dogs weren’t doing anything to set her off suggests that she wasn’t nesponding to their behavior in the now moment but to something that happened in the past. And the fact that she could get particularly prickly when she felt hemmed in 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 was ample space for running, Fancy had a lovely time playing with other dogs. She was happy, carefree and easygoing and would often initiate play in new and inventive ways. Ultimately, while we don’t know for sure that Fancy’s issues with other dogs were 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 single stressful traumatic incident, one that the dog, for one reason or another, seems compelled to re-live over and over. That’s a very clear indicator of PTSD in dogs. 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 a series of events that stimulate sustained feelings of fear and danger, where there is no possible escape or where escape actually compounds the feeling of danger and the dog’s stress. Fancy desperately wanted to escape from the grip of these strangers at the vet’s office, and make contact with her owners, but she couldn’t. It’s unfortunate that Fancy has had to endure this problem. 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 had PTSD we can start re-doing some of the things that helped her initially: "The Pushing Exercise," of Natural Dog Training, 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.

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Note: Not long after I first wrote this article, Fancy’s symptoms of PTSD disappeared, as if on their own, and she became a phenomenal dog. For one thing, if she were playing in the park or at the dog run, all I had to do was call her—no matter where she was or what she was doing—and she would turn on a dime and come racing back to me as hard and as fast as she could, always ending up in a perfect sit position, waiting happily to hear her next command. She became an amazing dog!

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