Canine PTSD: Its Causes, Signs & Symptoms

How Can You Determine If Your Dog Has PTSD?

Originally published in slightly different form on August 8, 2012 at

“Reactivity” in Dogs I got the following email message the other day from a company called Dogwise. They publish and sell books primarily about reward-based dog training.

“Probably the hottest topic in dog behavior and training circles right now is reactivity. You may never be able to ‘cure’ a dog who is reactive—it’s hard to counter poor socialization and/or genetics—but there are a number of ways you may be able to control it ... some of the time.”

My first reaction was to the word “reactive.” I’ve never understood how or why that term is being applied to behavior problems in dogs. It seems to me that if a dog doesn’t react to stimuli, that’s when he’s got serious physical, emotional or behavioral problems.

Then, when the blurb informed me that “you may never be able to ‘cure’ a dog who is reactive,” I chalked that up to the fact that behavioral science techniques are usually ineffective, or at the very least only mildly effective, at solving most behavioral problems in dogs, because in my experience they’re geared to focus on changing outward behaviors rather than finding and changing the underlying cause.

But as I thought more about it I realized that a very high percentage of the dogs being described as “reactive,” are actually over-reacting to stimuli, which suggests that they may be suffering from Canine PTSD, which is, indeed, very “difficult to cure.”

Stress: The Underlying Cause The database of the National Technical Information Service—an agency of the U.S. Government—shows that as many as 70% of individuals [human beings] living in the United States have experienced at least one serious traumatic event during their lifetime. And according to investigators at Boston University School of Medicine 8% of those people who’ve experienced some form of trauma have developed PTSD as a result.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a database showing the percentage of dogs who’ve experienced trauma. But given the number of dogs abandoned or brought to shelters every year, plus the number injured in fights with other dogs, and the number who’ve been mistreated by their owners, or mishandled by their trainers, groomers or vet techs (it happens), not to mention those who’ve been struck by a car, gotten lost, were fought over during a divorce, etc, etc, etc, I would be very surprised if the number of dogs who’ve experienced some type of trauma wasn’t at least 70%. And I’d also be surprised if the number of dogs who’ve developed symptoms of PTSD as a result wasn’t very close to the figure of 8% found in human beings

This would suggests that since there are roughly 75 million pet dogs in America, there’s a real possibility that more than 6 million American dogs might have PTSD.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that “more than 5 percent of the approximately 650 deployed military dogs are developing some form of canine PTSD,” meaning that there are only 30 or so who’ve developed the disorder. Granted, in working military dogs the symptoms are usually much more severe than what see in pet dogs. But the problem still exists pet dogs, and in much larger numbers.

So when does a traumatic event of any kind stay a one-time thing, and when does it actually cause PTSD? And can we apply any of the criteria used in diagnosing PTSD in humans to diagnose our dogs as well?

I think so.

Diagnosing Canine PTSD In humans, PTSD is not just caused by a traumatic experience, but one that causes a tremendous amount of stress. The traumatic event causes the body to release a cocktail of hormones and neurochemicals specifically designed to deal with that stress. But in large doses those chemical agents can also cause the same or similar kinds of neurological damage found in patients with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). This can adversely affect a person’s mood, memory and learning in deep and lasting ways. (See: “Does PTSD Cause Brain Damage in Dogs?“)

Since much of the literature on how stress affects memory, learning, and behavior in humans comes from animal studies—primarily on rats and mice—and since a dog’s body produces the same basic kinds of stress hormones produced by rats and humans, it’s very likely that dogs—even pet dogs—can develop symptoms of PTSD.

In humans these symptoms include re-experiencing the original trauma, fearful avoidance of stimuli associated with that event, and increased forms of arousal such as an sleep disturbances, rage, aggression, and lastly hyper-vigilance, or in the lingua obscura of some dog trainers: “reactivity.”

Granted, our lives are much more complicated and stressful than the kind our dogs lead. A human being can develop PTSD simply by observing the scene of an accident or natural disaster. Some can develop symptoms just by looking at videos or photographs. Dogs aren’t as deeply affected by the passive observation of horrific events as we are.

On the other hand, there are far more cultural taboos and legal restrictions against doing harm to human beings than there are about hurting dogs. Remember, up until a few years ago the most popular training book in America—How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, by the Monks of New Skete—contained the following “training” advice: “How hard should you hit your dog? If she doesn’t yelp in pain you haven’t hit her hard enough.”

Hurting dogs is pervasive in our country. People like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick—who spent time in prison for running a dog-fighting ring out of his home—are just a drop in the bucket in terms of the kind of people out there brutalizing dogs on a regular basis.

With all that in mind I would be very surprised to find that the number of dogs in America who have PTSD isn’t more than double or even triple the 6 million I suggested above.

Diagnostic Signs of PTSD in Human Beings

Criterion A – Exposure to a traumatic stressor.

Criterion B – Re-experiencing the original event (flashbacks).

Criterion C – Avoidance and numbing.

Criterion D – Hyperarousal.

Criterion E – Duration of symptoms lasting at least one month.

Criterion F – Significant impairment of normal functioning.

Personally, I think dogs can exhibit all 5 of these signs and symptoms. The only one that might seem controversial is the idea that dogs can have “flashbacks.” I think that depends on how we view the differences between how memory operates in humans and dogs.

In human beings, memory operates on three basic levels: physical (i.e., unconscious or procedural) memory, emotional (or affective) memory, and mental, or declarative memory (which includes semantic, episodic, and autobiographical memory). Only the last requires both a sense of self and a linear sense of time (knowing that there’s a past, present, and future), forms of cognition that dogs don’t have (or don’t seem to).

In human subjects, flashbacks come primarily from sense memory; the sound of chopper blades for example. This then triggers emotional memory, where the fear, panic and helplessness experienced during the original trauma, come flooding back, raising blood pressure, releasing stress hormones, etc, etc. In many cases, the subject doesn’t even realize that he or she is not actually safe in bed or hiding in the closet, but is convinced that he or she is back on the battlefield or is about to be sexually assaulted, etc.

It seems to me that dogs are quite capable of experiencing both sense memory and emotional memory. In fact, the work of two Russians—physiologist Ivan Pavlov and theater director (and inventor of “method acting”) Constantin Stanislavsky—shows quite clearly that sense memory and emotional memory are inextricably linked.

I should point out that the 5 diagnostic criteria I mentioned above are only broad categories, and that there are many much finer points to be looked at when diagnosing PTSD in humans. I think the same should hold true for diagnosing Canine PTSD as well.

With that in mind, I’ve created a mock-up for a potential Canine PTSD questionnaire to be filled out by a dog’s owner, veterinarian, dog trainer or behaviorist. It can be found by clicking here. (I would be very interested in getting feedback on it, whether some things should be added, others subtracted, or whether it should be tossed out altogether.)

Please keep in mind that most of what I’m saying is hypothetical. We need more research, we need to create a much larger yet credible database. We need to start thinking along new lines. PTSD is not something that can only happen to human beings, or to our military dogs. Those brave and hardworking four-legged members of our armed forces are showing us that there’s a much larger problem right under our noses, affecting millions of American doggies, animals who are currently nestled safely on their doggie beds or sleeping on our couches, and yet who may be in emotional distress and need our help.

If you agree with or relate to anything I’ve said, please pass it on to your veterinarian, your dog trainer, and anyone else you think might be able to help us move forward in making this problem more widely known.

I firmly believe that Canine PTSD is a very real condition that can be found in a great many of our pet dogs, and we need to start addressing it now.


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