Is It Possible to Cure Canine PTSD?
Updated: Sep 13
Why Do Veterinary Behaviorists Believe That Canine PTSD Can’t Be Cured?
The Dogs of War If you’re interested in understanding or learning more about Canine PTSD, there’s a wonderful film about post-traumatic stress in military dogs called The Dogs of War, produced and directed in 2013 by Kristen Kiraly. Kiraly was a student filmmaker at the time and she did a fabulous job. You should definitely take the time to watch it.  Two things stood out for me when I watched the film. The first is that the main dog profiled—a retired military detection dog named Bix—seemed to always be carrying a tennis ball around in his mouth.  According to his adoptive owner, this helped calm his nerves. The other thing that stuck out was that the military’s top expert on PTSD in dogs, Dr. Walter Burghardt, former chief of behavioral medicine and military working dog studies at Holland Air Force Base in Lackland Texas (now retired) says that PTSD in dogs can only be treated, it can’t be cured. In a December 1, 2011 New York Times article Dr. Nicholas Dodman said the same thing to reporter James Dao. “Asked if the disorder could be cured, Dr. Dodman said probably not. ‘It is more management,’ he said. ‘Dogs never forget.’” Or do they? Aggression Cures Fear My first experience with treating Canine PTSD came in 1994 when my Dalmatian Freddie began having panic attacks about a week or so following a series of deeply traumatic events, triggered initially by the loud sound of a store gate being pulled down right next to where he was standing with me on the sidewalk, and ending with him running from Second Avenue all the way to Central Park. He hid out there for three nights until a woman walking her dog found him early on a Sunday morning and called me after seeing one of my flyers. With the kind generosity of Kevin Behan—creator of Natural Dog Training—and a few tricks I discovered on my own (based on my understanding of Behan’s philosophy) and a little help from a Sheltie named Duncan—I was able to manage Freddie’s symptoms, though like Drs. Dodman and Burghardt I wasn’t able to totally cure Fred. The cure came when Behan suggested a technique similar to one I’d come across before, in a book on SchutzHund, where the dog is fasted overnight and kept in his crate about 4 hours before an obedience trial. This is done to increase the dog’s drive. Kevin’s idea was a bit more extreme. He suggested that I fast Freddie for two days, then tie him to a post or a fence while a helper and I threw a ball or toy back and forth, right in front of his nose, until he became highly motivated to bite the ball. Once he was fixated on biting the ball, Kevin said I should release him from the fence, then throw the ball for him to chase and bite. Once I got over my reluctance to fast Fred, and finally did the exercise, he never had another panic attack for as long as he lived and he was 15 when he passed away in 1997. The reason this worked is because of three simple psychological principles and one principle of physics. The first is what Behan calls “Pavlovian Equivalencies,” the fact that there’s virtually no difference between physical and emotional memory. Pavlov’s dogs didn’t salivate as a conscious response to external stimuli, they responded through gut feelings. The second principle is the Freudian concept of repressed emotion (referred to by Behan as unresolved emotion). The third is the idea that a full release of unresolved emotion requires a level of intensity similar to that of the precipitating event (or catharsis). And the fourth is the principle that energy (in this case emotional energy) always has to go to ground.
So in Freddie’s case you have a dog whose physical/emotional memories of a traumatic event—one he couldn’t fight back against—were being re-triggered on a daily basis by a constant cacophony of street noises. Some of the techniques I used to prevent this from happening—having him bark at the noises, having him carry a toy on our walks—worked amazingly well, but didn’t t resolve the problem entirely; it was management, not resolution. Since Fred was unable to bite or bark at the actual thing that originally scared him, the energy of that event stayed stuck in his body and mind. However, the hunger he felt when he’d been fasted for two days, and the sight of the ball being thrown past him, over and over, increased the intensity of his desire to bite it. Once he was unchained and allowed to bite the ball with all the force available to him, it a) provided a catharsis and b) allowed his unresolved emotions to run to ground. Of course I felt terrible about fasting Freddie for two days. And he was very stressed during the exercise. But afterwards he was totally and completely cured of all his fears and anxieties. Totally. Nothing ever threw him off balance for the rest of his life. So those 5 minutes of intense stress had a positive effect that lasted for 14 years. The Positive Effects of Stress, New Technologies You’re unlikely to find any of these concepts, principles, or techniques in the veterinary behaviorist’s manual for treating behavioral problems, which is why Dodman and Burghardt believe that PTSD can’t be cured. However, in human subjects two new methods have been shown to have an amazing ability to cure PTSD completely, at least in human subjects: EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and re-processing) and, believe it or not, the computer game, Tetris! EMDR was controversial at first but it’s now known that it can be very effective at treating PTSD. As for Tetris, researchers at Oxford University found that playing this simple video game didn’t cure PTSD completely in human subjects, but it seriously reduced the frequency of flashbacks. Of course, you can’t do EMDR with dogs or get them to play video games. But if you can get them to play tug-of-war, in such a way that they’re totally committed to the game, and are biting down on the tug toy as hard as possible, what usually happens is that a lot of the internal stress they’re still holding on to, due to negative experiences, can be fully (or almost fully) released. Stress is what prevents dogs from a full recovery. It’s also what causes dogs like Bix to carry a tennis ball around in their mouth. As long as they’re gripping that ball, they feel safe. The primary hallmark of PTSD is that the original trauma is continually re-experienced by the victim. When dogs don’t have a way of releasing their unresolved emotions, each time the stress response is triggered, or re-triggered, a cascade of hormones and neurochemicals are released into the bloodstream, often resulting in actual lasting brain damage. This is what makes PTSD one of the most difficult psychological illnesses to treat. However, new research shows that a little stress can actually enhance learning. “According to an idea in psychology called the Yerekes-Dodson law,” says researcher Emily Bray, “a little stress can be a good thing, but only up to a point. A task that isn’t demanding or challenging enough can make it hard [for a dog] to stay engaged… but when the pressure becomes too much to handle, performance is likely to suffer again.” (“Increasing arousal enhances inhibitory control in calm but not excitable dogs,” Animal Cognition, 2015.) Dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan writes, “My theory is that stress, or Unresolved Emotion, forms when Emotion meets with resistance.” He goes on to say that unresolved emotions are stored in the body (via Pavlovian conditioning) as a kind of energy reserve, which Behan refers to as an “emotional battery.” When it’s triggered, it can cause a dog to re-experience a traumatic event as if it were happening again for the first time, which is exactly how people with PTSD describe their experiences. Meanwhile, a study published in June of 2012 (“Axiomatic Development of Human Psychophysiological Stress Indices Using Thermodynamics”) re-capitulates this connection between body, mind, stress and unresolved emotion. In it the authors write, “When we look at the human psychophysiological (mind/body) system from a thermodynamic perspective, the dichotomy between mind and body states cease to exist and they become one energy system governed by the law of entropy.” A system they say behaves “like a magneto-electro-mechanical system.” Behan writes that the biological connection he sees between thermodynamics, emotion and stress “is the only model that can smoothly encompass the phenomena of learning, sexuality, personality, memory, neoteny, evolution and domestication [in dogs].” That’s a pretty big statement. But I believe Behan can back it up. Do these ideas lie outside the normal way of seeing behavior and learning? Yes, but remember, those concepts aren’t based on science, per se, but rather on statistics and how quickly a behavior is produced in relation to a previous stimulus. In other words, behavioral science doesn’t describe how learning actually takes place, it only deals in statistical probabilities and temporal contiguities. That’s why the current view of veterinary behaviorists is that Canine PTSD can’t be cured, it can only be treated. And the reason they believe that is because they’re either unaware of or uninterested in trying alternative methods that lie outside the ken of behavioral science. Taking Things to the Next Level My dog Fred’s problem was resolved a long time ago. The Natural Dog Training technology and philosophy have become much more advanced since then. That’s why I think it’s important for all dog trainers and veterinary behaviorists to investigate, test and perhaps even study The 5 Core Exercises of Natural Dog Training. What are they? 1) Pushing for Food, 2) Barking on Command,
3) Collecting, 4) Suppling (massaging the dog’s back and shoulders), and most important, 5) Playing Tug-of-War and Fetch (also called “Bite-and-Carry”). (You can find videos of these exercises on my website; for more info see Behan’s explanation of these exercises on this blog.) These exercises work. They’re very effective at solving all sorts of behavior problems in dogs, not just PTSD. Behan—whose father was a famous dog trainer in the 1950s, and who has spent his entire life focused on dogs and dog training—has a reputation as America’s premier trainer when it comes to solving behavior problems in dogs. His techniques never fail to bring results. The problem for most veterinary behaviorists (and even dog trainers who use behavioral science techniques) is that none of these exercises can be explained through the philosophy behind learning theory. They can only be explained through the laws of physics, specifically, thermodynamics and Pavlovian equivalencies. Lee Charles Kelley “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Footnotes: 1) I have a personal connection to The Dogs of War. The filmmaker, Kristen Karaly interviewed me to get my thoughts on treating PTSD in pet dogs. But while she felt my input was valuable it didn’t relate to military dogs, so all my footage ended up on the cutting room floor. (Interestingly, Kevin Behan’s father, who trained dogs for the military during World War II, wrote a best-selling book about his experiences: it was also titled The Dogs of War.) 2) If you recall, up top I mentioned that Bix, one of the dogs featured in The Dogs of War, was often seen carrying a tennis ball around in his mouth. And as long as he had that “pacifier” available, the less likely he was to have a “flashback” moment. Gripping the ball with his teeth made him feel physically and emotionally stable. As I also mentioned in passing this was one thing that helped Freddie with his panic attacks. As long as he had a favorite prey object in his mouth, he was never thrown off-balance emotionally by street noises.