"Oxytocin & PTSD."
How Oxytocin Has an Adverse Effect on Dogs With PTSD.
What Is Oxytocin?
You may have heard about oxytocin, a neuropeptide that facilitates social bonding in mammals. For instance, some studies show that when we pet our dogs it increases blood-serum levels of oxytocin in both the dog and owner. Oxytocin is also released when dogs and dog owners make eye contact. Other studies show that reducing levels of oxytocin causes normally monogamous prairie voles, who usually mate for life, to become promiscuous, while increasing oxytocin levels cause normally promiscuous prairie voles to become faithful companions. Oxytocin has also been connected with feelings of trust and generosity.
Oxytocin is a neuro-chemical, a hormone found in mammals, which is released in both males and females. But women have a stronger response to its effects because oxytocin is enhanced by estrogen. The corollary of oxytocin in men is vasopressin. Its primary functions are water retention and constriction of blood vessels. It also has an influence on male sexual and social behaviors as well as paternal feelings.
Oxytocin also facilitates childbirth by causing the uterus to contract and helps shrink the uterus after delivery. Oxytocin is also released when a newborn suckles at his mother’s breast. It also promotes the emotional bond that takes place between mother and child. For instance, female rats generally dislike newly born rat pups. But after they’ve given birth, they develop strong feelings of attachment for them.
When a child is born, the interactions between mommy and baby cause an increase in the infant’s levels of the hormone, creating a kind of oxytocin glow, ensuring that mother and child will form a deep and lasting bonds.
Oxytocin levels go up five-fold during sex. In men, however, they drop almost immediately afterwards while vasopressin levels go up, which explains why men often feel a sudden sense of separateness from their partners after sex.
The Dark Side of Oxytocin
In the summer of 2013 the owners of a dog I had been working with for several years had a baby. Early in his life, this dog developed PTSD as a result of serious abuse by his original owner (a male). Before the birth of their child the dog had been very careful not to exhibit any aggression toward the husband, but was biting the wife, his dog walkers, and me. Strangely enough after the baby was born, the dog began acting in a very, though obsessively “loving” manner toward the wife and baby, but became guarded and aggressive toward the husband, a complete turnaround.
Before the baby was born the couple expressed their concerns that the dog might want to bite the baby. I told them I didn’t think that would happen because, as far as I knew, oxytocin would probably have a calming effect.
Within a few weeks, though, a strange thing happened, one that I hadn’t anticipated. The dog developed a kind of obsession for mother and baby. He couldn’t be separated from them. If left alone he would whine and cry. When he was with them, he was constantly trying to lick the baby’s toes and skin and fingers. This suggested to me that oxytocin was at work, creating a bond between dog, mother and child. However, it wasn’t a healthy kind of bond at all. Like I said, the dog seemed obsessed.
Then another strange thing took place. Whenever the husband was home, especially when he was interacting with mommy and baby the dog became extremely agitated and began growling and snarling at him, something he’d never done before. They thought he was “protecting” the baby. Strangely enough (or perhaps not so strangely), the dog was fine when he was alone with the husband. They got along very well. The dog only became agitated when the four or them were together: mommy, daddy, baby and doggie.
I suggested that they keep the dog crated when the husband was home with the baby. And that the husband should take the dog on long walks, play fetch and tug with him outdoors, and work on getting him to hold a long down/stay.
Then, a week or so later I came across a study showing that oxytocin can sometimes re-awaken and even strengthen memories of past abuse. (“Fear-enhancing effects of septal oxytocin receptors;” Nature Neuroscience, 2013.) “Oxytocin is usually considered a stress-reducing agent based on decades of research,” said Yomayra Guzman, the study's lead author. “With this novel animal model, we showed how it enhances fear rather than reducing it, and where the molecular changes are occurring in our central nervous system.”
“So that’s what’s going on,” I thought. The poor dog’s PTSD has come back to haunt him. He’s like the war veteran who hears the sounds made by a local news helicopter, and, in his mind, he’s instantly transported back to the battlefield. This dog felt he was back in his original home with his original, abusive owner. He didn’t see the husband coming home to hurt the baby. He didn’t see the husband at all, at least not while he was near the mother and baby. All he saw was his original attacker coming to attack him.
This is a very important point, because dogs form basic templates in their minds based primarily on emotional valences. This is why, for instance, a very smart border collie featured in a famous Youtube video, keeps dropping a stick at the feet of a statue of Alan Turing, hoping to get the statue to throw the stick for him to chase. He doesn’t see the statue, he sees a template of a human being (or humanoid) sitting in a position that indicates he’s ready to play with the dog. For dogs, deeply emotional past experiences—positive or negative—outweigh present circumstances.
The dog's owners decided that the dog needed to stay with me for a while, so that I could work out some of the emotional kinks in his system. They were right. As long as the memories of past abuse were constantly being re-triggered in the now-moment by the oxytocin—which dissipates within a few months after child birth—it would be a losing battle.
So I began doing the 5 Core Exercises with him again, deliberately putting the dog in stressful situations, initially just mildly stressful. Then I steadily and gradually started injecting more and more stress into the mix so as to increase his carrying capacity.
He’s fine now, by the way, a much different dog. We’ll see if that changes if his owners decide to have another child. But I don’t think it will.
Lee Charles Kelley
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”