"The Canine-Human Bond: Can Play Cure PTSD in Dogs?"
Dogs Can Help Vets Get Over PTSD: Can Play Help Dogs Do the Same Thing?
Originally published in slightly different form on August 1, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
Can Dogs With PTSD Be Cured?
In her recent blog post, “Why Dogs Heal PTSD,” Tracy Stecker beautifully describes how the canine-human bond can help war veterans overcome PTSD and get back to normal.
We usually think of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a condition primarily afflicting such veterans. But battered children and spouses can also exhibit symptoms. Victims of automobile accidents, natural disasters, and violent crimes can too. So can abused dogs.
Nicholas Dodman, of Tufts University, says, “There is a condition in dogs which is almost precisely the same, if not precisely the same, as PTSD in humans,”
Can dogs with PTSD also be cured through the canine-human bond?
Gina the Bomb-Sniffing Dog
There was a case in the news recently of a canine Iraq-war veteran, a formerly-playful 2-year-old German shepherd named Gina, who developed PTSD as a result of her duties as a bomb-sniffing dog. She returned home to Colorado cowering and fearful.
“She showed all the symptoms,” said Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, the kennel master at Peterson Air Force Base. “She was terrified of everybody.” She was no longer the “great little pup” Haynes remembered. She wanted nothing to do with people. “She’d withdrawn from society as a whole.”
Haynes and other handlers coaxed Gina on walks, sending someone ahead to pass out treats for bystanders to give her. They got her over her fear of walking through doors by stationing someone she knew on the other side to reward her with pats and play.
“She started learning that everyone wasn’t trying to get her,” Haynes said. “She began acting more social again.”
Dr. Nicholas Dodman says he doubts that Gina can recover completely. “It’s a fact that fears once learned are never unlearned. The best thing you can do is apply new learning, which is what (Gina’s handlers are) doing.”
I think fears can be unlearned, or at least disposed of. I’ve helped many dogs with PTSD-like symptoms recover completely.
Another Gina and Her Turnaround
I once worked with a cute Jack Russell (also named Gina) who had been so abused by her previous trainer (a firm believer in dominance) that if you said the words “stay” or “down” casually, even on the phone, she would panic, evacuate her bowels, and hide under the bed for up to 4 hours.
I asked Gina’s owner if there was anything she did, in any situation, where she acted like a real Jack Russell, determined to bite or wrestle with something or someone.
They told me there was. They called it the spoon game. If you dropped a spoon (or fork or knife) on the kitchen floor, Gina would come tearing out from under the bed, grab the utensil in her mouth, shake her head around furiously, “killing it,” then race to the living room, hide it under a sofa cushion and bark at it until someone came to pull it out for her.
Her owners didn’t like playing this game because Gina didn’t know when to stop. But I knew (or felt) it was the key to curing her fear of the words “down” and “stay.”
Over the course of half-an-hour, I helped Gina get over her fears.
First, I dropped the spoon on the kitchen floor, watched Gina go through her playful/predatory routine, then I pulled the spoon out from its hidey-hole, teased the dog with it, and said, in a very happy and playful voice, “Down!”
Each time I did this she bolted straight back to her spot under the bed.
I’d wait a few minutes, then drop the spoon on the kitchen floor again. By the end of our session I had not only cured Gina of her panic, but she was actually obeying the down command as if it were the most fun thing in the world to her. She loved it!
Once a Dog Feels Safe...
Some might say I was desensitizing Gina to the word “down.” I don’t see it that way. I see this as what drive trainers call conflict training. Putting the dog in a state of conflict over what she wants to do (run and hide) as opposed to what you want her to do (lie down on command). It works by making the dog see that, a) she’s safe, and b) that obeying the command is more fun, and more satisfying, than hiding under the bed.
Once a dog feels safe, at least within certain controllable parameters, it will naturally start to gravitate toward playful—i.e., predatory—behaviors, because the prey drive is the source of a dog’s strongest, deepest, and happiest social impulses.
One of the hallmarks of canine social play—where two dogs play together—is the mock danger involved. Take most playful behaviors, remove the playfulness and pretense, and you’ve got aggression and, yes ... danger.
The other forms of play that most dogs and owners are familiar with, involve chasing and biting prey objects: Frisbees, tennis balls, sticks, and tug toys.
Going back to the wolf model, an inhibited wolf—one who’s shy about chasing prey objects (in this case rabbits, mice or moose)—won’t survive long. So the act of chasing a prey object involves losing one’s inhibitions. The act of catching up with it, grabbing hold of it, and “killing” it, is also enormously satisfying to both wolf and dog.
That’s why I knew “the spoon game” would probably cure Gina.
Going back to the other Gina (the former bomb-sniffing shepherd). She was described by her handlers as being a playful pup. Well, of course! All puppies are playful. But part of the treatment that enabled her to trust people again, and to no longer be frightened of doorways, etc., was “giving her pats and play” whenever she went through a door.