Treating PTSD With Natural Dog Training

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

Play vs. Prozac In a previous article here (“Canine PTSD: Its Causes, Signs & Treatment) I wrote about the very real probability that millions of pet dogs in North America may have developed post-traumatic stress as a result of being mistreated, abused, lost or abandoned. This is particularly true of rescue dogs. Of course not all rescue dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress. And symptoms of trauma can be found in non-rescue dogs as well. However, it’s important to understand that, due to the release of certain neuro-chemicals in the brain, both during the initial traumatic event as well as in subsequent flashbacks, a dog can actually develop neurological damage similar to what’s seen in traumatic brain injury. This is why it can be very difficult to bring dogs who’ve suffered emotional trauma back to anything close to normal. It’s not your fault. And it’s not the dog’s fault. There seem to be only two ways to undo this kind of damage. One is through the use of medications like Prozac. The other is through rough-and-tumble outdoor play which, according to research done by Jaak Panksepp and others, releases tremendous amounts of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNFs), associated with new neuronal growth and brain plasticity. (Human subjects with PTSD have been helped by playing video games like Halo and, oddly enough, Tetris.) The only problem with using play to heal emotionally wounded dogs is that most of them have forgotten how to play. However, in this article I’ll provide readers with two very simple exercises that can help rescue dogs relearn how to play. I use them all the time in my training practice in New York City, both with my paying clients and with members of my Rescue Dog Owners Support Group. The exercises were created by former police-dog trainer Kevin Behan as part of a system called Natural Dog Training. Behan created 5 Core Exercises specifically designed to achieve optimal emotional flow in dogs with “stuck” emotions. 1) Bark (the dog speaks on command) 2) Push (the dog pushes into the handler while eating) 3) Collect (the dog moves backwards into a relaxed down) 4) Supple (the handler massages the dog’s shoulders) They all lead to the most important exercise, 5) Bite (the dog plays fetch and tug, and brings the toy back) I’ll focus here on the first two exercises. The 4 Quadrants of Natural Dog Training Before I describe the exercises I should point out that they might not make much sense at first because they don’t operate through the more commonly known principles of dog training, i.e., dominance and submission or positive and negative reinforcement. That’s because Natural Dog Training operates through the physical and emotional properties of attraction & resistance, and tension & release. What does that mean? A simple example of attraction would be a puppy who, on his first walk, sees a leaf blow by and chases it. Why? Because anything that exhibits certain types of movement stimulates feelings of attraction in the pup, and thus exert a kind of “magnetic pull” on his body and emotions, drawing him toward them. Meanwhile things which engender resistance would cause a pup to move away from them. Common examples might be tall men in hats, sudden loud noises, etc. You always want to generate more feelings of attraction than resistance. For instance, it’s not uncommon for an older puppy or adult dog to feel that his owner is generating both attraction and resistance: “She feeds me and plays with me!”—and—“She scolds me and won’t let me eat cat poo!” So the pup begins to ignore or “disobey” the owner in some circumstances while running excitedly toward her in others. I hope that gives you a window into attraction & resistance.

However, we could also look at a puppy chasing a leaf through the lens of tension and release. The leaf’s movement stimulates actual, palpable feelings of tension and pressure within the pup’s body, causing him to run toward it. His movement provides a subsequent yet small feeling of release from that pressure. He would get a lot more release if he could actually bite the leaf and rip it to pieces. In fact, many times when a pup is prevented from “killing” something he’s been chasing, he’ll jump around, bark wildly, or start digging in the ground. We tend to think of these behaviors as nonsensensical, yet they serve a very important biological purpose: they release tension. Using these principles we can see that behavioral problems most often arise when a dog is feeling more tension than he’s able to handle or release.  One very practical reason for understanding this is that it may give you a new insight into your dog’s specific behavioral problems, so can you begin attacking them from a new and different angle. Standing Your Ground Let’s start with two very common problems: fear and aggression. First of all, on a certain level there’s virtually no difference between fear and aggression because all aggression is caused by fear. Fear manifests, behaviorally, in three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. In the last two the dog is feeling a great deal of tension with little or no release. But the dog who’s able to flip fear over on its head, and fight back, is releasing all that tension and more by “standing his ground.” One example of how this can help dogs involves my Dalmatian Freddie, who many years ago (in 1993) started having severe panic attacks, sparked by any little noise on the street. I tried everything I could think of to help the poor dog but once he was in his panic state, all I could do was wait it out. Then I learned that a friend of Freddie’s, a Sheltie named Duncan, had cured himself of thunderphobia simply by barking at the lightning. Brilliant! I thought. He’s barking at the thing that scares him! After that, every time Freddie went into a panic state—ears back, tail between his legs, head down, ready to run off in any possible direction—, and I gave him the speak command, as soon as he barked, he became a different dog, almost as if he couldn’t understand why we’d stopped walking to the park. One practical way this idea can be put to use is by doing what Duncan the Sheltie did on his own, i.e., teaching thunderphobic dogs to bark at the lightning.  Begin by teaching the dog to speak on command in different locations, so that the behavior becomes reliable and automatic whenever the cue is given. (After you do this you should also teach your dog to be quiet on command.)  Then, on a day, when a storm is due, before the dog starts to panic, you give her the “Speak!” command. In most cases, once she’s able to bark at the lightning she’ll no longer be frightened of the thunder ever again. Why? Because instead of freezing or fleeing—where the dog’s fear gets stuck in her body, and has nowhere to go—, she’s pro-actively fighting back against the scary sound. It doesn’t matter that the thunder and lighting don’t stop or go away. She doesn’t care because she’s no longer afraid of them. This is similar to a kid who’s being harassed by a bully. Once the dog finally stands her ground and fights back, the fear is no longer controlling her behavior and the thunder/bully no longer has any power over her. Hunger, Balance & Fear Another important aspect of how fear operates is illustrated by a lost and wounded dog who hides in the woods until he’s hungry enough to take food from someone. Being in a weakened and unstable condition creates feelings of resistance rather than attraction toward people who might be in a position to help him. Eventually, hunger overrides those feelings, the dog comes out of hiding and will take food. (Many volunteers at shelters cite the first day that a scared dog finally took food from them as the moment when things started to turn around for that pooch.) So, to recap, hunger cures fear. How? Through increasing a dog’s feelings of social attraction. And aggression cures fear. How? Picture the body language of a dog who’s frightened. His head and shoulders and tail are all down. He’s cowering. Picture that same dog barking furiously at the lightning. His body and tail are erect and his four paws are firmly planted on the ground. The fact is that whenever a dog (or human) is frightened, anxious or nervous he a) doesn’t feel hungry, and b) doesn’t feel grounded; he feels off-balance both physically and emotionally. In fact there is virtually no difference between being off balance physically and being off-balance emotionally. It operates on a purely Pavlovian level. (If you still don’t think there’s a connection between fear and balance this little factoid might help: in puppies the first fear development phase comes around the same time that the pup begins learning how to stabilize himself physically.) Playing and Pushing: Stabilizing  Unstable Dogs So I’ve given you one tip on how to reduce (or release) emotional tension in dogs: have them speak on command. But there’s still another hurdle the dog has to cross, which is a reservoir of unresolved emotion that may cause him to fling a ball or rope around on his own instead of bringing it back to you for a therapeutic game of fetch or tug. How do we bridge that gap? A few years ago I got an email from a veteran dog trainer in Virginia who had just brought home two Jack Russell pups. This woman was having problems housebreaking the female, who’d been the runt of the litter. Plus she was frustrated that the dog seemed withdrawn and a bit nervous. I suggested that she do “The Pushing Exercise,” essentially hand-feeding the doggie all her meals outdoors in a very specific way. This trainer didn’t understand why I made this suggestion, but she did it anyway. A few days later she called to tell me that not only had the doggie stopped doing her business inside the house, but the pup brought her a toy for the first time ever! Now, some readers may balk (or feel resistance toward) the idea of having their dog push for food. “I don’t want my dog to get pushy over his dinner.” This is something I also felt initially. Then one day, one of the dogs staying with me, who was normally very social and easygoing, exhibited a fairly severe case of resource guarding; he wanted all the food in all the doggie bowls! So I pulled him away and fed him separately for three days, using the pushing exercise. On the fourth day, when I put everyone’s dinner bowl down, he was happy with his own food. There were no residual traces of food aggression or resource guarding. Here’s how the exercise works. At a time when your dog is hungry, take her to a quiet place outdoors where there’s a platform of some kind—a bench of a flat rock—that she can jump up to or climb on. Bring along her favorite food, either in a pouch or a bait bag. It’s not a bad idea to wear latex gloves if the food she eats is messy. Take a handful of food out of the pouch, holding it in your non-dominant hand (i.e., your left hand if you’re right-handed). This is especially important for large breeds. Show her the food, waving it around a little, if necessary, to pique her interest. Then say, in a pleasant tone, “Wait…” And then close your fingers over the food, move it under her snout, say, “Ready?” then open the hand and let her eat. While she’s eating, surreptitiously cup your dominant hand, palm up, against her chest. If she balks, pull that hand away or stroke her gently wherever she likes being stroked while inviting her to eat from your other hand. With some dogs you have to work gradually, day by day, so that all resistance to feeling the second hand against her chest dissipates. With others you practically need to wear chain mail gloves! (This brings up an important point: some dogs aren’t as careful about where their teeth go as others, so proceed with caution!) The idea is that while she’s eating, you gradually increase the amount of pressure the dog feels against her chest. You don’t do this by pushing the dog! You do it by pulling your food hand away slightly, in small increments, until she has to push into you in order to feel the pleasure of eating. You want to get to the point where the dog is up on her back legs, totally off balance, while pushing into you as hard as she can. Why is it therapeutic?  Because she’s being put in a position where the person she loves most in the world is hand feeding her in such a way that she doesn’t even realize that the harder she pushes, the more off-balance she becomes. (She won’t really be off balance because you’ll be her balance beam.) You’re also triggering a little of the good kind of aggression, where the dog feels confident enough to stand her ground. If you’d like to learn more please visit my website. There is a downloadable pdf, giving a more detailed description of the exercise, along with 4 demonstration videos. There are no immediate guarantees. In some cases, it may take several months or longer to get the final results. In other cases, the changes can be quite dramatic and manifest within only a couple of days or weeks. Just keep pushing. It’ll help your dog stand her ground against all her fears, not to mention all the internal tension, pressure, and resistance causing her behavior problems. On her blog Jenya Chernoff gives a very good, and I think important description of Natural Dog Training. The real-world of Natural Dog Training is by nature a bit intuitive and improvisational (according to my husband, it’s just jazz.) That said, there are some fundamental exercises that could be summarized as follows: bark, bite, supple, push, collect. Not necessarily in that order. I like to describe it as part primal scream therapy, part dressage for dogs. Training the bark (speak) brings the drive to the surface; the bite resolves it. Pushing for food, mirrored by collection, elaborates into the behaviors heel, sit, stay, down, etc. Suppling your dog through massage relaxes her and accesses her primal puppy memories. I am, like so many modern humans, action-oriented, goal-driven, and addicted to formulas and schedules. Less is more may be one of the hardest things for me to internalize. So I get that it’s often a tough sell for the OC among us when we’re told Just work on building these skills, and everything else will fall into place. Work on problems indirectly? Trust your improvisational skills? Wax on/wax off?  Whatever. But seriously, kids. It works that way. Lee Charles Kelley “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook! Follow Me on Twitter! Link Up With Me on LInkedin! 22 comments:

  1. KimOctober 22, 2014 at 5:46 PM I am interested in your methods. I fear our dog may have ptsd, or could be bipolar. We asked him 3.5 years ago and he started to be aggressive toward or other dog, and us at times, about 1.5 years ago. We think he was likely abused before we asked him based on some other things. I am afraid to use methods that require touching him when he is in the stressed state because he will snap. Help appreciated! ReplyDelete Replies

JonNovember 27, 2016 at 5:02 PM Right now you’re probably reading this message because you’re desperate to finally learn how to not only train your dog quickly and effectively, but you also don’t want to have to spend a huge chunk of cash on professional dog trainers or read yet another dog training book that doesn’t get you results. Don’t worry, you’re NOT alone in your frustration! Find out here: How To Teach A Dog? Best rgs Delete


  1. Lee Charles KelleyOctober 23, 2014 at 7:29 AM Hi Kim! Thanks for your comment. The 5 Core Exercises are designed to bring a dog back to normalcy. But with a dog who's sensitive to touch, you have to work very slowly. Does he like to play tug-of-war with you? ReplyDelete

  2. KimOctober 23, 2014 at 3:30 PM No he does not. He typically runs around and squeaks his toys when he is playing. And he will also roll on his back and paw at me ReplyDelete

  3. Lee Charles KelleyOctober 23, 2014 at 3:54 PM Right. I see. Thanks, Kim. The way I see it behavioral problems like PTSD develop because a person's or dog's emotions get stuck and don't have a safe form of release. For soldiers with PTSD there's evidence to suggest that violent video games like Halo can help resolve their emotional issues. This is supposedly because the game acts as "exposure therapy," exposing the subjects to a virtual version of the traumatic event. However, another study, done on volunteers who were merely subjected to documentary footage of horrifying events, and developed nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD, had their symptoms reduced by playing Tetris, a video game with no violent content; it's just about getting falling blocks to line up in the most optimal way. The point is that play, in and of itself, can cause changes to the parts of the brain that are otherwise caught in a loop of stress and fear chemicals. His running around, squeaking toys and pawing at you are ways he has of finding emotional stability, but either a) only for brief periods of time or b) in a way that doesn't get at the heart of the matter. Playing tug-of-war, outdoors, where you always let him win and praise him for winning, will be far more helpful. ReplyDelete

  4. KimOctober 24, 2014 at 11:36 AM Thanks. It's worth a shot! Got to get him to hold on to the toys first, he always lets go when I touch them. ReplyDelete

  5. IrondogNovember 12, 2014 at 12:31 AM The push exercise sounds interesting, but what about if the dog is not food motivated, as is the case with mine. He's also very reclusive, doesn't bark, does not initiate play, and even though he is very attached to me, he will not come to me. ReplyDelete

  6. Lee Charles KelleyNovember 12, 2014 at 11:04 AM Hi Irondog, Thanks for your comment. There are certain rules about doing the pushing exercise and how to get maximum results. One is that a dog should be fed all his meals outdoors, preferably in a secluded spot, via the pushing exercise until all behavioral problems are resolved. A sub-rule of that is that if a dog won't eat from your hand outdoors, he's not hungry. So you wait until his next usual mealtime to feed him via the pushing exercise. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT because, as I write in the article above, "hunger cures fear." That's the first step over the bridge that will eventually (hopefully) bring your dog back to normal emotional functioning. As long as the dog's hunger is showing itself in a weak rather than robust manner, nothing will change. I hope this helps! Lee ReplyDelete

  7. POCyaMINDJuly 14, 2015 at 6:23 PM Hi my name is poc an I believe my dog king has PTSD. During arguments, light disagreement or even sport events he gets very aggressive he's not a barker so he just tries to nip at me and my girlfriend an usually I let him run free for a while until he calms down then I'll put him in his room by himself to calm down a little more. We play tug of war but he tries to get close to my hands when he's revved up he's not a barker and he's pretty good at feeding time with his Yorkshire brother that's not an issue just when he gets in fight mood ReplyDelete

  8. Lee Charles KelleyJuly 14, 2015 at 8:04 PM Hi Poc, Thanks for sharing. Do you play tug outdoors or inside? ReplyDelete

  9. POCyaMINDJuly 15, 2015 at 1:55 PM Inside mostly ReplyDelete

  10. Lee Charles KelleyJuly 16, 2015 at 10:11 AM It's better to do it outdoors. The difference is like kids playing baseball in the back yard or playing in the living room. Even with a whiffle ball and bat, you can't really swing for the fences indoors. You should also check out my PTSD blog article on the 5 Core Exercises of Natural Dog Training. There are also videos on my website that might help you understand how to do them. Let me know how it goes... Lee ReplyDelete

  11. UnknownDecember 14, 2015 at 2:15 PM Hey Lee, can you tell me if I should be getting my dog to speak before or during her fear response? or does it matter? My dog is terrified of meeting groups of dogs on our walks and it has been escalating slowly despite the fact that we are doing the core excercises regularly. She is great at pushing, will speak brilliantly at home (getting better on walks), and will bite and carry/play tug in some locations but she just can't focus to do any of these once she's gone into fear mode. In some places she is constantly tense and looking for danger. I'm guessing working on "supple" in these places might help but do you have any suggestions for what the hell else to do? I don't know how to help her get good enough at the excercises so we can use them to manage a fear situation. thanks :) ReplyDelete

  12. Lee Charles KelleyDecember 15, 2015 at 8:08 AM If you can get her to bark while she's in a fearful state you might find that it will almost automatically release most of her fear, at least momentarily. That's been my experience. Suppling might help in those situations, but again, in my experience, the barking tends to stabilize the dog, but only if it's a deep-throated bark. For some dogs I find that carrying a chewable item on a walk, like Texas Taffy, can settle a dog's nerves to a certain degree. I hope this helps! ReplyDelete

  13. UnknownDecember 15, 2015 at 10:32 AM Thanks lee, I will deffo try her carrying a chew. Its taken a long time to get her even this comfortable with biting a toy, but food items she has no problem with at all! Ill keep working on speak in different locations too, but, (and this might sound mad) what do you reckon to walking her with another dog who will speak on command? Walking with a buddy helps her feel safer anyway but I wonder if I could use their speak to elicit speak from her till she gets the hang of it? ...or it'll just scare the poo out of her. What do you reckon? ReplyDelete

  14. Lee Charles KelleyDecember 16, 2015 at 7:02 AM Yes, dogs will often exhibit what I call emotional resonance with another dog. So that might work to start getting the bark out of her. Remember, though, that you want her to bark on command and to be quiet on command as well. ReplyDelete

  15. UnknownMarch 26, 2016 at 1:45 AM Hi Lee, I have some questions about PTSD for you. I have a 2year old rat terrier male and 1 year old jack Russell terrier female. Both dogs were well socialized with people and other dogs. They accompany my husband and me mostly everywhere, including the emergency clinic where I work. The female has always been a little more bold and exuberant. In January, we were on a walk at a local lake which was well populated that day. Both dogs were in coats and harnesses and on separate leashes. Ahead of us, a man walking his Akita suddenly stopped and pulled off the trail. Akita turned to look at us, promptly slipped the harness and came running at us. Akita proceeded to bite my male and hold him in her mouth while shaking him as owner failed to even get close to dog. I was trying to keep my female from getting into the mix while kicking the Akita and yelling for help. Akita let go of my male, proceeded to attack me to get at both dogs. Akita bit my leg and grabbed my female from my arms around the throat and began to shake her. It took 3 people to get the Akita to let her go. My female (who does not swim) ran into a lake and swam across it. The man with the Akita ran away, and was never found. I took both dogs to the emergency hospital, where the male was found to have moderate lacerations (ultimately both dogs were saved by their harness and coat as the Akita was less able to puncture through the material) and was put on pain meds. My female had a punctured trachea that did resolve, lacerations, and also was sent home with lots of pain meds and antibiotics. Sorry to write a book, but I am at a loss. We have slowly started to reintroduce walking and hiking in public areas and trails. My male is ok. My female is less reactive on leash after working with her 5 days a week for the past 2 months. However, when she sees an unfamiliar dog, she begins to tremble violently and when we tried to introduce her to a new dog through a closed cage gate (other dog was in a run and very sedate, not reactive to her at all) she started screaming like she was being murdered and tried to attack it through the cage gate. I don't know how to help her be less fearful..I don't need her to be friends with every unfamiliar dog we come across but we do go hiking a lot and come across other dogs quite often. I do not let the dogs sniff noses or interact other than passing by other dogs quietly and calmly. If they start to get upset or excited we pull off the path I have them sit and "focus" on me. At this point I am not sure if she is going to get any better or if I am making the situation worse? I am very fearful when we come across another dog although I try not to express it. I am not afraid of other dogs (I deal with unfamiliar animals every day at work and not always in an ideal situation), I am afraid for my dogs and I hate that I let my dogs get hurt in January. Do you have any suggestions? I know that our story is long and complicated. I haven't been able to find anything helpful for the aftermath of a dog attack and an appointment with our local behavioralist at the veterinary college is priced way beyond my vet tech salary. ReplyDelete

  16. Lee Charles KelleyMarch 28, 2016 at 7:37 PM Hi Heather, I'm sorry to hear about the things you and your dogs have been through. The blog is meant to give workable information on ways to work with dogs with PTSD. If you need to contact me directly, feel free to do so. It might be helpful if we could talk on the phone, etc. First things first, though: send me an email at and I'll get back to you. Thanks, Lee ReplyDelete

  17. UnknownDecember 15, 2016 at 4:54 AM Hello I have a German shepherd dog. It's also face this problem, for that I feel so tension. This post so helpful. I think it work. I think my dog over come soon. Thanks for sharing a post about sharing Treating PTSD With Natural Dog Training . ReplyDelete

  18. Lee Charles KelleyDecember 15, 2016 at 7:18 AM Hi Madhob, Thanks for posting. I hope the blog helps. ReplyDelete

  19. James BrownDecember 2, 2017 at 3:36 AM Super blog and very interesting information which I always wanted to search many article but you article is really fantastic. Wesley Chapman on Impact Theory ReplyDelete

  20. disabilitycounselorAugust 23, 2018 at 3:15 AM I read the whole post and found some genuine method for Treating PTSD With Natural Dog Training.

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