Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an increasingly common anxiety disorder. People who have survived war, natural disasters, rape, abuse, and even bullying can be diagnosed with PTSD. When a person experiences a severe trauma, the fight-or-flight instinct is activated. According to NIMH, "This fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder, this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger."
Symptoms of PTSD
The symptoms of PTSD call into three categories: re-experiencing, avoidance and hyperarousal. The patient will re-experience the original trauma through flashbacks or nightmares. The victims will also avoid places, people and things that remind them of the trauma. These symptoms can also include, depression, feeling emotionally numb and losing interest in favorite activities. Hyperarousal is an intense awareness of one's surroundings and sensitivity to any sudden changes. This can be seen in being easily startled, anxious, and having trouble sleeping. Anger can also be a result of PTSD from the experience of being attacked or victimized.
Causes of PTSD in Dogs
- military or police service
- dog-fighting or bait dog practice
- living in a puppy mill
- severe physical abuse
- living as a stray
- attacks from other dogs
Probability of PTSD in Dogs
Two dogs may experience the same trauma together and emerge from the experience in different ways. Why do some puppy mill dogs seem to recover very quickly while others may never fully recover? The level of physical harm to the body is a significant factor. If the dog experiences severe or life-threatening physical harm, then the dog's body has to marshall all of it's resources to help the body recover and heal. On the other hand, if the dog feels threatened but has only minor injuries, PTSD is more likely to develop.
The Case of Lizzie - Classic PTSD Symptoms in Dogs
Lizzie is a 7 year old Aussie/Collie mix that experiences every symptom of PTSD. She experiences horrific nightmares where her whole body convulses and she acts like she's trying to run from something that frightens her. Lizzie has been so traumatized by abuse that she flinches away from all strangers, equally fearful of men and women. If she sees a raised hand over her head or a raised foot near her, she bolts, afraid of being hit or kicked. Her foster mom is the only person Lizzie trusts. She will come to her foster mom for petting but she will not take a treat from her hand. She only eats treats from the floor. Lizzie often hyperventilates and is hypervigilant on walks. She watches everything around her with anxious, scared eyes, avoiding all contact with strangers.
The Case of Heartly - Anger PTSD Symptoms in Dogs
Some dogs who go through a trauma become timid and fearful like Lizzie. Other dogs develop fear-based aggression which is based in anger at what happened to them and a fierce need to protect themselves from further harm. In Heartly's first home, he unexpectedly bit a visitor on the ankle and would not let go. The frightened visitor picked up a brick and threw it at him, which finally made him let go. The traumatic experience of that heavy brick flying at him, where it could easily have killed his little 20 lb body, clearly stayed with him for long afterward. Heartly growled whenever he saw or sensed an object being held above him. Sometimes he would even growl when offered a treat if the hand holding the treat came suddenly down from above him.
Trainer Lee Charles Kelley has identified a behavior intervention that can help dogs lose some of their fears entirely. An anxious, frightened dog with PTSD typically freezes, cowers or tries to run when he feels threatened. However, if the dog is able to find the courage to bark at his fear, then the fear symptoms are eliminated or greatly diminished with time. To help your anxious dog achieve this, first teach him a "speak" command. Reward him for speaking when given a command or hand-sign. Then when the scary moment comes such as thunder or a strange dog, give the "speak" command. It may take your dog a while to summon the courage to bark when he is anxious, however the results are well worth the effort.
Kelley's dog, Freddie, had such severe PTSD that he went into a panic attack several times a day when a loud noise or sudden movement frightened him. Bark therapy made a tremendous difference for Freddie. "Finally, on the 4th or 5th try, a deep rumbling bark emerged from Freddie’s throat. And when it did he was instantly a different dog. His ears pricked up, his tail and shoulders returned to normal, his breathing became light and steady and he looked at me as if to say, “Why are we just standing here? I thought we were going to the park…”
Dog Park Therapy
At first it might seem illogical to bring a timid, traumatized dog to the dog park. However, the most important lesson the dog park can teach your scared dog is that she has the power to make her own decisions. Most of the time your dog is on a leash outdoors and this greatly limits her decision-making. Being off-leash in a securely fenced dog park allows your dog to make the decision about how close she wants to come to strangers or strange dogs. Having the choice to back off or flee if she feels threatened will help your dog gain confidence as she is able to approach strangers at her own pace.
When Lizzie first came to the dog park she was so scared that she simply froze. Within a few minutes, though, she was following her foster mom and sisters around the perimeter of the park. She immediately fled whenever strangers approached, however she still came back eventually. After an hour at the park, Lizzie was laying on the ground relaxing about 10 feet behind the bench where her foster mom was sitting. She greeted other dogs with interest and kept a careful eye on everything going on around her. Having the freedom to set her own personal boundaries helped Lizzie feel safer and more confident.
A Safe Place
For a severely traumatized dog it is helpful to have a special "safe place" in your house where your dog can retreat to if she feels threatened. Lizzie loves her Cozy Cave, which is a large soft-sided carrier with the front door flap pulled over the top so the whole front side is open. She loves to relax on the soft beds inside her Cozy Cave. It is located in an out-of-sight area where she can avoid visitors if she needs to. For a dog who has never felt safe before, having a special safe place of her very own is very reassuring.
For a traumatized or poorly socialized dog, daily walks are essential. Walking on leash requires your timid dog to be exposed to the various sounds and sights of the world outside your front door. Every day that he is able to walk past scary things like strangers and cars without getting hurt, he will grow a little more confident.
Vigorous Outdoor Play
For dogs with PTSD, rough and tumble play has a healing effect. By exposing your dog to the mock dangers in playful wrestling, he begins to learn that not everything is dangerous. Kelley says "The thing that eventually cured Freddie completely was when I was able to engage him in all-out, whole-hearted, rough-and-tumble play, where he got to chase a tennis ball with all his might, and bite down on it as hard as he could. The day I got Freddie to play like that, with all his heart, was the last day he exhibited any symptoms of panic or PTSD."
The Pushing Exercise
This exercise was created by trainer, Kevin Behan. Please read the complete instructions before beginning this exercise. The basic idea is that most pet dogs are not mentally or physically challenged on a daily basis. Unlike working farm dogs and police dogs, your pet dog does not spend much if any time being truly challenged. This process begins by squatting down or sitting in a relaxed position and offering a special meal in one hand while petting the dog with your other hand. Eventually you will place your other hand lightly against the dog's chest. Over the course of several days you will gradually pull the hand with food further toward you and encourage the dog to push against your hand to get to the food. This exercise has been shown to help with a wide variety of behavior problems in dogs. A great dog food to use for this exercise is Purina Moist & Meaty which is a spaghetti-like soft dog food.
For some dogs, with time and patience, all or most anxiety symptoms may go away. In severe cases, like Lizzie, there may never be a complete return to normal behavior. However, with increased confidence and security, your dog will be happier and better able to function.