Canine trauma rehabilitation is not quite so straight forward as just desensitising a dog to a trigger. Experiencing trauma (PTSD) will affect the dogs overall mental health. It puts a dogs brain into a higher state of alert making them experience periods of anxiety, irritability, and confusion. They might display bizarre or repetitive behaviours, become hyperactive, reactive, or even aggressive. There is some suggestion that they might even experience flashbacks and nightmares, although no dog has been able to confirm this – yet!
In any case, there is a lot of work to do in reducing that constant alert state, before we can even think about addressing the trauma itself. As you can see successful recovery from trauma is far from a quick fix situation.
Trauma can be defined as a “long term emotional response to a life threatening or disturbing experience.”
It’s fair to say that experiences such as getting attacked, or receiving abuse can be considered life threatening or disturbing. But other, less obvious events, can also cause trauma. Moving house, a family member moving out, loud noises, an intruder to the house, the death or illness of a loved one, prolonged confinement, a change of family, surgery, illness or injury, and prolonged periods where basic needs are not met, can also cause trauma.
It’s interesting to note that trauma can also be a result of poor pre and post natal experiences! While the brain is developing, even minor experiences can have a profound effect such as overcrowding or mums stress while in the womb, rough handling as a new born, or leaving mum and siblings too early.
What counts as disturbing or life threatening?
What classifies as life threatening, or disturbing, is entirely down to the individual. One dog may respond better than another in the exact same situation. In fact, many will not experience true trauma at all in many situations.
But for those that do, age can be a significant contributing factor. For example, your dog as a teenager might respond more profoundly to surgery, when compared to your dog as an adult. Their mental health before the traumatic experience will also make a difference. A very well adjusted dog might bounce back from an experience far quicker when compared to an already anxious dog.
Different experiences can also have different levels of impact. For example, it might take lots of minor experiences to cause the same level of trauma as one very big experience.
Assessing canine trauma
Many dogs that experience trauma are rescue dogs. Without a reliable history it can be hard to figure out what might have happened to them in the past. We do know that moving house, a change of circumstance and environment, prolonged confinement, and a change of owner, can all cause PTSD. So, it’s very likely that the rescue dog (especially a foreign rescue), is in a state of trauma even without any bad experiences or abuse to compound the issue.
With or without a reliable history, I have to figure out whether the dog has experienced trauma or is afraid for a different reason. The difference is subtle, but it’s there if you look for it! So, for this, I watch them carefully and ask lots of questions!
Next, I’ll start looking for subtle cues that point to the affected need. I lose track of the times clients have apologised for “boring” me with stories of their dogs funny or weird habits! But this stuff is gold to me, I love these stories. All dogs have their own brand of weird and knowing your dogs’ really helps me figure this all out.
Balance the dog
Once we have established that trauma is present, we can’t just rush in with a training plan. The brain needs to be rebalanced first. Just like a war vet won’t get better after repeated exposure to gun shot sounds; a traumatised dog will not thank you for repeatedly showing him his fear. This needs to be managed carefully.
So, we start by building a solid foundation to work from. We’ll boost his overall mental and physical health so he is better prepared when it comes to working through the trauma. Then we’ll address any related behaviours, do some preparatory training, resolve reward seeking issues, and work on the dog/owner relationship. By the time we get to the trauma part, you’ll both be more than ready to work together.
Depending on how deep the trauma is, how unbalanced the dog has become, and the kind of rehabilitation work that has been done in the past, this stage could take anything from a couple of days to a couple of months! In my experience though, 2-4 weeks is enough for most dogs. I’ll know more during your preliminary assessment, and your follow-up will be scheduled to make the most of this phase.
Approaches to rehabilitation
Once the foundations are in place, we can proceed to the rehabilitation stage. There are a few ways we can go, and the route we take will very much depend on your dog and how he is coping. They all have their pros and cons.
At one end of the scale we have the flooding technique. The flooding technique involves overwhelming a dog with the trigger he is most afraid of – for example, other dogs. The idea is that he will initially become overwhelmed, but after a period of time he will realise he is safe and learn not to fear other dogs.
Use flooding with caution…
This is a risky technique as there is so much that can go wrong with it. When it goes wrong, the result is catastrophic as you will have created an additional traumatic event for your poor dog. Your relationship could be severely dented too, as you are now part of the trauma. He might also become aggressive and redirect his aggression onto you. And, he may experience helplessness and either show unpredictable aggression or bouts of depression in the future.
When it works though, it is a very fast way to work through the problem and show your dog that he is safe. Only use this technique after careful assessment and supervision from someone that knows how to use it properly and safely. In fact, I only mention this technique as it is too frequently used (due to it’s fast acting results), but is very risky and has caused many, many more problems than it has ever solved. It should also be mentioned that if your dog goes into a helpless state, it may also “appear” to have worked!
Slow and steady wins the race
At the other end of the scale, we have desensitization techniques. This is a slow and steady process which involves a very careful and slow re-introduction to the situation or trigger. This is a very low risk technique which involves working with your dog ONLY in his comfort zone. It can be difficult to manage initially, especially if the preliminary work isn’t in place as his tolerance levels will be very low. However, you are not likely to make the situation worse by misusing this technique. You are at low risk of emotion stacking too, which can hinder progress.
Evolving techniques for best results
There are a whole bunch of other techniques that we can use too that all have their pro’s and con’s. I tend to go with a combination that evolves over the course of your follow-up sessions. Your dogs behaviour and tolerances will change as we work through his plan. So I’ll be constantly monitoring his progress and tweaking our approach.
The scale of emotions vs techniques
Depending on the technique you use, you will be working with the dog in different emotional states. For flooding you will be working in the outer circle; the Out of Control Zone. In this zone your dog is in fight or flight mode.
Desensitisation techniques keep your dog in the inner Comfort Zone. He is at his most relaxed in this middle zone.
This diagram shows you how to work with your dog in the middle Learning Zone. He is alert and aware in this zone, but his reactive brain is not quite triggered. This is called Grading and is great for mild PTSD or general anxiety.
Setting realistic expectations and goals
There is no getting around it, traumatic experiences are affecting. People are never the same after trauma, and neither are dogs. Good experiences change us too, though. So maybe is doesn’t matter as long as he learns to cope.
Knowing what is achievable, and what isn’t, is important in canine trauma rehabilitation. It is especially important to note that your goals might be very different to your dogs goals. For example, a dog that has experienced abusive handling might be satisfied to just feel relaxed in the company of strange humans in the future. Your goal might be that your dog allows a stranger to pet them! In this case, I think we could realistically achieve something in between, but getting petted by strange humans might just be a step too far for him, no matter how much rehab work we do.
So we can see, a dog may never learn to love the thing that traumatised him, but he can learn to cope in it’s presence. Anything more than that should be considered a bonus!
In terms of time scales, there are so many factors that will affect your progress. Obviously the level of trauma experienced is a big one. But, also how quickly you respond after the event, the general mental and physical health of the dog, and how consistent and predictable you are.
Whether it will take weeks or months to recover; the sooner you get started the easier it will be. Plus, the sooner you start the sooner you will get there.
How can I help?
Most trauma rehabilitation is managed over a serious of face to face sessions and zoom follow-ups. As part of your rehabilitation plan we’ll establish how deep the trauma goes and start by balancing and heeling his brain. Then we’ll work on your dogs triggers and predictors, related behaviours, reduce overall anxiety, change his expectations, and find his comfort zone, for managed and gentle progress. Every dog is different, but typically, it takes around 3-4 face to face sessions and a couple of zooms. These will be spread out to benefit your dog and maximise his progress.
It’s important to note that the problem will not be “fixed” at this stage. You’ll still have a little work to do to polish everything off and make the changes permanent. I’ll talk you through this at your final zoom, and support will remain in place for as long as you need it.
Could your dog be struggling with trauma?
Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!