How traumatic experiences change the way we approach dog behaviour problems

If you have struggled to solve a behaviour problem with your dog, it might be that there is some trauma getting in the way. In this latest blog, I am going to talk a little about what trauma is and how traumatic experiences change the way we approach dog behaviour problems!

What is trauma?

Contrary to what you might think, trauma isn’t just a really bad experience. We use the word trauma quite flippantly to describe horrible things that happen to us. But trauma is much more than that. When a bad experience causes trauma in our dogs, it traps the dog emotionally and actually changes the way their brain functions. It changes the way they function, and how they see and interact with the world around them.

Pretty much any unpleasant experience can cause trauma, even an illness, or a change in the family can do it. It certainly doesn’t have to be anything particularly life threatening like getting attacked by another dog, fireworks, or being chased out the park.

It’s important to mention that we don’t get to decide what is scary, and what isn’t, to your dog. Having a friend walk in your front door might not be scary to you; after all you invited them earlier via text. To your dog though, this could be horrifying. So, be open minded to your dogs perception, and how they experience things.

What makes a bad experience traumatic?

What makes an unpleasant experience traumatising is a combination of two things: First, how helpless did the dog feel at the time of the experience? And second, how resilient was the dog when it happened?

When a dog is afraid, nature tells them to run away. Or if that isn’t an option, to fight for their life. When a dog is prevented from doing either, they feel helpless. The fear and hopelessness they are experiencing then gets trapped until the appropriate time comes for it to be released. Our pet dogs don’t get to that, so it just stays there affecting everything they do from then on.

Dog Treat Man!

A common example I see all the time, is of the nervous dog in the park. The dog is walking with his owner and “dog treat man” shows up. I’m sure you’ve met “dog treat man”, every park has one. He has enough treats for everyone, and he says all dogs “love him”. On this day, he reaches down to your dog and your dog backs away. If you walk away now, the dog behaved naturally. His first choice was flight, and he was able to move away and make himself safe. What people tend to do though is push the dog forwards saying “it’s ok, its just dog treat man, he won’t hurt you”. The dog feels helpless as he gets petted by the scary man. If he just stands there, helplessly putting up with it, we think he has realised the man is not scary, and call that a win. But, actually, he has frozen and may now be traumatised because he wasn’t able to help himself feel safe. He still has a chance though. He still might recover from the frozen state and try the fight option. If he bites the man now, or grabs the lead, or a trouser leg, he might still avoid trauma as that stored energy will be released.

Even getting petted by “dog treat man” could be traumatic for a dog that is low on resilience.

Even getting petted by “dog treat man” could be traumatic for your dog.

In nature, wild animals don’t experience trauma. Imagine coming across a deer in your local park. The deer sees your dog and freezes for a moment! When your dog takes chase, the deer runs away. If the deer stayed still and survived, he would probably have developed trauma because he didn’t try to save himself and that fear would be trapped. However, the deer is not traumatised because that emotion was released when he ran away!

So, what does resilience have to do with it?

Resilience is the dogs ability to bounce back after a bad experience. Resilience is made up of a lot of things, and levels can change throughout the dogs day, week, and lifetime. Things that affect a dogs resilience include the dogs health, diet, overall confidence, quality of care as a pup, the type of training methods used, the quality of their relationships and support network, other behaviour problems, stress levels, stability at home, and of course, previous abuse and neglect take an obvious toll too!

Let’s take fireworks as an example of how that might look. A dog that has high resilience might hear the fireworks, be terrified at the time, and spend the evening hiding in the bathroom. But, once it is all over, they will still go out the next day like nothing happened. This dog has a fear of fireworks, as he should, they are scary, but he isn’t traumatised. When the fireworks stopped, he came out of hiding and shrugged it off.

Low resilience + feeling helpless = trauma

When resilience is low, the same dog might refuse to go for a walk the next day. They might start barking at every noise, even familiar noises like the microwave beep, or the bin lid closing. Soon, they will refuse to go out at all, even the garden, and be pacing all night listening out for noises. This dog has been trapped in their fear and it will only get worse from here!

How does it affect a dogs rehabilitation training?

We know that trauma causes a dog to see the world differently. This means that, instead of being curious about the world, the dog is actively looking for danger. When you are looking, it is easy to find a threat almost anywhere. Maybe they now react to every noise, are startled easily, or don’t like going to certain places.

In a traumatised state of mind, almost anything can trigger a fear reaction. For this dog, instead of finding comfort in a hand reaching down, they might flinch. Or instead of getting excited about the prospect of a visitor, they panic at the sound of a car door! These are very noticeable reactions, but your dog might show more subtle changes. Maybe they have started licking their paws more, or leave their food when they used to tuck straight in.

It’s lonely being traumatised

Social skills are also affected. Dogs that have experienced trauma might feel quite lonely, this causes problems in their ability to socialise, and their desire to please and seek comfort. So you might see your dog become more clingy, and no longer be able to cope when left alone. Or you might find he looks for comfort from sucking cushions, hiding under things, or repetitive and obsessive behaviours. You might also notice a change in the way your dog socialises with other dogs. Instead of looking to play like he used to, maybe he appears to be annoying and provoking them. With diminished social skills, he might not cope so well with strange people or dogs approaching him, he’ll not feel confident to resolve conflict so he could become defensive. He might overreact in social interactions too, and be quick to show aggressive behaviour when it wasn’t seemingly provoked.

Learning is inhibited too. Curiosity is the opposite of anxiety, so exploratory learning becomes challenging. Their desire to please can take a knock too, so with no desire to please, and no curiosity, their learning ability will be hugely affected. This doesn’t mean they won’t learn anything, but it will take longer! Many owners of traumatised dogs will tell me that they’ve tried everything and their dog just won’t learn from them, this is often why.

When dogs lose their vitality, they might be suffering with trauma.

How to solve it

With no desire to learn or please, and an overactive radar for danger, it is easy to see why standard behaviour training doesn’t work – yet. If we think of trauma as a protective shield that surrounds the dogs brain. Any effort to rehabilitate the dog will just bounce off the shield. So before we do anything else, we need to remove the shield, and therefore the trauma. And to do that, we need to remove the need for it’s protection.

We know that low resilience makes a dog vulnerable to trauma, so building up resilience must be part of the antidote. So we start by focusing on that stuff we can change easily.

Creating a routine makes life predictable and eases stress. Teaching a simple trick, in a fun and positive way boosts confidence, and starts to rekindle the joy of learning. Helping a dog explore with his nose relieves him of anxiety. You should also head to the vet for a thorough diet and health check. Dogs are compelled to hide pain and illness from us, so you never know what could be going on under the surface.

Be your dogs advocate

And finally, start advocating for your dog. Look for any signs that your dog is trying to avoid something and help them avoid it. Noticing when your dog is trying to tell you something, and responding in an obvious and intentional way, is extremely powerful. Your dogs confidence will take a boost, as will his bond and trust in you. When he trusts in you to protect him, that shield will start to come down.

You might think you already do a lot of this, but a dog that is traumatised needs much more support than the average dog. Even getting shouted at, or a lead tug can feel devastating to a dog who doesn’t have much confidence to start with. Building trust in a confident dog takes very little effort compared to one that has been damaged by trauma. So, it might feel a bit odd, or over the top, but your dog will thank you for it.

Next, you must stop reliving bad experiences. This will mean avoiding them as much as possible. You might play repetitive music in the house to dull random noises. Or you might avoid walks in certain places. Maybe you stop having visitors for a while, or disengage the doorbell. Do whatever you can to avoid triggering your dog for a while. Every time they get triggered it strengthens the trauma, and likewise, the longer you can go without triggering it, the quicker the shield will come down.

What next?

Once you have removed some, or all, of the trauma, you might find that your behaviour training plan suddenly starts to take effect. When the dog has stopped looking for threats and becomes curious again, they are ready to start work on specific problems. As you continue to build up their resilience, you’ll be able to slowly introduce their triggers back in a controlled and gentle way. If you tried to mask sounds with music, maybe you turn the volume down. If you started avoiding dogs, maybe you introduce them at a big distance.

Make it positive: Why Focusing on What You Want is More Effective in Dog Behaviour: Proactive vs Reactive Training

Whatever you do in your training, make sure it is positive only. I can’t emphasise this enough. The dog that has suffered trauma will never regain a full tank of resilience. Even getting told off could erode enough of it to put them in a vulnerable position again.

Get help

If you aren’t sure, get help! I always include a bit of resilience strengthening in my behaviour training programmes. But if I suspect your dog might be suffering with trauma, I can create a personalised plan trauma recovery plan, just for you and your dog. Once the trauma is solved, we can get on with the rest of the behaviour training. Get in touch if you’d like more information about this, and follow up training packages to target specific problems.

How can I help you with your dogs behaviour training?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in-person in the Dundee and the surrounding area, and online for everywhere else. If you are looking for advice for your dog then please get in touch!


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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