Over the years Rick and I have rescued many dogs that suffer with Canine PTSD. I found a quote from Dr. David J. Hellerstein that I feel verifies what we have discovered about how the brain works in dogs that have suffered abuse, neglect, or abandonment. He said, “PTSD, depression, and other psychiatric disorders cause what is called ‘negative neuroplasticity,’ including activation of abnormal circuitry in the brain, and strengthening of those circuits over time. They also cause shrinkage…and decreased connectivity between parts of the brain.” He believes that stress changes the brain physically in humans and in dogs.
Our experience tells us that post traumatic stress disorder is more common in dogs that people think. It doesn’t have to be caused from violence or physical abuse. We rescued a long haired beauty years ago that lost her front leg to a recliner incident. Her owners loved her dearly for the fourteen years of her life before the accident. But after the accident her entire demeanor changed. And after months of trying to help her recover emotionally, they gave her up. Perhaps watching her sadness and inability to interact with the family after having one of her front legs amputated was more than they could bear. Or perhaps they felt she carried a grudge against them. The sad truth of her story is that she suffered damage that her family did not understand how to deal with.
Many of us have heard the stories about soldiers that suffer from PTSD. Their symptoms can vary as much as their pasts. The one common ingredient seems to be fear. That fear manifests itself in many different forms in dogs as well. When a dog has suffered stress from abuse, abandonment, or even a one time incident, their reactions to that trauma can present a wide spectrum of behavior.
A perfect example of the differing reactions to the same trauma has been part of our lives for the last few weeks. On Christmas Eve we took in a family of Chihuahuas. Their “Mom” had to be placed in assisted living because of Alzheimer’s. Each of these dogs dealt with the stress of losing their mom and their home in very different ways. Dani (5 year old female) did not show any signs of trauma. She wanted to be loved and held from the first minute they arrived, and she could lay down in her bed and sleep like a baby. Howie (3 year old male) sought out attention to the point that he had a difficult time relaxing at all. And Rowdy (3 year old male) became increasingly aggressive over the first week after they arrived. They all suffered exactly the same stress factors, and they all reacted in different ways.
Because of this difference in reactions it can be difficult to know how to help these babies overcome their PTSD. Rick has always felt and my research seems to confirm that significant progress can be made by reprogramming the dog’s brain with affection and play. Sometimes that is obviously easier to do than others, but the goal is always positive, consistent interaction with the dog.
One of our recent puppy-mill rescues not only did not want us to touch him, he didn’t want any of our pack around him either. Most emotionally damaged dogs in our experience have drawn comfort from our pack. We count on that happening, and it is the basis of the success of our sanctuary. But this one baby was not having it. Rick spent quite a bit of time each day just getting this dog into a position where he could be picked up without trying to escape. But Rick was persistent, and today after two months here with us that baby seeks out attention from Rick and cuddles in the beds with several of our other babies.
The actual physical touch helps to reprogram the damaged circuits that Dr. Hellerstein was speaking about. Depending on the depth of the emotional damage, dogs can sometimes come out of their “depression” on their own. But in our experience, the benefits of the chemicals released in a dog’s brain when they are being loved on or played with far exceeds the likelihood that a dog will eventually get over it on their own.
A few times over the years we have needed the help of medication to help ease a dog’s mental pain long enough for us to connect to them physically. Rowdy from the group of Chihuahuas falls into that category. Because his aggression continued to escalate over the first days of his stay here with us, we were unable to handle him without causing him extreme distress, or getting bit ourselves. After only a few days on the meds we were able to hold Rowdy for short periods of time. Now after two weeks on the meds, he wants to be held. We are hopeful that once Rowdy settles in to his forever home his need for the meds will reduce.
We have had dogs that seemed exceptionally damaged come out of their shells very quickly, and we have had some that required months of physical love to begin to enjoy their lives again. And sadly we have had a few that nothing could repair. So when I am asked for advice on how to handle a shy, fearful dog I encourage people to take the steps necessary to get that baby in their laps. Scratch them, massage them, touch them everyday even if you have to corner them to pick them up. If this fails for a period of time then seek out medical help.
Lee Charles Kelley, a noted dog trainer in New York has written several wonderful articles on exercises, play activities, and behavior modification techniques that can help with the extreme cases. There are answers to the behavior issues our dogs suffer from, and we as owners and care givers should seek out those answers. We can be the therapists our babies need.