Some tips for dogs that have undergone trauma
Scotty Valadao - Canine Behaviour Consultant and TTouch Prac - www.fods.co.za
Pippa was one of the Category 3 Schnauzers from Roodewal that Scotty worked with who was petrified of people. Scotty very slowly and gradually gets Pippa used to having somebody in her safe place and enjoyed being touched. Lots of breaks occurred in-between as well as lots of treats and gently praise being offered
Dogs, just like humans are all unique and will respond to different situations in different ways. Some dogs can undergo trauma and seem to be completely unaffected at all. Others can undergo trauma and seem to be unaffected, and then something small happens, totally unrelated to the trauma and the dog ‘loses it’. Some dogs are badly affected by trauma and other dogs just slightly affected – some dogs do not seem to be affected at all - there is no possible way that we can generalize and say all dogs respond the same.
Unfortunately, not all dogs start life with a good beginning and for some it can be more than simple neglect – the dog could have been miss-handled or mistreated and this can have a lasting effect on the dog and the manner in which it now interacts with people.
Here we are not just looking at miss-handling from the aspect of the dog being smacked or beaten – a dog that has been exposed to some of the old fashioned techniques and equipment used, can also have experienced trauma.
Unfortunately in SA today another type of trauma that dogs often endure (and their families) is that of hi-jacking and house breaking with violence, while other dogs may experience domestic violence.
If the dog is continually panicking or totally shutting down and the anxiety is very severe, it could be that the dog is experiencing the canine version of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
When the dog is suffering from very extreme fear or PTSD, the dog will react totally instinctually to the perceived fear or the trigger for the fear. In medical terms what occurs is that any triggers do not engage the hippocampus which is usually responsible for memory, rather the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions and the dog will just react and in ways that do not seem at all logical. An example of this is that if a dog had been beaten with a stick or similar object, the dog may go into fear mode the second it sees somebody with a stick or even a newspaper in their hand – however what would be the logic if the dog had the same reaction to somebody that approached it without something in their hand, but had a hat on? Perhaps the person who caused the trauma had a hat on at the time. Another trigger could be a smell – perhaps the person was chewing on a peppermint sweet and the dog reacts each and every time it smells peppermint. Smell triggers so many associations in us humans and when we realize that a dog's sense of smell if approximately 45 times stronger than our own, it is easy to see how a scent may trigger a fear response from the dog.
What is important to realize is that the dogs reaction is very, very real and must be recognized and never under estimated and realize that the dog will not ‘get over it’ by itself, help is required as well as totally consistency and a lot of patience and understanding as to what the dog is going through.
Here are some points to bear in mind which will help the dog.
- Learn your dog's body language and what is 'normal' for your dog. You will then be able to pick up immediately when the dog is exhibiting fear and take steps to remove the dog from the fearful object/person.
- Avoid any situation that causes the dog fear - as below the dog can be desensitized to the situation but until it has been, avoiding the situation if preferable as each and every time the dog is exposed to the perceived fear, the fear is reinforced and the reaction to same can become stronger.
- Get vet help if the fear is extreme and the dog is not coping. Some vets may put the dog on vet medication while other may consider the use of products such as the Avalon Pure Rescue Dog Spray, Pheromone Collars etc.
- Bring in a modality such as TTouch which is really wonderful in helping a dog to learn another way of acting and reducing stress. If the dog cannot be touched at all, then consider bringing in either a behaviourist that has experience of dog’s body language or a TTouch Practitioner who would also have had experience of dog’s body language. It is essential to work with the dog ‘where it is at’ (TTouch jargon which makes so much sense).
- Don’t pander to the dogs fears and reinforce them by comforting the dog, picking it up etc. All this will achieve is that the dog will think that there really is something to be fearful of! When you are dealing with a fearful dog it is essential to portray yourself as a benevolent and caring leader and one the dog can trust.
- Never, ever try to force a traumatized dog to confront its fears or force the dog in any way – the dog must always feel safe. If you are not sure how to go about helping the dog, rather get help from a professional and slowly and gradually the dog can be desensitized to its perceived fears. When doing the desensitizing ‘chunk it down’ and do a little often, rather than trying to overcome the dogs fear in one or two sessions.
- If the dog runs when it see’s people, create a ‘safe’ place (or several) for the dog where it can retreat to where it will not be disturbed. As above, this must be a place of safety for the dog where it has access to go at any time.
- Whenever the dog does something positive, really go overboard with gentle praise and lots of treats – show the dog how pleased you are with the progress – even if it is only taking one step towards the perceived fear. This will gradually help to build the dogs confidence levels.
- Do as much with the dog that it enjoys as possible. We learn so much when we are having fun and this will help to build the bond with the person and also increase confidence.
- Be consistent – a dog that is fearful really does need to know that it will always be treated in the same way.
- Never punish a fearful dog. All this will achieve is making the dog more fearful and possibly of the person who did the punishing and additionally the punishment may up the fear for the dog and instead of just looking fearful it may start to react with aggression.
- Don’t label ! Too often we label our dogs as ‘fearful’ or think ‘poor thing it has been through such a lot’ or similar wording. What we are inadvertently doing is keeping that memory alive and not allowing the dog to have a fresh start. The power of positive thinking is enormous – start to say a simple statement such as ‘every day in every way, Fido is getting better and better’ each and every time you look at your dog. You are not saying that Fido is ‘fixed’ and you are not setting yourself up to fail by stating that ‘Fido is better’ rather you are changing your own and the dogs perception.
To find a canine behaviourist near you visit www.animal-behaviour.org.za and to find a TTouch practitioner that can assist you www.ttouch.co.za