Thursday, November 13, 2014

Canine PTSD: What Makes a Bad Experience Traumatic?

I’m currently reading the book The Body Keeps the Score: Body, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk. It is a fascinating, enlightening, and incredibly accessible book, so if you have any interest in the topic, I highly recommend it. The book is about humans, not dogs, but as most things do, the book makes me think of things canine-related. So, while my speculations are just that – and not fact – because dogs and humans have very similar brains in terms of structure, chemical reactions, and neuroplasticity, I feel comfortable trying to make some analogies.

Not a reactive dog. This blog just doesn't have enough Lola.

So, I’ve already posted about the idea that reactivity seems similar to PTSD in some ways, how treatment of PTSD tends to take a multi-pronged approach, and how that might inform our training strategies. But what makes something traumatic?

The truth is, we cannot save ourselves or our dogs from bad experiences. Bad things just happen, and they happen to everyone. What’s more, not all bad things have the same consequences. But why is that? Why are some people (and dogs) traumatized, while others bounce back just fine? The answer is undoubtedly multifactorial, and one of the most important predictors in whether or not a bad thing rises to the level of trauma is how the person/dog was able to physically react.

Brain science time: When we face a stressful event, our brain and body secretes stress hormones (like adrenaline) that serve to “fuel resistance or escape.” Your basic fight-or-flight response. Our bodies are basically pre-programmed to stop thinking and to run for safety; once there, those hormones can dissipate. After that happens, the fight-or-flight response turns off, and our rational brain turns back on, allowing us to understand that the threat is over.

Dr. van der Kolk argues that the ability to move, to do something is critical. Immobilization keeps the body in a “state of inescapable shock and learned helplessness.” The brain and body keep secreting hormones, and as a result, continues to react as though that threat is still present, even long after the situation has ended. Dr. van der Kolk says this is why, for example, 90% of sexual abuse survivors will develop PTSD – because they cannot escape the situation, and thus the fight-or-flight response continues to be activated.

Now, let’s think about our dogs’ lives. Part of responsible pet ownership in the United States includes leash laws, use of crates or x-pens, and other forms of restraint. And for the most part, I think these are good things. Heaven knows I don’t want an off-leash dog rushing my dogs! Of course, the problem is that when we do get rushed, my dogs can’t escape the danger. They’re immobilized, unable to recover, and PTSD can develop. (Well, assuming that the dog interpreted the oncoming dog as danger, of course. Half my dogs would welcome the playmate, and therefore not be traumatized!)

Because we humans control almost every single aspect of our dogs’ lives, the likelihood of PTSD/reactivity seems pretty high to me. Think about it: they have a reduced capacity to escape dogs or people during neighborhood walks. They can be aggravated by someone on the other side of their yard’s fence. They are unable to escape being poked and prodded at the vets. They can’t escape children poking their fingers through their crates. The more confined the dog feels, and the more dangerous/threatening the perceive the situation to be, the more likely it is that PTSD/reactivity will develop.

So. What can we do about it?

First and foremost, learn to read your dog’s body language. There are lots of great videos and books on the topic (I really like Sarah Kalnajs’ The Language of Dogs DVD). Learn what’s typical for dogs, and then learn what’s typical for your dog. Although most dogs will display similar body language, there are subtleties from dog to dog… and then there are the weirdos like my Napi, who eschews the play bow and does this weird “butt bump” thing instead.

Just as important, respond to your dog’s body language. It does no good to say, “Oh, yes, I see that Rex is scared,” but then force him into the situation anyway. Look, I get it, sometimes you really want to take him to the dog park or got to a training class or compete at that trial. But does he want to be there? And what are you risking by making him do it anyway?

Finally, offer your dog choices as often as you can. I’m not saying that he should rule the world – household rules and structure are necessary components to having a healthy and happy dog – but he shouldn’t be drug across that shiny tile floor or shoved down the stairs or pushed onto a wobble board. And in those situations where he simply must do something, take it slow, give him breaks, and make it worth his while. Better yet, for things like vet visits and medical procedures where you know he won’t have much control, prepare him in advance with husbandry training.

This won’t prevent PTSD/reactivity – like I said earlier, there are a lot of factors in determining whether a person or dog develops it – but it is something you can do to reduce the possibility, and a really nice way to respond if he’s already reactive.

No comments: