Sunday, November 2, 2014

Is Reactivity a Form of Canine PTSD?

One of the most interesting things about reactivity is that it can have a variety of causes. Some dogs have experienced a traumatic event. Others received subpar socialization. Still others are just overexcitable goofballs. And for some, we just don’t know why they overreact so much.

Today, I want to talk about some parallels I see between some reactive dogs and PTSD in humans.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition that develops in some people following exposure to a traumatic event. The symptoms, which must last for at least three months, include:

  1. Reliving or re-experiencing the event through nightmares or flashbacks,
  2. Avoiding situations that are similar to the event,
  3. Negative changes in beliefs and feelings, including an inability to trust others, and
  4. Hyperarousal, including irritability, being easily angered, difficulty sleeping, or being easily startled.

The problem with this is, of course, that we don’t know what our dogs are thinking. We don’t know if they are having flashbacks, why they are reluctant to do something, or what they believe about themselves or others. Still, we can observe their behavior and make some educated guesses about what is driving this behavior.

Let’s start with the defining criteria: exposure to a traumatic event. For some dogs, like my Napoleon, we can definitively point to specific incidents. My fiancĂ© saw him being abused (that’s how we ended up with him). Even when there is no obvious traumatic event, it is still possible there was trauma because the key factor to trauma is less about what happened, and more about the experience of helplessness it causes. And our dogs have very little control over their lives. For example, harsh training methods – even just observing harsh training methods – could be traumatic for some dogs. I would also argue that a lack of socialization is equivalent to neglect or emotional abuse in people, which could be potential PTSD triggers.

Now, on to symptoms: I think hyperarousal is the most easily observed set of symptoms in dogs. I know that what really clued me into the seriousness of Maisy’s issues was when I realized how little – and how poorly – she slept. She was also incredibly easily startled. Even commonplace noises like the sound of dishes clinking together could set her off. I think Napoleon is prone to irritability and/or anger, especially when he’s tired. And certainly reactive dogs can appear angry when the bark and lunge at others. In client dogs, I’ve seen restlessness, pacing, an inability to remain still or to settle down, “twitchiness,” and so on.

Some reactive dogs definitely seem to believe that danger is lurking behind every corner; being on high alert is not uncommon. Could this possibly suggest negative beliefs about the world they live in? It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, but many reactive dogs are continuously checking out their environment, as though they expect danger. Neither Maisy nor Napoleon seemed to view home as a safe place. Visual scanning, trotting back and forth through the house, and even excessive sniffing to gain information can be signs that the dog is expecting something awful to happen.

I definitely think we can observe dogs actively avoiding certain situations or people. We won’t always know why, nor if it’s related to trauma, but we can see this. Maisy absolutely refuses to step on things that might move, no matter how good the treats might be. I’ve seen client dogs refuse to walk on certain types of flooring or use stairs. (This could also be related to pain, so you need to rule that out before assuming it's emotional.)

I have no idea how you would tell if a dog was having a nightmare (I don’t see mine dream enough to be able to say if I could tell the difference between good dreams and bad), and even less clue about distinguishing a flashback. I’d love to hear some anecdotal stories about this though! Please comment if you’ve seen things that make you wonder if your dog is re-experiencing the past.

For all of these reasons, I certainly think there are some parallels between certain kinds of reactivity and PTSD. I think this is important, as it allows us to draw upon what we know from human treatments of PTSD and extrapolate it to dog training. I will touch on this topic in a future post.


Chris and Mike said...

I suspect you're on to something here. Two case studies: Habi, our now 9-year-old border collie, tends to expect the worst in new situations. She is far more comfortable than when we adopted her six years ago, but in comparison with our other (non-reactive) dogs the difference is marked. Our vet behaviorist suspected that Habi was mentally unsound from the beginning (backyard breeding of unstable parents?), and that her first owners were overwhelmed by her issues, sticking her in a kennel in the back yard at a young age. That's just guesswork, but it fits her lack of socialization well.
(Just FYI, she's doing GREAT. We now get comments like "What a well-mannered young (!) dog" when out on walks. Just a couple of years ago walks were still impossible. Age plus drugs plus billions of hours of behavioral modification do eventually pay off!).

As to nightmares - our dear departed Bandit, an Aussie, was Habi's Zen Master: very calm, joyful, steady and loving. However, every few months we'd wake up in the middle of the night to the most heart-rending howls. We'd have to shake him to wake him up. Heaven only knows what trauma he was reliving. We saw no evidence of this when he was awake.

Nina Worthe said...

I have two dogs, one we've had from 8 weeks, the other a rescue we got at age 5. They both sleep with me, so I have a fairly good idea of their sleep habits. The older girl had (has? constantly improving) some issues, guarding and general wariness, reactivity to other dogs (she was clearly never socialised, I suspect she was a yard dog). Occasionally, my older dog will have what I can only describe as nightmares. She'll start growling in her sleep, then she'll yip yip in that cute sleep bark that dogs do, this builds to the point where she'll begin crying and whining, finally howling desperately, like Chris and Mike's dog. My younger one has never had something like this.