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:
- Reliving or re-experiencing the event through nightmares or flashbacks,
- Avoiding situations that are similar to the event,
- Negative changes in beliefs and feelings, including an inability to trust others, and
- 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 fiancé 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.