Early on in the book, Dr. van der Kolk writes:
We can now develop methods and experiences that utilize the brain’s own natural neuroplasticity to help survivors feel fully alive in the present and move on with their lives. There are fundamentally three avenues:
- top down, by talking, (re-) connecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us, while processing the memories of the trauma;
- by taking medicines that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or by utilizing other technologies that change the way the brain organizes information, and
- bottom up: by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.Which one of these is best for any particular survivor is an empirical question. Most people I have worked with require a combination… depending on the nature of the particular problem and the makeup of the individual person.
Okay, you’re probably thinking, what the heck does this have to do with dog training? Let’s look at each of the three avenues that Dr. van der Kolk outlines as it applies to dog training.
Top Down Training
The first category is through “top down” interventions: talk therapy, building relationships, and processing the past. Our dogs can’t talk, of course, but it seems to me that a lot of what we do for reactive dogs is a top down intervention.
For example, using desensitization and counter-conditioning helps change a dog’s behavior by showing the dog that a trigger predicts good things (food, play) and not the bad things they were expecting (through past experience).
Here’s another example: Behavioral Adjustment Training seeks to help the dog develop a sense of control over his world by teaching him how to communicate to his person that he is uncomfortable (by sniffing, turning away, etc.), and then getting to leave the situation he doesn’t like.
Part of why I think positive training is so crucial when training reactive dogs is because of the bond it helps the dog build. I personally believe that developing a supportive, safe relationship is key in treating human PTSD, and I can only imagine that the same applies to dogs.
The second category is pretty straightforward: taking medications can help calm an overactive sympathetic nervous response and allow a person with PTSD to choose how to respond to something vs. react out of a primitive brain state. I saw the same thing with Maisy. Medications allowed her to use all the training I had done.
Dr. van der Kolk references “other technologies that changes… the brain.” I haven’t read far enough to know what he means (I have some guesses), but I’ll undoubtedly report back. I suspect that the Relaxation Protocol would fall under this category, though.
Bottom Up Experiences
Finally, people with PTSD must have safe, positive experiences in their bodies. Dr. van der Kolk is big into yoga, tai chi, rolfing, etc. For dogs, we often see great results from T-Touch, agility, and nosework. I suspect this is because those are experiences in which the dog gets to have fun or be comfortable in their bodies. In the case of nosework, especially, I think it allows them a great sense of mastery. They get to solve a problem that we humans literally are unable to solve.
As Dr. van der Kolk says, I really think that it is a combination of these modalities that is most effective. And, as he also points out, the effective ones will be unique to each individual. This is why there are so many “systems” or ways of working with a reactive dog. I know people who are practically religious in their adherence to a particular approach, usually because it worked so well for their dog.
I’d love to hear from you guys about how you think successful work with reactive dogs might fit into one of these categories.