Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in dogs was first recognized in war dogs. The canine soldiers came back from their tours of duty with big changes in their behavior … and not for the better.
These army dogs had been right at the pointy end. In the thick of explosions, in the middle of firefights, and extreme violence. They saw death and injuries.
A typical PTSD picture is a dog who was once confident and capable of doing her job … becoming hyper-vigilant and anxious. And now unable to do tasks that she used to do with great drive and enthusiasm.
Yet, Canine PTSD can also be subtler and sometimes quite hard to pick up on. The symptoms aren’t always so obvious. Some dogs show subtle signs, or can shut down.
A dog who shuts down into a freeze response still lives a life of intense anxiety and suffering. But she may seem relatively normal.
What Does PTSD Look Like In Dogs?
If your dog has a traumatic experience while in your care, you’ll see changes in behavior or PTSD symptoms. I’ll go through these symptoms in more detail. They’re all related to your dog being triggered into … and then getting “stuck” in … an abnormal and enduring state of arousal.
For your dog, this arousal translates to fear or anxiety. If you’ve rescued a dog with PTSD whose history you don’t know, she’ll display signs that will help you see she needs help.
Traumatic events that can cause PTSD include:
- Any sort of accident or disaster – like a car crash, tornado, gunshot wound, or hit by a car.
- A dog attack, dog fight – especially dogs from dog fighting rings.
- Neglect, especially as a puppy. Most dogs from puppy mills have spent all or most of their life in a cage … with little or no loving contact from humans or other dogs. They’ll always have at least some level of PTSD.
- Racing. Most Greyhounds I treat have a lot of trauma, physical and mental or emotional.
- Physical or emotional abuse.
- Being abandoned or dumped.
- Losing their human or of their dog companions.
Sometimes things that may seem unimportant to you can cause significant trauma … especially if your dog is in a developmental fear period or is temperamentally fragile. This could be something as simple as a person accidentally bumping into your dog on the street.
Signs And Symptoms Of PTSD
The first and most important symptom that I see in dogs with PTSD is that they’re hyper-vigilant. These dogs are always on edge, continually on the lookout for danger. They seldom settle. And the smallest thing tends to trigger them into arousal … or over-arousal.
Over-arousal is when your dog’s fight-or-flight response activates. At this point her front brain switches off. She’s no longer able to respond to cues or to make rational decisions.
Some PTSD dogs will be relatively normal at home or even most of the time. They’re able to relax in the face of stimuli.
But if you take your dog into the context where the trauma happened … then your dog can instantly trigger into arousal or hyper-arousal. These situations might be something like seeing another dog on a leash walk … or fireworks going off.
In PTSD, the whole nervous system gets skewed towards fight-or-flight activation. Even when a traumatized dog rests, the sympathetic nervous system is already upregulated. This fight-or-flight state can become strongly activated with even a mild stimulus.
This abnormal state of persistent arousal can easily trigger into full blown over-arousal. Your traumatized dog usually experiences it as a state of extreme fear and anxiety.
It may even become uncontrollable panic.
What to look out for:
- Hyper-vigilance – inability to relax
- Shaking and trembling
- Severe anxiety
- Avoiding familiar areas where she used to be comfortable
- Hiding out of character or unpredictable aggression
- Shying away from people (may be more afraid of men, for example)
- Ears tight and pinned up on the top of the head
- Unable to respond to your cues
- Dilated pupils
- Hunched down body with tucked under tail
- Damage to the home when left alone
- Freeze or shutdown response to stimuli
The freeze or shutdown response can happen in dogs who have had severe trauma or long term abuse.
To survive, they have to enter a state of learned helplessness.
A lot of the dogs I treat freeze as soon as I touch them. I have to gently keep inviting them to relax and be present. (Be careful. Some of these dogs unfreeze instantly if you do something that breaks through this state. So they may bite without warning.)
How To Help Your Dog With PTSD Heal
Touch! Whenever your dog is in distress, stay calm, and connect with loving touch. Use a still hand, or very slow, deliberate movements.
Hands-on bodywork is a godsend for these dogs … especially very slow, gentle, firm strokes. Make sure you find a sensitive and kind practitioner though. If you have a dog who freezes and people push the work onto them, it can actually cause more harm.
Also be aware that with this work, when your dog starts to relax, she may feel very strange and unsafe. She’ll need to have regular bodywork over some time to really help. You’ll need to learn how to do this at home as well.
- Craniosacral work is fantastic. It helps to retrain the nervous system how to regulate into healthy relaxation. Again, you’ll need many sessions over time. Again, you’ll need many sessions over time.
- Energy healing such as Reiki or pranic healing.
- Feed a fresh raw whole foods diet.
- Gentle training to desensitize your dog to the triggering stimuli can be a great help. Be careful to never “flood” your dog or trigger the PTSD symptoms.
The most important thing to understand is that this is a long journey with your dog. Don’t expect quick fixes.
But … with love, care, time and patience you can make a huge positive change with your PTSD dog. Seeing a PTSD dog come out of her shell is so, so rewarding!