As much as we try to protect them, traumatic events can happen in our pets’ lives.
It could have been a dog attack, loss of a loved one, abuse in a previous home, or any of a number of other possibilities.
Regardless of the event, there are things you can do to help your dog through the trauma. Melina Snow, certified dog trainer and owner of OC Canine Solutions in Orange County, California, has worked with many dogs who have suffered trauma, including her own rescue dogs, through her dog training business and by working as a trainer for 4Life Animal Rescue in Orange County.
The Honest Kitchen: What kinds of traumas in dogs do you see?
Melina Snow: 4Life is so great in that they do not discriminate by a dog’s past, they instead look at the dog’s adoptability and potential to thrive in the right environment. If we are getting specific, I’ve seen everything in working with rescue dogs, from broken bones, burns, severe health problems left untreated, being tossed out of moving cars, shot by pellet guns, dogs left in trash dumpsters, living outside chained to trees in the hot sun and freezing cold, dogs who were forced to breed, fight, or guard, etc.
THK: What are some common emotional traumas experienced by dogs?
MS: Abandonment. Rescue is centered around animals who have lost their homes, are in unsafe homes, or have never even had a home, so I would say this is the most common trauma we see. Rescue often finds dogs left to starve in abandoned homes, suddenly dumped at a shelter, or thrown out the streets. Dogs don’t rationalize or have the capacity to understand the human’s struggle or decision-making process. They can feel abandoned and exiled by their pack, stressed, confused, scared, disoriented, etc.
Isolation. Dogs are pack animals. They need to migrate outdoors, socialize, exercise, play, and exchange affection to be balanced mentally, physically, and emotionally. They are not meant to be kept stagnant, in confinement, or in solitude. This is damaging psychologically and depending on the growth period/phase this trauma was inflicted, it can have long-term developmental effects.
Physical abuse. Just as it does for humans, physical abuse takes an emotional toll on dogs. Being hurt physically can also damage the spirit. The most disturbing factor is that dogs want to please their humans so badly that they will do almost anything asked of them. This means that humans who deliberately hurt dogs are taking advantage of their most endearing qualities of love and loyalty.
THK: What behavior problems can each of these emotional traumas lead to?
MS: With recurring abandonment we often see attachment and separation anxiety. Having been displaced repeatedly, the dog may latch on to the new owner and refuse to let them out of their sight. When the new owner must leave, the dog may believe that it will not survive without the person who provides all of its resources, and escalate to a state of panic. You might see panting, drooling, whining, pacing, dilated pupils. If a dog has anxiety, they will not be able to relax. If not addressed appropriately, the dog can hurt themselves trying to get out of a crate or home to get to the owner.
With dogs that have been extremely isolated we often see various neurotic and obsessive behaviors develop because they are so unfulfilled psychologically and physically that they have become unbalanced mentally. My clients often categorize these as “strange” or “peculiar" behaviors. Some common ones I find are spinning, chewing, constant barking, running in circles, shaking, etc. Depending on the timing, if the dog was isolated during important developmental stages, there is a possibility he can grow into adulthood severely unsocialized and unable to process the outside world. This can lead to unsocial and unfriendly behavior around other dogs and humans, on and off leash, simply because the dog was never exposed and taught to process and interact in healthy ways.
Physically abused dogs can exhibit a variety of effects and behaviors. It is common that after suffering physical abuse, a dog loses trust in dogs and/or humans and becomes fearful and/or shutdown. You may witness behaviors where the dog often retreats to find safe places to hide. The dog may prefer to keep to themselves and not interact much. The owner may notice extreme body language that can look very unsure and insecure with the tail between the legs, head low, tense curvature of body, and wide open eyes. The dog may tend to want their own personal space and prefer not to be touched. If provoked or approached the wrong way, the dog can react nastily by snarling, growling, biting, or nipping to get their space back. There can be issues with food, with relationships and interactions with people and other dogs, and unfortunately many other things.
THK: What are some tips for helping a dog work through trauma?
MS: Let it go. Be careful not to get stuck in the sad story. If you continue to retell your dog’s traumatic story to yourself and others, you will project that sadness onto him and he will feel like something is wrong with him. He will not understand why everyone looks at him with a sad face and feels badly. This is the opposite of the goal when working with a dog who has been through trauma, which is to rebuild confidence. Dogs are very present. They aren’t thinking about that sad old story, they are in the moment now. They are ready to move forward as soon as you are. So if your intentions are to actually help a dog progress, let it all go. Start writing the new story.
Be pack leader. A dog who has been let down by humans needs an example of one they can trust and follow. Find your leadership skills within and pledge to be your dog's leader, navigator, provider, and protector. Guiding a traumatized dog through life with direction and protection, granting them new confidence to experience life with is the greatest gift you can give them.
Find your calm and your confidence. This combination of energy is the best match for a traumatized dog. Dogs do not follow instability, tension, frustration, sadness, anger, etc.—it is all seen as weakness. Since they may be feeling extra sensitive or intense, excitement can cause anxiety and nervousness. Dogs follow calm/confident energy, this is what they see as safe and trustworthy. So if you are not naturally calm and confident (none of us are all the time), then this is where the “self-work” comes in to working with dogs. Always be aware of the energy and voice you are projecting and ask yourself whether it is helping or hindering progress.
Give the gift of space and time. Be aware that healing takes time and not all dogs want to be touched right away. Understandably they may need some extra time to get comfortable and trust a new human. When meeting a new dog, or when you have a new dog in your home, pay attention to their energy and body language. Sense if they are trying to communicate to you that they want and need space. If you feel the dog is asking you for these things you must respect it. It’s OK, do not take it personally. Don’t project pressure on them with your eye contact or your voice either, just give space and relax. This will help you earn trust. Let the dog come to you when they are ready. If you feel the body is relaxed, tail is wagging, and mouth is open and relaxed, and it is invited, you can then touch/pet.
Keep it in slow-mo. Working with dogs who are learning to trust again cannot be rushed. Find your most patient self, and always move slowly (literally and figuratively). Set goals for your work with your dog and create baby steps of progress in between. If you need help, call a trainer to partner up with and put an action plan in place together. Don’t push too much work too fast, you will set both yourself and the dog up to fail. Take pride in small accomplishments, give the dog plenty of rest, and try to end each session on a high note.
THK: Will all dogs who experience a trauma have behavior problems?
MS: No. Every dog is different. Depending on a dog’s genetic makeup, hardwiring, upbringing, and characteristics, he/she may process and respond to trauma on different levels. The level of residual effects will also fluctuate, or perhaps, not seem to be present at all. I’ve met many “happy go lucky” dogs who have an incredible talent for shaking things off and getting right back to happy.
THK: Is there anything that should be done for dogs who don’t display problems if you know they had a trauma?
MS: Yes. If your dog does not appear to be having any problems, please accept recognize this gift and move forward. For your dog’s sake, do not keep the story of the trauma alive and project the past onto him. Don’t feel badly for the dog, feel happy for him. Don’t feel nervous that something may surface, instead let it all go. You can actually manifest behavior problems with this anticipation. If he has moved on that means he is ready to rock his new life and you should join him in that. Even if there are physical scars, it is your job as his champion in life to not remind him and everyone else that they are there.
THK: What is the rate of full recovery?
MS: Full recovery depends on factors like the severity of the trauma, the extent of the conditioning of a bad state of mind, and the dog as an individual. But in cases that are not categorized as extreme I see incredible rates of full recovery. I believe this is due to a dog’s amazing capacity to move forward and live fully in the present. Dogs don’t waste any time or energy dwelling and feeling badly about past experiences like humans do. In most cases I do not see traumatic experiences dominate and take over the rest of a dog’s life. A more appropriate way to describe it is to say that it becomes part of the threading of their character. I see the traumas affect how they see the world and respond to it for a while.This where we come in: the rescuers, fosters, adopters, volunteers, trainers, behaviorists, pack leaders, and other balanced dogs who act as guides by facilitating new positive associations and life experiences for traumatized dogs to build upon.
It can take a village to see a dog through to the other side where they have recovered to be fully functional, balanced, and happy pets. But I will say that when the village comes together, I do see happy endings a majority of the time.
A trauma doesn’t have to dictate a dog’s life. With care and patience, you can help your pet move forward and never look back.
Jessica Peralta has been a journalist for more than 15 years and an animal lover all her life. She has had dogs, cats, birds, turtles, fish, frogs, and rabbits. Her current children are a German shepherd named Guinness and a black kitten named Riot (and he lives up to that name). It’s because of her love for animals that she focused her journalistic career to the world of holistic animal care and pet nutrition. In between keeping Riot and Guinness out of mischief, she’s constantly learning about all the ways she can make them healthier and happier.