5 Tips for Traumatized Dogs

In recent weeks, we’ve discussed fearful and brittle dogs. Some dogs can have the best start in life and still grow up with behavioral concerns. Other dogs missed out on critical socialization experiences as puppies, which impacted their development. But what about dogs who have had it even worse? How does trauma impact dogs?

Some of the dogs we take into our homes don’t just come from neglectful pasts but have lived with outright abuse. Sometimes this abuse has been due to mistreatment at the hands of a past owner, and sometimes it has happened in the current home despite to the owner’s very best intentions. Trauma has a lifelong impact on many dogs.

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Training is still an unregulated field, which means that there are still many so-called trainers who use aversive training techniques to address behavioral problems. There’s a reason why the AVSAB, the organization for the premier experts in animal behavior, has a position statement regarding the use of punishment in training. Manufacturing fear or avoidance in an already panicked animal does not create an environment where critical learning can take place. I’ve heard of trainers shocking dogs who suffer from separation anxiety for barking in their crates, hanging dog-aggressive dogs by their neck when they lunged at others, and strapping electronic collars to dogs’ genitals in the name of behavior modification.

Remember that you are your dog’s advocate. If something doesn’t seem right to you, it is up to you to put your foot down and protect your dog. Even something as seemingly mild as squirting a reactive dog with a water bottle or gently placing a frightened dog into a fear-inducing situation (such as setting a dog who is afraid of slippery floors onto the middle of the kitchen floor) and preventing that dog from leaving can have long-lasting consequences. While you may have had the best intentions when you followed the advice of the trainer on TV or tried a technique that your coworker swears by, if your dog responded by panicking or shutting down and if you’ve noticed that your dog’s behavior has deteriorated since that time, it’s possible that your dog could be experiencing a canine version of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD.

PTSD is most well-known as a disorder frequently experienced by veterans, but any survivor of trauma may experience the symptoms. Little is known about why some individuals experience symptoms that can range from mild to debilitating while others who were present in the same event can emerge unscathed.

Extreme fear oftentimes results in altered perceptions of the event. Triggers associated with the fearful event do not engage the hippocampus, which is usually responsible for memory, but rather the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions. Strong flashbacks to the original panic state can be instantaneous, and are not under the dog’s conscious control. Just as you’re unable to control the contraction or dilation of your pupils when you feel strong emotions, a dog experiencing Post Traumatic Stress symptoms such as this is absolutely unable to stop feeling the way he does in the moment.

The triggers for this flashback state may not make logical sense. Scents, textures, certain movements, and even the time of day can all trigger this instant fear reaction. While some triggers are easily explained, such as Layla flinching and dropping to the floor the first time I carried a rolled up newspaper into the house or a previous foster dog slinking away if he smelled alcohol on a visitor’s breath, others are less easy to tease apart and may never be completely identified. A foster dog several years ago would occasionally yelp when he was touched, even after soliciting attention, but the vet could find nothing physically wrong and his quick fear reaction never manifested twice when the same area of his body was touched. Another dog that I’m working with right now will begin trembling for no apparent reason several times a week, hiding under the bed and occasionally voiding her bladder in terror. While her owners are keeping diligent notes, they haven’t been able to pinpoint the source of these episodes.

If your dog has a history of trauma, whether suspected or confirmed, here are some guidelines to remember.

1. The dog determines what’s traumatizing, not you. While you may not have thought that holding your dog down for a simple nail trim was that big a deal, your dog may have a different opinion. Watch your dog’s body language for signs of stress such as lip licking, yawning, slower or faster movement, freezing, and turning away so that you can intervene if a situation starts to go south. Pushing through such situations can almost guarantee that they’ll create new fear triggers in many dogs.

2. Create safe places. One of the reasons that mat work is so very helpful for so many dogs is due to its clear structure of safety. By making the mat a positive place where treats, relaxation, and massage take place, we can create a positive conditioned emotional response to the mere presence of this training tool. Once the mat becomes a safe place, make sure to keep it that way. Don’t let anything bad happen to your dog on the mat. You can create other safe spaces as well – places in your dog’s environment where good things happen and where there is no pressure placed on the dog.

3. Give your dog choices. One of the fastest ways to traumatize any mammal is to take away all of his or her choices. Manufacture opportunities for your dog to make choices about his or her environment, schedule, and care as much as possible. Whether you let your dog decide which way to turn at the end of the block, wait for your dog to offer a foot for nail trimming, play with nose work, or give your dog several different beds to choose to sleep on, choice is hugely important. Set your dog up to make good choices, then reward those choices to build the dog’s confidence.

4. Always try to end on a good note. Research has shown that people who experienced identically unpleasant procedures created very different memories of those procedures depending on how traumatic the final moments of the procedure were. While we don’t know whether dogs have the same cognitive recall abilities, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try to make the last few seconds of any unpleasant experience as pleasant as possible. For example, Layla is very concerned about having her feet handled. I file her nails instead of clipping them because this is more comfortable for her, and she is in control of how fast or slow nail trimming sessions go. She is also free to leave at any time if she gets too scared. At the end of every nail-trimming session, I practice simply touching the nail file to her toenails for less than a second, followed by a food reward. Because each session ends with these quick successes, she’s more comfortable allowing me to handle her feet when it comes time for the next session.

5. Your dog is not his story. If your dog has a history of trauma, it’s important to be aware of that past, but equally important to help your dog succeed in the present. Too often, we get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves about our dogs’ pasts, and forget to pay attention to the animal in front of us. While trauma can have lasting consequences due to its huge impact on the way the brain develops and processes information, patient behavioral modification and an environment of safety can have equally powerful effects. See your dog for who he is in the moment, rather than who you expect him to be. He may surprise you.

If your dog has a history of trauma, make sure to read the posts on fearful and brittle dogs for more tips on helping him recover, and please share your stories in the comments below!

68 responses to “5 Tips for Traumatized Dogs

  1. My husband and I rescued our terrier Cole when he was 12 wks from our base shelter. What we were told when we received him was that his previous owners took a weed whacker to him and he had a huge chunk missing out of his side which we had to be careful about. Fast forward and he’s 20 wks now, a loving dog to everyone he meets, but is very jumpy and weird at certain things. He will not bark at all unless he’s playing with our GSD, not even in pain or excitement. He gets hesitant eating his food and it is difficult making him go outside or in his crate. He tends to pee when we sternly scold him and sometimes he flinches when you go to pick him up. Is there anything we can do to help him?

  2. This article was excellent!!!! I now know what to do with my brittle & fearful dog!!!! Understanding your dog’s actions makes it a lot easier to help him! Than you very much for helping me!!!!

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  4. Dana Hard Orlandi

    Thank you. I have a young little rescue who had puppies when she was very young and the puppies any get wewe picked up by animal control. She has been with me over a year and if still tranatized.. You gave me some very good ideas.

  5. Dana Hard Orlandi

    Thank you for some important information.

  6. My dog, Dino, was recently hit by a car last friday. He was hit on a street named Custer, which is a very busy street in which cars go 30-40 MPH. He got out of the hospital today but has so much trauma from the experience. Please, if you have any helpful tips or anything you can tell me that will help Dino, please e-mail tbethortiz@gmail.com

  7. Hi, my dog Pooh Bear is a chow chow and we got when he was about 4 months. He was rescued from a puppy mill, and we got him from a rescue place. However, we don’t know what happened at the puppy mill, but a lot of people like the vet and trainers think it’s because of trauma. He gets really frightened of almost anything, mainly his food bowl and water bowl. He’s so scared of it he won’t drink or eat for days.

    • Edit: I also forgot to mention any tips on how we can get him to stop being afraid small stuff like beds, bowls, and other stuff like sudden movements.

      • Sorry, I meant can you give me some tips thank you!

      • dog lover wife

        definitely wash the bowls frequently and ONLY use Stainless Steel all dogs even when when scrub clean the bowls do NOT like Plastic. so sensitive to smell and from warehouse factory,store,to your home to any other animals using it can leave a forever odor in it!!! again, even if its the dishwasher. water leaves a residue you have to wash water bowls to and always rinse well with both. Use a Britta filter for her water – heightened smells can be an issue.
        also, a height adjustment feedstation so the she doesnt have to eat upside down and try to gulp into her mouth helps. everyone should do it for all their animals, height makes a serious and helpful in neck, throat, digestion and eating.
        you can hand feed from the bowl passing it to her and allow her to eat from you like a baby would. they are your babies to and obviously she aching for some help. If she eats outta your hand soon enuf and at her height if she likes the food she next take a bite herself from the bowl. i also have a pet that if i leave the room, no matter how hungry he stops and follows me and lays in the room with me. totally ceasing on food and water.
        they suck up allot of pain and wont show it, so when they do its definitely a issue.. She could be injured, head or neck and it hurts to feed. or possibly a tooth problem, or splinters wedged. will need a vet check. :-(
        if they dislike the smell of anything your feeding they wont eat it. buy good food and read the labels. most have to many fillers ! spent over an hour in the store reading 2 side by side labels of all food. Purina One was the Best at real ingredients at petsmart. just because something costs more doesnt mean its better. chicken and beef are good. duck and turkey have a very extreme scent. most dont like it. chicken, beef and turkey are good – read the labels.
        nothing wrong with hand feeding, your baby will be so weak and dehydrated from not eating and drinking and then to sick and tired to try. nothing is going to work without your help and reading her body language. and all the stores will allow you to return and exchange any cans undamaged. have to be careful how often you change food because that will make them sick. shocking her digestion process.
        *** Summary: Feed quality, stainless steel only (clean frequently), and never leave or feed outside. check for injuries and teeth. Feeding station to her neck and face height.
        She could have a blockage or stomach issue.
        most dogs wont eat without going the bathroom first. No INPUT without OUTPUT first!!! fastest way, great walk outside because of the different smells she should go to the bathroom to leave her mark. and you can take it to the vet, have it checked for worms and all the other stuff, they do in a lab when checking poop.
        its a serious issue is she isnt drinking any water either – dehydration for our lil ones has serious consequences and can shut down her kidneys or cause kidney disease and that may not be reversable and issue for life.
        Put in the time and watch reactions! keep a small diary timetables of all habits, water, food, peeing and pooping. food brands and reactions. very helpful for you or vet. im concerned for overall health !

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  9. A couple months ago, I took my dog outside at night to use the restroom before we went to sleep and I noticed he didn’t come back when I called him. I called his name and I didn’t get anything. So I went out and search and nothing. Until I heard him yelping and yelping like I have never before heard. Like screams it was horrible I ran to where the noise was at and saw a man in a truck get out and start defending my dog from .. get this .. three coyotes. I live in a suburb area and never would I guessed coyotes were near by. My dog got a open space and ran home and I mean ran while there was a coyote still after him. I followed him back home trying to keep the coyote from getting him. And we both made it home only I found him just sitting all weak with holes on his body… bite marks. One on both sides of his arm and on his neck. I tried cleaning him up but he would yelp everytime I put pressure. It was the worse and I mean worse day I’ve ever experienced. Even worse my dog is small he’s a mix of a chihuahua and terrier. With careful nursing and care he showed improvement within a few days in about a week he was able to walk pretty normal. And in a month he was running around the yard. Only till now 4 months since the attack every once in a while when he’s asleep he starts shaking even when it’s warm. And begins breathing heavy. And when I give him a little tap he doesn’t move so I know he is deep into a sleep even when I call his name. So I give him a little nudge and move him a little bit so he can wake up. Not often it happens but that day it was traumatizing for me I cannot imagine it how it must be for him. But he’s getting there

  10. need leptospirosis shot, and outdoor vaccines for bite woods and his lifetime.

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