Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Dogs

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Usually when I write or talk about Ray, I stick to the positive.  He has come so far from where he started.  He is wiggly, happy and loving.  Ray likes nothing more than walking down to the sanctuary lunchroom to see who he can meet.  He willingly walks up to strangers, tailing wagging, expecting love and attention.  Sometimes I have to remind him that not everyone wants to meet him.  The Village (as our lunchroom is called) is one of Ray’s happy places.  Nothing bad has ever happened to him there, and he is confident and full of joy.  Cars are another happy place.  He will jump into a car with anyone, just happy to watch the world go by as he rides along.

But for a dog who has suffered severe emotional and physical abuse, things are not always so happy.  There are times that Ray suffers from what can only be described as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Until recently, PTSD was not a recognized condition for dogs.  But as more canine soldiers are serving in combat, veterinarians and behaviorists are seeing an increase in behavior that can only be explained as PTSD.  In humans PTSD manifests as anxiety lasting more than 3 months, hyper-vigilance, avoidance of frightening stimuli, nightmares, trouble sleeping and weight loss.  Many dogs who have been traumatized show the exact same symptoms.

During times of extreme stress our brains (and our dog’s brains) release catecholamines, which are hormones secreted by the adrenal gland, like dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol.  High, intense, on-going levels of these chemicals can actually change our brains.  We have seen it in humans, especially soldiers or victims of extreme child abuse.  Now veterinarians are seeing it in dogs who have been traumatized by combat, aggressive training methods, accidents, or long-term abuse or neglect.

Signs that can indicate a dog is suffering from PTSD include reactions to stimuli that are excessive for the situation.  Hyper-vigilance, severe separation anxiety, avoidance of certain sounds, sights or stimuli and inability to eat when stressed can also be symptoms of this disorder.  Not every dog who has separation anxiety has PTSD…we are talking about a behavior that is so extreme it interferes with a dog’s ability to enjoy life.  My daughter had a dog that she adopted from the shelter who had been shot multiple times.  Loch would jump out of a two story window if she was over stressed.  This is not normal behavior.  The dog was so panicked she lost any sense of self-preservation.

Ray suffers from PTSD.  99.99% of the time he is a happy, loving little brown dog.  But he can change in an instant if the right stimulus occurs.  In Ray’s case it is sound.  He cannot tolerate the sound smoke detector’s chirping or a bell like a desk bell at a motel.  Many dogs don’t like the sound of smoke detectors beeps.  What makes Ray’s response PTSD is the extreme level of behavior this sound elicits.  If Ray hears a ding or chirp he loses his mind.  He goes into full panic flight mode.  He will attempt to flee, through windows or doors if necessary.  He will climb to the highest level he can reach. You can’t talk to him when he is like that.  You can’t pet him or calm him down.  You have to remove him from the situation and give him time to decompress.

Yesterday I made the mistake of down-loading Facebook Messenger to my cellphone.  I had no idea that the alert of a new message would be a ding.  Ray was fast asleep in his crate in my office when my phone dinged.  He went into an immediate panic.  Turning off my phone didn’t help.  I had to leash him up and take him for a long walk, until he could calm down.

I don’t know what that sound means to Ray.  It has to be tied to his past abuse.  His sister Layla would react similarly when she heard the clink of metal on metal.  I had to remove her tags so that they didn’t accidentally clink against her water pail when she drank.  Handsome Dan’s mom Heather wrote an amazing piece on Dan’s reaction to a piece of paper.  All we know is these dogs have something in their past so traumatic that 8 years later they still aren’t able to deal with it.

So, how do you deal with a case of PTSD in dogs?  There are 3 major treatments available:

  1. Drug therapy.  There are medications available to help keep a dog calm.  We tried some for Ray, but they also depressed his exuberant personality.  That wasn’t OK.
  2. Behavioral training to desensitize the dog to the negative stimuli.  With some dogs this works really well.
  3. Try to manage the environment to reduce the chance of the negative stimuli occurring.  This is the method we have found works best for us.

Last week Ray stopped wanting to jump into the car in the morning. This was a strange enough behavior that I had to figure out what was going on. There were a couple of times that he tried to climb into my lap while I was driving.  What in the heck was going on? There is a particular show that I love to listen to on our daily commute.  I had to listen carefully, but then I heard it…the sound of a “ding” had been added to their sound effects.  That sound was ruining one of Ray’s favorite activities…riding in the car.  Needless to say, I haven’t listened to that show since.  I also uninstalled Facebook Messenger immediately.  Ray loves to come with me to the office.  I cannot let a negative sound ruin his enjoyment of what has always been a safe place.

It is our job as caregivers to keep Ray’s world as safe and comfortable as possible.  His panic responses are now few and far between as we have become more sensitive to what causes them.   Seeing our silly little brown dog happy is worth any amount of vigilance necessary for his peace of mind.

If you suspect your dog is suffering from PTSD you should immediately seek professional assistance.  A good veterinarian and a behavioral specialist can help you improve your dog’s quality of life immeasurably.

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9 thoughts on “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Dogs

  1. My foster dog likely has some level of PTSD. He was a stray rescued from a foreign country where eating dog meat is still an acceptable practice. His trigger is the beam of a flashlight. He will have what can only be described as a panic attack. He attempts to escape and if he can’t, he continues to escalate his escape attempts until he becomes self-injurious. I presume flashlights were used to hunt for dogs, however, it’s an assumption and I can’t be sure. All I know is that we have to walk in the dark at night so he feels safe.

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  2. PTSD is real in dogs. I have seen it with Little Red when something frightens her so much that she shuts down completely. She will turn her back to the room and simply go deep inside of herself. She blocks out the world. It can break your heart but I have been able to hold her and help her return to the here and now with love, patience and time. Thank you Jacque for writing so eloquently about this disorder.

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    1. Thank you both Jacque and Susan for taking on the enormous responsibility that dogs of this magnitude deserve. You both are amazing women and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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  3. Thank you, this is excellent!! Our girl Lady Luck has sounds that really bother her,too. We do not know her past circumstances so it is hard to say why those bug her!! thank you again, glad to call you a friend!! Susan

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  4. Thank you for bringing to light something I never would have imagined. I can’t even begin to think of what those dogs went through. Thank the good Lord for people like you and Best Friends. The first thing I thought regarding the ding, would be if they had a bell in the dog fighting ring. Thank you again for your excellent article. I love hearing about the Vicktory dogs.

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    1. I thought the same thing…probably rang a bell or something, the dogs released & fighting. He probably hears that sound & scared he’ll have to defend his life again. So sad ti think about what that monster did to them & THEY live with the aftermath for the rest of their lives & meanwhile Mr Football gets his life back just like it was. Even rubbing elbows with mr pres of USHS. Disgusts me to no end

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  5. Thank you for this excellent article! I had been talking about PTSD in dogs relating to a dog in our rescue group, but I didn’t know very much about it. My own foster from a shelter, was taken away from her “owner” for unknown to me reasons. She is very hyper-vigilant and hates the car. This article is a good start to further research on what her triggers might be.

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