Fearful dogs & trauma & abuse

traffic sign black arrow red arrowEarly on in my search for information to help me understand my fearful dog someone sent me a paper on the effects of abuse and trauma on children. I would thank her and share the paper if I remembered who it was and hadn’t given my only copy of it away. Sorry.

This was a pivotal event for me. I realized that my efforts to change Sunny’s behavior were secondary to my ‘understanding’ of why he was behaving the way he was. I don’t mean that I needed to know the exact events he experienced. Many owners of fearful dogs believe that if only they knew what happened to their dog they could more easily ‘cure’ them. While knowing a dog’s history is helpful, one need not know the specifics of the dog’s experience to understand how to work with the dog.

In Sunny’s case, he did not have the opportunity to experience novel and enriching events when he was a pup. That’s all it takes to mess up a dog’s brain. From here on in many or most of the ‘normal’ experiences a dog is going to have can be traumatic for them. If more people understood this puppymills and backyard breeders would go out of business. These dogs are born into deprivation. Imagine someone trying to sell cars that on any given day were built when half the workers who assembled them were absent. You wouldn’t know whether all the parts were securely attached, or there at all. At least with a car, if the deficit doesn’t get you killed you can have it repaired. It’s not that easy with an animal. A recent study shows that dogs in mills suffer lasting psychological damage.

Here is a list of signs and symptoms of early childhood traumatic stress. Most could be applied to dogs suffering from fear based behavior challenges.

There are a variety of therapies available to people who want to change how they behave. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of them. Even though we do not have the option of speaking (and reasoning) with our dogs to help them change how they think about things, it is worth understanding how cognitive behavioral therapy is applied. I cannot ask my fearful dog to take a deep breath and consider how what he is thinking is affecting his behavior, but I can interact with him and manipulate his environment so that his emotional response to things changes.

CBT is a collaborative effort between the therapist and the client. Cognitive-behavioral therapists seek to learn what their clients want out of life (their goals) and then help their clients achieve those goals. The therapist’s role is to listen, teach, and encourage, while the client’s roles is to express concerns, learn, and implement that learning.*

We can suggest that when a person looks at a cheesecake and rather than responding to the mouth watering appeal of the pastry, envisions the damage the pastry can do to their arteries. Instead of putting it into their shopping cart they head to the fruit aisle and choose an alternative. With our dogs we need to find ways we can make alternative behaviors and responses rewarding to them. When people appear I ask Sunny to get his frisbee so he can play (this seems to be his main goal in life). Though Sunny is still startled and scared by the appearance of people, this response has diminished in intensity and more quickly switches to a more neutral or positive response.

But change isn’t easy. Imagine how you respond when you hear the sound of fingernails scrapping on chalkboard. If you’re like me, even thinking about it elicits a feeling of chills. Now imagine someone expecting you to stop feeling that way, because they think you should. How successful is that going to be? How successful are they going to be by threatening you to stop cringing and covering your ears? How are you going to feel about them if they forced you to sit there and listen to sound of fingernails on a chalkboard over and over again?

Fearful dogs are suffering and many of the ways they are handled and trained contribute to this suffering. If you stop and think about it, you may be able to change your behavior and achieve goals that both you and your dog probably have in common.


17 comments so far

  1. Lorie Huston on

    What a wonderful post, Debbie! So many people never realize how much fearful dogs suffer. And it just blows my mind that anyone would think that punishing a dog for being afraid could possibly help the situation. But nevertheless, it happens all the time.

    Your comments about cognitive behavioral therapy were very interesting. Thank you for taking the time to discuss that.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Lorie. It is ironic to me that even those of us who care so much and feel so deeply for our dogs, do not fully comprehend the impact a dog’s emotions have on them. But I’ve also found it doesn’t take much for the penny to drop. Most of the people I speak with were looking for permission to stop punishing and scaring their dog in the name of training.

      • mynameisbalkan on

        I’m one of those people who were looking for permission to stop punishing and scaring my newly acquired fearful friend.
        Debbie – I don’t think I can say thank you enough.
        One of the things which has helped is reading the other journey blogs and so have started one for Balkan.
        I’m just trying to work out how to do it but – like with Balkan – I’ll get there!

      • fearfuldogs on

        Fabulous that you are joining the shy dog blogging club!

  2. Kristine on

    This is really interesting, but all your posts are. I do believe dogs and humans have a lot in common, perhaps dogs and human children even more so. I’ve always found it helps to put myself in my dog’s place to understand a little more how she feels in situations she finds scary. Such as when a dog is barking at her from behind a fence.

    I’ve been a bit curious about CBT after a friend of mine said it really helped her with anxiety. I can definitely understand how an application of the same could help a fearful dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Kristine. Dogs and people share many parts of the brain, so in some cases it is reasonable to make assumptions about what they are experiencing. Fear is one response that may be similar.

      I have also heard positive things about CBT for helping people and liked the idea that the goal of the therapist is to work with their clients to help them change.

  3. honeysjourney on

    Another inspirational post. I saw a documentary on TV, taped it and watched it several times. The title is “Tusks and Tattoos” the story of a Biker guy who happened on an animal sanctuary in Southern California and started working there. In the sanctuary there was a retired circus elephant chained to the floor by his ankle, like most circus elephants. He asked if he could work with the elephant, who happened to have a bad temper regarding humans and no one could handle the big guy. The fist thing this man did was to chain himself to the floor by his ankle and spent the night sleeping with the elephant, just to see what it was like so he could try and understand what the elephant’s current life was like. Fast forward to the end of the documentary, The two of them ended up being inseparable. Not only was the elephant’s life better, the man’s outlook on life changed too.

    I also believe we MUST do our best to see the big scary world from the dog’s point of view.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I am tempted to see if I can find that documentary but I imagine I’d sob through it George! Physical restraint seems a sure way to drive any creature crazy.

  4. Lizzie on

    Debbie, you must read ‘The Boy who was Raised as a Dog’ by Bruce Perry, if you haven’t already!

    I know I, and others have mentioned this before, but it helped me a great deal to understand just how Gracie must feel and more importantly, why.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you! I needed a book to read. I’ve been listening to my ipod too much in bed.

  5. melfr99 on

    Great post Debbie. I have often compared my dogs to children when explaining behavior to my clients. I think it’s helpful for people to understand how similar they can be when it comes to trauma or fear.

    At one time, I also thought if only I had known Daisy’s background I could have helped her better at the beginning, but now I think it would have hindered me more. Based on our experiences together, I think I know enough. Thankfully, she has made more progress than I ever could have hoped. Knowing that is enough.

    Thanks to Lizzie for the book recommendation! I’ll have to check it out.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes if you can get people to think about their dog’s behavior in relation to that of non-verbal children it can help. It’s not the same as thinking of their dog as a child. And good luck with that! Though I suppose worse things could happen.

  6. Martina Annelie on

    Hi Debbie, what a great post!
    For many years I have been working with humans who survived trauma, using EFT and Energy Psychology. Then people came up to me asking for treatment for their traumatised dogs and horses. I started working with them and found that Energy Psychology works very well for animals who were traumatised as well. To cut a long story short, I finally wrote a book on Dogs and Trauma. To my knowledge this is the first book dealing with canine trauma survivors, explaining how trauma creates symptoms, how to recognize trauma in you dog and how you can help him. The book will be out by the end of the month. I thought you might be interested to know.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for getting in touch Martina and I’m excited to learn more about your book!

  7. Martina Annelie on

    As soon as it is out I will let you have an introductory one page report. I am very excited about sharing it! Keep up the good work!

    • Lizzie on

      I too am keen to know more about your book Martina.

      Does it have a title and will it be available in the UK?

  8. Martina Annelie on

    Lizzie, it will be an e-book and availiable from my site. It describes the neuro – physiological changes which are caused by trauma, in humans as well as dogs, helps people recognize trauma in their dogs and suggests ways to prevent traumatisation. Once it is out I am going to publish something on trauma treatments for dogs and other animals.
    It is such an important field. I think that lots of the emotional issues dogs have to deal with are caused by trauma – the same is the case in humans.

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