Thursday, May 12, 2016

Does PTSD Cause Brain Damage in Dogs?

How to Restore Brain Plasticity in Dogs With PTSD

“PTSD, depression, and other psychiatric disorders cause what is called ‘negative neuroplasticity,’ including activation of abnormal circuitry in the brain, and strengthening of those circuits over time. They also cause shrinkage … and decreased connectivity between parts of the brain.”                        —David J. Hellerstein, M.D.

How Common Is PTSD in Pet Dogs?
Post traumatic stress disorder is probably much more common in dogs than most people realize. We tend to think that it’s only found in military service personnel, including canine members of the armed services. But deeply stressful events have a lasting negative effect on brain plasticity and learning even in pet dogs. This is often clear in dogs who’ve suffered physical abuse by their owners (or trainers), but can also be seen in some dogs who’ve suffered a serious illness during their fear or social developmental phases and had to be kept in a kennel at the vet’s office for an extended period, or dogs who’ve been traumatized by attacks from other dogs, etc. Stress is the common denominator, not necessarily exposure to violence or physical trauma.

Of course, just as in humans, not all dogs experience stress in the same way. Some are more sensitive than others. But those that are more sensitive are deeply affected by stressful events, and can develop some symptoms that are quite similar to those found in human beings who suffer from PTSD, including neurological damage and memory loss.

One of the characteristics of PTSD is that the original trauma is continually re-experienced by the victim. And each time the stress response is triggered, or re-triggered, a cascade of hormones and neurochemicals are released into the bloodstream, causing oxidative stress resulting in brain damage. This damage to neural circuitry makes PTSD one of the most difficult psychological illnesses to treat.

Stress and Neuronal Toxicity
Neuroscientist J. Douglas Bremmer writes: “Stress in animals is associated with damage to neurons in the CA3 region of the hippocampus … and inhibition of neurogenesis [new cell growth].” Bremmer also says that high levels of glucocorticoids (via the body’s stress response) are also associated with deficits in new learning. [1]

Glucocorticoids—released during stress-related experiences—in turn cause an increase in glutamate, an amino acid that plays a key role in facilitating long-term connections between neurons, connections that are vital to learning and memory. This suggests that the more stress a dog experiences during a traumatic experience, the stronger his memory of a stressful event becomes and the more difficult it is to restore normal working memory, not to mention normal emotional and behavioral function. This is why it’s not only difficult to keep the dog who suffers from PTSD from over-reacting to certain triggers, it can also be difficult to teach him new behaviors as well.

Mind you, I’m paraphrasing and condensing some very complicated research into what I hope are easily understood bytes of information. But what essentially happens is that the fear circuits (connecting the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus), which are normally capable of being inhibited to some degree by the impulse control centers in the prefrontal cortex, create a kind of semi-permanent loop, blocking the higher parts of the brain from exerting impulse control while decreasing the ability of the hippocampus to provide normal working memory.

The dog’s ability to control his behavior is reduced dramatically. He’s classified as a “reactive” dog, or out-of-control, or hyper-vigilant.

Exposure Therapy or Play Therapy?
It may seem strange but some human victims of PTSD—specifically military personnel—have had their symptoms moderated a great deal, and in some cases apparently cured, by playing violent, virtual reality video games like Halo.

Some in the field believe that these games act as a form of “exposure therapy,” where the patient confronts a feared thought, image or memory associated with a past traumatic event. I’m not convinced that that’s true. I think what’s needed is research on whether these games can also facilitate healing in cases of PTSD that don’t involve combat, such as victims of sexual abuse, or witnesses of a major tragedy, etc.

Another possible way of determining if it's the content of the game or the act of playing that has a moderating effect on PTSD symptoms would be to have military or ex-military personnel play violent virtual reality games set in a make-believe world of sword and sorcery, as in the Warcraft series.

Play of any kind, and in any species, always has an element of aggression built into it. This is as true of a game of chase at the dog run as it is of working the controls of a violent video game. What differentiates play from actual aggression is the lack of real danger to the players: the moment fear enters the equation, the fun stops.

Another aspect of play is the mostly unconscious process of pattern recognition, a process that also tends to release dopamine, one of the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals. The more complicated the game (up to a point), the more dopamine is released and the better it feels to play. Plus, generally speaking, the more playful a dog is the more resilient and adaptable he is as well.

When working with dogs who have PTSD I’ve found that play is an essential part of the healing process. In some cases it can be play with other dogs, but the most important type involves the owner or trainer playing games like fetch and tug-of-war, where the dog gets to bite a toy, preferably as hard as he can. The harder a dog can bite a toy in play, the more pleasurable, and the more therapeutic it is for him.

There are caveats, of course. The dog has to “know it’s a game.” If the dog takes things too seriously, it’s only a matter of time before he flips over into real aggression. So if your dog doesn’t know it’s just a game, DON’T PLAY until you can get him to relax. The way to recognize the difference is in how tense or relaxed the dog’s body seems during play.

How do you do get a tense dog to relax?

You have to work very slowly, never act in a threatening manner toward the dog (this includes things like scolding or correcting the dog physically). You also have to find ways to gently activate the dog’s urge to play without reaching or even coming near his threshold. This means you work in small increments. Very small.

It also means that you can’t take things too seriously yourself. You have to relax as well. Long, protracted moments of just being with the dog, and deep tissue massage of a dog’s shoulders and haunches can be very therapeutic. So can Tellington Touch techniques.

It’s also important to remember that in cases of PTSD, the dog’s “fear circuits” are capable of overriding his “pleasure circuits” in a heartbeat. But if you can generate a feeling of trust, and a deep emotional bond with the dog, he’ll slowly gravitate more and more toward wanting to feel pleasure than to re-live his old fears.

There’s another important feature built into play; it requires high levels of impulse control. And finally, rough-and-tumble outdoor play tends to release tremendous amounts of BDNFs—brain-derived neurotrophic factors—associated with brain plasticity. Depending on how much trauma the dog has experienced, I believe it’s possible that just by getting a dog with PTSD to play with you outdoors, you can begin to reverse some of the brain damage and cognitive deficits that might otherwise make the dog’s recovery seemingly impossible.

Is that all there is to it?

No, there are a few other tricks I find helpful.

Transitional Objects, Fear, and Impulse Control
Always remember that the dog with PTSD doesn’t have the same capacity for impulse control, or for learning new behaviors, as a dog who hasn’t been traumatized. That doesn’t mean he can’t learn impulse control. It just means you have to take things more slowly.

When my dog Freddie was having panic attacks I found two strategies that helped him with his symptoms during the period where I was slowly working on getting him to play with me, and teaching him impulse control tasks. One was barking on command (fighting the fear), and the other was carrying a pacifier in his mouth on our walks.

Whenever Freddie went into his panic state—which could be triggered by any number of noises—I would tell him to “Speak!” As soon as he barked he went from being a terrified pooch—ears back, shoulders down, tail tucked, trying to run off in any direction—to his usual self.

This works better in cases of fear than it does with dogs whose PTSD manifests as aggression. But it still works.

The other tactic I took was having him carry a toy of some sort in his mouth. I got the idea from seeing how some dogs I knew tended to seem less anxious when their owners let them carry a tennis ball or other object around in their mouths. It worked wonders for Freddie, and many other dogs as well.

I’ve found that by using these strategies—taking things slowly, earning the dog’s trust, teaching the dog to play, using transitional objects, and teaching impulse control—I seem to have been able to reverse symptoms of PTSD in some dogs completely.

I hope these ideas can help your dog as well.

“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

1) "Traumatic stress: effects on the brain," J. Douglas Bremmer, MD; Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, December, 2006.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Free Workshop on Diagnosing and Treating Canine PTSD

The next free workshop on diagnosing and treating Canine PTSD will be held on Sunday, November 26th, 2017, at Whiskers Holistic Pet Care, 235 East 9th Street, New York, NY, from 2 - 5 P.M.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Oxytocin & PTSD

How Oxytocin Has On Adverse Effect on Dogs With PTSD

What Is Oxytocin?
You may have heard about oxytocin, a neuropeptide that facilitates social bonding in mammals. For instance, some studies show that when we pet our dogs it increases blood-serum levels of oxytocin in both the dog and owner. Oxytocin is also released when dogs and dog owners make eye contact. Other studies show that reducing levels of oxytocin causes normally monogamous prairie voles, who usually mate for life, to become promiscuous, while increasing oxytocin levels cause normally promiscuous prairie voles to become faithful companions. Oxytocin has also been connected with feelings of trust and generosity.

Oxytocin is a neuro-chemical, a hormone found in mammals, which is released in both males and females. But women have a stronger response to its effects because oxytocin is enhanced by estrogen. The corollary of oxytocin in men is vasopressin. Its primary functions are water retention and constriction of blood vessels. It also has an influence on male sexual and social behaviors as well as paternal feelings.

Oxytocin also facilitates childbirth by causing the uterus to contract and helps shrink the uterus after delivery. Oxytocin is also released when a newborn suckles at his mother’s breast. It also promotes the emotional bond that takes place between mother and child. For instance, female rats generally dislike newly born rat pups. But after they’ve given birth, they develop strong feelings of attachment for them.

When a child is born, the interactions between mommy and baby cause an increase in the infant’s levels of the hormone, creating a kind of oxytocin glow, ensuring that mother and child will form a deep and lasting bonds.

Oxytocin levels go up five-fold during sex. In men, however, they drop almost immediately afterwards while vasopressin levels go up, which explains why men often feel a sudden sense of separateness from their partners after sex.

The Dark Side of Oxytocin
In the summer of 2013 the owners of a dog I had been working with for several years had a baby. Early in his life, this dog developed PTSD as a result of serious abuse by his original owner (a male). Before the birth of their child the dog had been very careful not to exhibit any aggression toward the husband, but was biting the wife, his dog walkers, and me. Strangely enough after the baby was born, the dog began acting in a very, though obsessively “loving” manner toward the wife and baby, but became guarded and aggressive toward the husband, a complete turnaround.

Before the baby was born the couple expressed their concerns that the dog might want to bite the baby. I told them I didn’t think that would happen because, as far as I knew, oxytocin would probably have a calming effect.

Within a few weeks, though, a strange thing happened, one that I hadn’t anticipated. The dog developed a kind of obsession for mother and baby. He couldn’t be separated from them. If left alone he would whine and cry. When he was with them, he was constantly trying to lick the baby’s toes and skin and fingers. This suggested to me that oxytocin was at work, creating a bond between dog, mother and child. However, it wasn’t a healthy kind of bond at all. Like I said, the dog seemed obsessed.

Then another strange thing took place. Whenever the husband was home, especially when he was interacting with mommy and baby the dog became extremely agitated and began growling and snarling at him, something he’d never done before. They thought he was “protecting” the baby. Strangely enough (or perhaps not so strangely), the dog was fine when he was alone with the husband. They got along very well. The dog only became agitated when the four or them were together: mommy, daddy, baby and doggie.

I suggested that they keep the dog crated when the husband was home with the baby. And that the husband should take the dog on long walks, play fetch and tug with him outdoors, and work on getting him to hold a long down/stay.

Then, a week or so later I came across a study showing that oxytocin can sometimes re-awaken and even strengthen memories of past abuse. (“Fear-enhancing effects of septal oxytocin receptors;” Nature Neuroscience, 2013.)   

“Oxytocin is usually considered a stress-reducing agent based on decades of research,” said Yomayra Guzman, the study's lead author. “With this novel animal model, we showed how it enhances fear rather than reducing it, and where the molecular changes are occurring in our central nervous system.”

“So that’s what’s going on,” I thought. The poor dog’s PTSD has come back to haunt him. He’s like the war veteran who hears the sounds made by a local news helicopter, and, in his mind, he’s instantly transported back to the battlefield. This dog felt he was back in his original home with his original, abusive owner. He didn’t see the husband coming home to hurt the baby. He didn’t see the husband at all, at least not while he was near the mother and baby. All he saw was his original attacker coming to attack him.

This is a very important point, because dogs form basic templates in their minds based primarily on emotional valences. This is why, for instance, a very smart border collie featured in a famous Youtube video (above), keeps dropping a stick at the feet of a statue of Alan Turing, hoping to get the statue to throw the stick for him to chase. He doesn’t see the statue, he sees a template of a human being (or humanoid) sitting in a position that indicates he’s ready to play with the dog. For dogs, deeply emotional past experiences—positive or negative—outweigh present circumstances.

The dog's owners decided that the dog needed to stay with me for a while, so that I could work out some of the emotional kinks in his system. They were right. As long as the memories of past abuse were constantly being re-triggered in the now-moment by the oxytocin—which dissipates within a few months after child birth—it would be a losing battle.

So I began doing the 5 Core Exercises with him again, deliberately putting the dog in stressful situations, initially just mildly stressful. Then I steadily and gradually started injecting more and more stress into the mix so as to increase his carrying capacity.

He’s fine now, by the way, a much different dog. We’ll see if that changes if his owners decide to have another child. 

But I dont think it will.

Lee Charles Kelley
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

Update: They had a baby girl in November, 2017. And everything is fine with the dog, mommy, daddy, and the now 4-year old boy. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Is It Possible to Cure Canine PTSD? Yes!

Why Do Veterinary Behaviorists Believe That Canine PTSD Can’t Be Cured?

The Dogs of War 
If you’re interested in understanding or learning more about Canine PTSD, there’s a wonderful film about post-traumatic stress in military dogs called The Dogs of War, produced and directed in 2013 by Kristen Kiraly. Kiraly was a student filmmaker at the time and she did a fabulous job. You should definitely take the time to watch it. [1] 

Two things stood out for me when I watched the film. The first is that the main dog profiled—a retired military detection dog named Bix—seemed to always be carrying a tennis ball around in his mouth. [2] According to his adoptive owner, this helped calm his nerves. 

The other thing that stuck out was that the military’s top expert on PTSD in dogs, Dr. Walter Burghardt, former chief of behavioral medicine and military working dog studies at Holland Air Force Base in Lackland Texas (now retired) says that PTSD in dogs can only be treated, it can’t be cured.

In a December 1, 2011 New York Times article Dr. Nicholas Dodman said the same thing to reporter James Dao. “Asked if the disorder could be cured, Dr. Dodman said probably not. ‘It is more management,’ he said. ‘Dogs never forget.’” 

Or do they? 

Aggression Cures Fear 
My first experience with treating Canine PTSD came in 1994 when my Dalmatian Freddie began having panic attacks about a week or so following a series of deeply traumatic events, triggered initially by the loud sound of a store gate being pulled down right next to where he was standing with me on the sidewalk, and ending with him running from Second Avenue all the way to Central Park. He hid out there for three nights until a woman walking her dog found him early on a Sunday morning and called me after seeing one of the flyers Id put up.

With the kind generosity of Kevin Behan—creator of Natural Dog Training—and a few tricks I discovered on my own (based on my understanding of Behans philosophy) and a little help from a Sheltie named Duncan—I was able to manage Freddie’s symptoms, though like Drs. Dodman and Burghardt I wasnt able to totally cure Fred.

The cure came when Behan suggested a technique similar to one I’d come across before, in a book on SchutzHund, where the dog is fasted overnight and kept in his crate about 4 hours before an obedience trial. This is done to increase the dogs drive. Kevin’s idea was a bit more extreme. He suggested that I fast Freddie for two days, then tie him to a post or a fence while a helper and I threw a ball or toy back and forth, right in front of his nose, until he became highly motivated to bite the ball. Once he was fixated on biting the ball, Kevin said I should release him from the fence, then throw the ball for him to chase and bite.

Once I got over my reluctance to fast Fred, and finally did the exercise, he never had another panic attack for as long as he lived and he was 15 when he passed away in 1997.

The reason this worked is because of three simple psychological principles and one principle of physics. The first is what Behan calls “Pavlovian Equivalencies,” the fact that there’s virtually no difference between physical and emotional memory. Pavlov’s dogs didn’t salivate as a conscious response to external stimuli, they responded through gut feelings. The second principle is the Freudian concept of repressed emotion (referred to by Behan as unresolved emotion). The third is the idea that a full release of unresolved emotion requires a level of intensity similar to that of the precipitating event (or catharsis). And the fourth is the principle that energy (in this case emotional energy) always has to go to ground.

So in Freddie’s case you have a dog whose physical/emotional memories of a traumatic event—one he couldn’t fight back against—were being re-triggered on a daily basis by a constant cacophony of street noises. Some of the techniques I used to prevent this from happening—having him bark at the noises, having him carry a toy on our walks—worked amazingly well, but didn’t t resolve the problem entirely; it was management, not resolution.

Since Fred was unable to bite or bark at the actual thing that originally scared him, the energy of that event stayed stuck in his body and mind. However, the hunger he felt when he’d been fasted for two days, and the sight of the ball being thrown past him, over and over, increased the intensity of his desire to bite it. Once he was unchained and allowed to bite the ball with all the force available to him, it a) provided a catharsis and b) allowed his unresolved emotions to run to ground.

Of course I felt terrible about fasting Freddie for two days. And he was very stressed during the exercise. But afterwards he was totally and completely cured of all his fears and anxieties. Totally. Nothing ever threw him off balance for the rest of his life. So those 5 minutes of intense stress had a positive effect that lasted for 14 years. 

The Positive Effects of Stress, New Technologies 
You’re unlikely to find any of these concepts, principles, or techniques in the veterinary behaviorist’s manual for treating behavioral problems, which is why Dodman and Burghardt believe that PTSD can’t be cured.

However, in human subjects two new methods have been shown to have an amazing ability to cure PTSD completely, at least in human subjects: EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and re-processing) and, believe it or not, the computer game, Tetris! EMDR was controversial at first but it’s now known that it can be very effective at treating PTSD. As for Tetris, researchers at Oxford University found that playing this simple video game didnt cure PTSD completely in human subjects, but it seriously reduced the frequency of flashbacks.

Of course, you can’t do EMDR with dogs or get them to play video games. But if you can get them to play tug-of-war, in such a way that they’re totally committed to the game, and are biting down on the tug toy as hard as possible, what usually happens is that a lot of the internal stress they’re still holding on to, due to negative experiences, can be fully (or almost fully) released.

Stress is what prevents dogs from a full recovery. It’s also what causes dogs like Bix to carry a tennis ball around in their mouth. As long as they’re gripping that ball, they feel safe

The primary hallmark of PTSD is that the original trauma is continually re-experienced by the victim. When dogs dont have a way of releasing their unresolved emotions, each time the stress response is triggered, or re-triggered, a cascade of hormones and neurochemicals are released into the bloodstream, often resulting in actual lasting brain damage. This is what makes PTSD one of the most difficult psychological illnesses to treat.    

However, new research shows that a little stress can actually enhance learning. “According to an idea in psychology called the Yerekes-Dodson law,” says researcher Emily Bray, “a little stress can be a good thing, but only up to a point. A task that isn’t demanding or challenging enough can make it hard [for a dog] to stay engaged… but when the pressure becomes too much to handle, performance is likely to suffer again.” (“Increasing arousal enhances inhibitory control in calm but not excitable dogs,” Animal Cognition, 2015.)

Dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan writes, “My theory is that stress, or Unresolved Emotion, forms when Emotion meets with resistance.” He goes on to say that unresolved emotions are stored in the body (via Pavlovian conditioning) as a kind of energy reserve, which Behan refers to as an “emotional battery.” When it’s triggered, it can cause a dog to re-experience a traumatic event as if it were happening again for the first time, which is exactly how people with PTSD describe their experiences.

Meanwhile, a study published in June of 2012 (“Axiomatic Development of Human Psychophysiological Stress Indices Using Thermodynamics) re-capitulates this connection between body, mind, stress and unresolved emotion. In it the authors write, “When we look at the human psychophysiological (mind/body) system from a thermodynamic perspective, the dichotomy between mind and body states cease to exist and they become one energy system governed by the law of entropy.” A system they say behaves “like a magneto-electro-mechanical system.”

Behan writes that the biological connection he sees between thermodynamics, emotion and stress “is the only model that can smoothly encompass the phenomena of learning, sexuality, personality, memory, neoteny, evolution and domestication [in dogs].”

That’s a pretty big statement. But I believe Behan can back it up. 

Do these ideas lie outside the normal way of seeing behavior and learning? Yes, but remember, those concepts aren’t based on science, per se, but rather on statistics and how quickly a behavior is produced in relation to a previous stimulus. In other words, behavioral science doesn’t describe how learning actually takes place, it only deals in statistical probabilities and temporal contiguities. That’s why the current view of veterinary behaviorists is that Canine PTSD can’t be cured, it can only be treated. And the reason they believe that is because they’re either unaware of or uninterested in trying alternative methods that lie outside the ken of behavioral science. 

Taking Things to the Next Level 
My dog Fred’s problem was resolved a long time ago. The Natural Dog Training technology and philosophy have become much more advanced since then. That’s why I think it’s important for all dog trainers and veterinary behaviorists to investigate, test and perhaps even study The 5 Core Exercises of Natural Dog Training. 

What are they? 

1) Pushing for Food,

2) Barking on Command,  

3) Collecting,

4) Suppling (massaging the dog’s back and shoulders), and most important,

5) Playing Tug-of-War and Fetch (also called “Bite-and-Carry).

(You can find videos of these exercises on my website; for more info see Behan’s explanation of these exercises on this blog.) 

These exercises work. They’re very effective at solving all sorts of behavior problems in dogs, not just PTSD. Behan—whose father was a famous dog trainer in the 1950s, and who has spent his entire life focused on dogs and dog training—has a reputation as America’s premier trainer when it comes to solving behavior problems in dogs. His techniques never fail to bring results. The problem for most veterinary behaviorists (and even dog trainers who use behavioral science techniques) is that none of these exercises can be explained through the philosophy behind learning theory. They can only be explained through the laws of physics, specifically, thermodynamics and Pavlovian equivalencies.

Lee Charles Kelley 
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” 


1) I have a personal connection to The Dogs of War. The filmmaker, Kristen Karaly interviewed me to get my thoughts on treating PTSD in pet dogs. But while she felt my input was valuable it didn’t relate to military dogs, so all my footage ended up on the cutting room floor. (Interestingly, Kevin Behans father, who trained dogs for the military during World War II, wrote a best-selling book about his experiences: it was also titled The Dogs of War.)

2) If you recall, up top I mentioned that Bix, one of the dogs featured in The Dogs of War, was often seen carrying a tennis ball around in his mouth. And as long as he had that “pacifier” available, the less likely he was to have a “flashback” moment. Gripping the ball with his teeth made him feel physically and emotionally stable. As I also mentioned in passing this was one thing that helped Freddie with his panic attacks. As long as he had a favorite prey object in his mouth, he was never thrown off-balance emotionally by street noises.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The 5 Core Exercises

The 5 Core Exercises of Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan


(1) All behavior is a function of emotion and all emotion is a function of attraction. (2) When emotion can’t flow to completion, stress is acquired. (3) Stress, which may be defined as the physical memory of emotion that failed to run to “ground,” must be triggered by something just as intense as the thing that caused it to form in the first place. (4) The acquisition and build up of stress as a physical memory of emotional experience engenders a more complex form of attraction, coupled with resistance, in which the dog becomes highly attracted to the “negative” in order to convert stress back into flow and resolve it. (5) Stress becomes resolved only if the dog and his trainer or owner can interact together in a way that produces an emotional wave pattern akin to running at full speed, which itself is a muscular wave pattern moving through the body.

By doing the five core exercises—speaking on command, pushing for food, the collecting exercise, deep tissue massage (particularly of the shoulders, haunches and topline) to supple the dog, along with tug and fetch—you can activate and strengthen that wave function so that the dog feels the freedom of movement even when things aren’t moving, and even when his stress has been triggered by an agency of intensity that previously elicited survival instincts.

The most practical benefit of teaching heel, sit, down, stay, and the recall through this emotional wave pattern, is that lessons thus derived can be performed under duress, because the wave pattern emanates from the dog’s core, unlike other lessons which are acquired through instinct or fine motor manipulation, such as clicker training and dominance techniques.

My method with each and every dog, no matter what the context or past history, is to trigger the dog’s physical memories of unresolved emotion and then work to smooth them into a pure wave function through the core exercises. When the wave is triggered, and the dog is not allowed to fall back on old coping strategies, giving them free range to exert themselves and dominate the dog’s spectrum of responses, he will volunteer where he wants to be on the wave and how he’s able to participate. As a result, he begins to feel in control of what is happening around him because this wave pattern is the very basis of his construct of reality. And so he feels an immediate payoff because the triggering agency (the owner or trainer) is responding in terms of the wave pattern.

Some dogs might lie down, some might bark, some will jump up or grab your arm with their jaws. My next move is always to springboard off whatever opening is being offered by the dog in order to amplify the wave that he’s experiencing, and which we can clearly see building up within his body, and coursing through his external physical movements. This is why the core exercises—bark, push, collect, supple, and bite-and-carry—are central in NDT methodology because each enhances a specific dynamic within the overall wave template. A wave is how two beings integrate, and integration is the only way unresolved emotion can be fully released.

That’s Natural Dog Training in a nutshell. And this can be tested by anyone willing to look at the behavior of dogs (or any animal) with an open mind while simultaneously resisting the urge to inject thoughts into what they’re observing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Treating PTSD With Natural Dog Training

This Is Not Freddie

Play vs. Prozac 
In a previous article here (Canine PTSD: Its Causes, Signs & Treatment) I wrote about the very real probability that millions of pet dogs in North America may have developed post-traumatic stress as a result of being mistreated, abused, lost or abandoned. This is particularly true of rescue dogs. Of course not all rescue dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress. And symptoms of trauma can be found in non-rescue dogs as well. However, it’s important to understand that, due to the release of certain neuro-chemicals in the brain, both during the initial traumatic event as well as in subsequent flashbacks, a dog can actually develop neurological damage similar to what’s seen in traumatic brain injury. This is why it can be very difficult to bring dogs who’ve suffered emotional trauma back to anything close to normal. It’s not your fault. And it’s not the dog’s fault.

There seem to be only two ways to undo this kind of damage. One is through the use of medications like Prozac. The other is through rough-and-tumble outdoor play which, according to research done by Jaak Panksepp and others, releases tremendous amounts of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNFs), associated with new neuronal growth and brain plasticity. (Human subjects with PTSD have been helped by playing video games like Halo and, oddly enough, Tetris.)

The only problem with using play to heal emotionally wounded dogs is that most of them have forgotten how to play. However, in this article I’ll provide readers with two very simple exercises that can help rescue dogs relearn how to play. I use them all the time in my training practice in New York City, both with my paying clients and with members of my Rescue Dog Owners Support Group. The exercises were created by former police-dog trainer Kevin Behan as part of a system called Natural Dog Training. 

Behan created 5 Core Exercises specifically designed to achieve optimal emotional flow in dogs with “stuck” emotions.

1) Bark (the dog speaks on command)

2) Push (the dog pushes into the handler while eating)

3) Collect (the dog moves backwards into a relaxed down)

4) Supple (the handler massages the dog’s shoulders) 

They all lead to the most important exercise,

5) Bite (the dog plays fetch and tug, and brings the toy back) 

I’ll focus here on the first two exercises. 

The 4 Quadrants of Natural Dog Training 
Before I describe the exercises I should point out that they might not make much sense at first because they don’t operate through the more commonly known principles of dog training, i.e., dominance and submission or positive and negative reinforcement. That’s because Natural Dog Training operates through the physical and emotional properties of attraction & resistance, and tension & release. 

What does that mean? 

A simple example of attraction would be a puppy who, on his first walk, sees a leaf blow by and chases it. Why? Because anything that exhibits certain types of movement stimulates feelings of attraction in the pup, and thus exert a kind of “magnetic pull” on his body and emotions, drawing him toward them. Meanwhile things which engender resistance would cause a pup to move away from them. Common examples might be tall men in hats, sudden loud noises, etc. 

You always want to generate more feelings of attraction than resistance. For instance, it’s not uncommon for an older puppy or adult dog to feel that his owner is generating both attraction and resistance: “She feeds me and plays with me!”—and—“She scolds me and won’t let me eat cat poo!” So the pup begins to ignore or “disobey” the owner in some circumstances while running excitedly toward her in others. 

I hope that gives you a window into attraction & resistance. 

However, we could also look at a puppy chasing a leaf through the lens of tension and release. The leaf’s movement stimulates actual, palpable feelings of tension and pressure within the pup’s body, causing him to run toward it. His movement provides a subsequent yet small feeling of release from that pressure. He would get a lot more release if he could actually bite the leaf and rip it to pieces. In fact, many times when a pup is prevented from “killing” something he’s been chasing, he’ll jump around, bark wildly, or start digging in the ground. We tend to think of these behaviors as nonsensensical, yet they serve a very important biological purpose: they release tension. 

Using these principles we can see that behavioral problems most often arise when a dog is feeling more tension than he’s able to handle or release.  One very practical reason for understanding this is that it may give you a new insight into your dog’s specific behavioral problems, so can you begin attacking them from a new and different angle. 

Standing Your Ground 
Let’s start with two very common problems: fear and aggression. First of all, on a certain level there’s virtually no difference between fear and aggression because all aggression is caused by fear. Fear manifests, behaviorally, in three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. In the last two the dog is feeling a great deal of tension with little or no release. But the dog who’s able to flip fear over on its head, and fight back, is releasing all that tension and more by “standing his ground.” 

One example of how this can help dogs involves my Dalmatian Freddie, who many years ago (in 1993) started having severe panic attacks, sparked by any little noise on the street. I tried everything I could think of to help the poor dog but once he was in his panic state, all I could do was wait it out.

Then I learned that a friend of Freddie’s, a Sheltie named Duncan, had cured himself of thunderphobia simply by barking at the lightning. 

Brilliant! I thought. He’s barking at the thing that scares him! 

After that, every time Freddie went into a panic state—ears back, tail between his legs, head down, ready to run off in any possible direction—, and I gave him the speak command, as soon as he barked, he became a different dog, almost as if he couldn’t understand why we’d stopped walking to the park.

One practical way this idea can be put to use is by doing what Duncan the Sheltie did on his own, i.e., teaching thunderphobic dogs to bark at the lightning. 

Begin by teaching the dog to speak on command in different locations, so that the behavior becomes reliable and automatic whenever the cue is given. (After you do this you should also teach your dog to be quiet on command.)  Then, on a day, when a storm is due, before the dog starts to panic, you give her the “Speak!” command. In most cases, once she’s able to bark at the lightning she’ll no longer be frightened of the thunder ever again.

Why? Because instead of freezing or fleeing—where the dog’s fear gets stuck in her body, and has nowhere to go—, she’s pro-actively fighting back against the scary sound. It doesn’t matter that the thunder and lighting don’t stop or go away. She doesn’t care because she’s no longer afraid of them. This is similar to a kid who’s being harassed by a bully. Once the dog finally stands her ground and fights back, the fear is no longer controlling her behavior and the thunder/bully no longer has any power over her. 

Hunger, Balance & Fear 
Another important aspect of how fear operates is illustrated by a lost and wounded dog who hides in the woods until he’s hungry enough to take food from someone. Being in a weakened and unstable condition creates feelings of resistance rather than attraction toward people who might be in a position to help him. Eventually, hunger overrides those feelings, the dog comes out of hiding and will take food. (Many volunteers at shelters cite the first day that a scared dog finally took food from them as the moment when things started to turn around for that pooch.) 

So, to recap, hunger cures fear. How? Through increasing a dog’s feelings of social attraction. And aggression cures fear. How? Picture the body language of a dog who’s frightened. His head and shoulders and tail are all down. He’s cowering. Picture that same dog barking furiously at the lightning. His body and tail are erect and his four paws are firmly planted on the ground. 

The fact is that whenever a dog (or human) is frightened, anxious or nervous he a) doesn’t feel hungry, and b) doesn’t feel grounded; he feels off-balance both physically and emotionally. In fact there is virtually no difference between being off balance physically and being off-balance emotionally. It operates on a purely Pavlovian level. (If you still don’t think there’s a connection between fear and balance this little factoid might help: in puppies the first fear development phase comes around the same time that the pup begins learning how to stabilize himself physically.) 

Playing and Pushing: Stabilizing  Unstable Dogs 
So I’ve given you one tip on how to reduce (or release) emotional tension in dogs: have them speak on command. But there’s still another hurdle the dog has to cross, which is a reservoir of unresolved emotion that may cause him to fling a ball or rope around on his own instead of bringing it back to you for a therapeutic game of fetch or tug.  

How do we bridge that gap? 

A few years ago I got an email from a veteran dog trainer in Virginia who had just brought home two Jack Russell pups. This woman was having problems housebreaking the female, who’d been the runt of the litter. Plus she was frustrated that the dog seemed withdrawn and a bit nervous. I suggested that she do “The Pushing Exercise,” essentially hand-feeding the doggie all her meals outdoors in a very specific way.

This trainer didn’t understand why I made this suggestion, but she did it anyway. A few days later she called to tell me that not only had the doggie stopped doing her business inside the house, but the pup brought her a toy for the first time ever!

Now, some readers may balk (or feel resistance toward) the idea of having their dog push for food. “I don’t want my dog to get pushy over his dinner.” This is something I also felt initially. Then one day, one of the dogs staying with me, who was normally very social and easygoing, exhibited a fairly severe case of resource guarding; he wanted all the food in all the doggie bowls! So I pulled him away and fed him separately for three days, using the pushing exercise. On the fourth day, when I put everyone’s dinner bowl down, he was happy with his own food. There were no residual traces of food aggression or resource guarding.

Here’s how the exercise works. At a time when your dog is hungry, take her to a quiet place outdoors where there’s a platform of some kind—a bench of a flat rock—that she can jump up to or climb on. Bring along her favorite food, either in a pouch or a bait bag. It’s not a bad idea to wear latex gloves if the food she eats is messy.

Take a handful of food out of the pouch, holding it in your non-dominant hand (i.e., your left hand if you’re right-handed). This is especially important for large breeds. Show her the food, waving it around a little, if necessary, to pique her interest. Then say, in a pleasant tone, “Wait…” And then close your fingers over the food, move it under her snout, say, “Ready?” then open the hand and let her eat.

While she’s eating, surreptitiously cup your dominant hand, palm up, against her chest. If she balks, pull that hand away or stroke her gently wherever she likes being stroked while inviting her to eat from your other hand. With some dogs you have to work gradually, day by day, so that all resistance to feeling the second hand against her chest dissipates. With others you practically need to wear chain mail gloves! (This brings up an important point: some dogs arent as careful about where their teeth go as others, so proceed with caution!)

The idea is that while she’s eating, you gradually increase the amount of pressure the dog feels against her chest. You don’t do this by pushing the dog! You do it by pulling your food hand away slightly, in small increments, until she has to push into you in order to feel the pleasure of eating. You want to get to the point where the dog is up on her back legs, totally off balance, while pushing into you as hard as she can. 

Why is it therapeutic? 

Because she’s being put in a position where the person she loves most in the world is hand feeding her in such a way that she doesn’t even realize that the harder she pushes, the more off-balance she becomes. (She won’t really be off balance because you’ll be her balance beam.) You’re also triggering a little of the good kind of aggression, where the dog feels confident enough to stand her ground. 

If you’d like to learn more please visit my website. There is a downloadable pdf, giving a more detailed description of the exercise, along with 4 demonstration videos.

There are no immediate guarantees. In some cases, it may take several months or longer to get the final results. In other cases, the changes can be quite dramatic and manifest within only a couple of days or weeks. Just keep pushing. It’ll help your dog stand her ground against all her fears, not to mention all the internal tension, pressure, and resistance causing her behavior problems. 

On her blog Jenya Chernoff gives a very good, and I think important description of Natural Dog Training. 

The real-world of Natural Dog Training is by nature a bit intuitive and improvisational (according to my husband, its just jazz.) That said, there are some fundamental exercises that could be summarized as follows: bark, bite, supple, push, collect. Not necessarily in that order. I like to describe it as part primal scream therapy, part dressage for dogs. Training the bark (speak) brings the drive to the surface; the bite resolves it. Pushing for food, mirrored by collection, elaborates into the behaviors heel, sit, stay, down, etc. Suppling your dog through massage relaxes her and accesses her primal puppy memories. 

I am, like so many modern humans, action-oriented, goal-driven, and addicted to formulas and schedules. Less is more may be one of the hardest things for me to internalize. So I get that its often a tough sell for the OC among us when were told Just work on building these skills, and everything else will fall into place. Work on problems indirectly? Trust your improvisational skills? Wax on/wax off? 


But seriously, kids. It works that way. 

Lee Charles Kelley
Life Is an AdventureWhere Will Your Dog Take You? 
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