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 in the film 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 (luckily she’d seen one of my flyers).

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 NDT 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 (he was 15 when he passed away).

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. The second 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) tends 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; 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 some might think it inhumane to put a dog through the process outlined above. I can understand that. I felt terrible about fasting Freddie for two days. And, yes, 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 over 13 years. 

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

In human subjects two new methods have been shown to have an amazing ability to cure PTSD completely: EMDR and, believe it or not, playing the computer game, Tetris! EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and re-processing) 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, but it seriously reduced the frequency of flashbacks experienced by test subjects.

One of the hallmarks 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, often resulting in actual lasting brain damage. This damage to the neural circuitry makes PTSD one of the most difficult psychological illnesses to treat.  

However, a new study shows that a little stress can actually enhance the learning process in dogs, depending on the dog’s temperament type.

“According to an idea in psychology called the Yerekes-Dodson law,” says lead 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, Emily E. Bray et al.)

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 of behavior 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 takes place, it only deals in statistical probabilities and temporal contiguities. And the current view of veterinary behaviorists is that, statistically-speaking, Canine PTSD can’t be cured, it can only be treated. And the reason they believe that is because they’re unaware of (and, in some cases, probably uninterested in) exploring alternative methods. 

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 some 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. 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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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Case History No. 4—Oddy & Penny

Why do some dogs develop PTSD while others experiencing the same trauma don't?

PTSD Develops in Different Ways in Different Dogs
This is the 4th in a series of case histories of dogs I’ve worked with who may have suffered from PTSD, which statistics suggest may be much more common in pet dogs than it is in military dogs.

This series of posts is meant to be a helpful diagnostic tool for veterinarians, shelter and rescue workers, as well as dog owners and dog trainers to hopefully prevent more cases of Canine PTSD from going undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. (A Canine PTSD symptom scale can be found here.)

The first case history (of my own dog Freddie) can be found here. In Freddie’s case, I witnessed the original trauma first-hand, and saw the resulting behavioral disorder that developed very quickly as a result. There was no guesswork. This is the easiest type of case to diagnose, the one where the owner was witness to the original trauma.

A second case involved a boxer named Fancy whose stress was probably the result of being kept in a crate at the vet’s office during an important social development phase. Fancy’s story can be found here.

A third case, of Noodles, a dachshund, who was biting his owners, his dogwalker, and eventually me, can be found here. Noodles was easier to diagnose because his affect and behaviors were off the charts.

Now comes the story of Odysseus and Penelope (Oddy and Penny), two miniature schnauzers who were attacked by another, much larger dog, while out on a walk. Penny actually came pretty close to dying from her wounds, and was in the hospital clinging to life for several days. She pulled through, but, oddly enough, didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress. Oddy, on the other hand, who wasn’t hurt as badly, did.

Why the difference?

Entangled Schnauzers
First it’s important to understand how the dogs' personalities differ. They’re roughly the same age. Penny is about two months older than Oddy. She’s also much smaller; Oddy is almost the size of a standard schnauzer. And while they have some surprisingly similar character traits in some ways, they’re also quite different.

When I first met them, I found that Penny was very playful, a little mischievous at times, and liked to roll over on her back for tummy rubs. She was quite a bit smaller than her “brother,” but seemed to be in charge of things. She also seemed to dislike going on walks, which I thought might have been a repercussion from the attack, but was told that she’d always been like that.

Oddy, on the other hand, didn’t know how to play except with Penny. He also exhibited more tension, stress, and showed less emotional elasticity than his “sister.” For instance, I never saw him roll over on his back for a tummy rub or for any other reason.

They would play together every day, but if Penny found another dog she liked to play with Oddy was unable to join in.

Another difference is that Penny had been a part of the household since puppyhood while, for various reasons, Oddy had been kenneled (at the breeder) during certain important developmental phases, and hadn’t been brought into the household till he was nearly six months of age. I don’t know for certain that this accounts for the difference in their responses to the traumatic event, but there is evidence showing that children in foster care may be five times more likely to develop PTSD than children raised in a traditional family setting.

Personally, I believe that the dog-human bond which develops during puppyhood bears some important similarities to having a normal childhood with loving human parents.

There may be another reason Oddy was more affected by the event emotionally, though Penny sustained the most physical damage.

Life-Threatening Physical Injuries & Hypercathexis
In 1920 Sigmund Freud wrote about the symptoms of PTSD (then referred to as “the war neuroses”). He said that “two characteristics emerge prominently: first , that the chief weight in their causation seems to rest upon the factor of surprise, of fright; and secondly, that a wound or injury inflicted simultaneously works, as a rule, against [their] development.” (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” 1920.)

If this is true, it might explain why Penny didn’t develop symptoms of PTSD, and why Oddy did. It also explains why, generally speaking, a soldier who isn’t seriously injured is more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD than those who are.

First, I think it’s important to understand why Freud refers to what we now call PTSD as a neurosis. Neuroses are anxiety-based behaviors or sets of behaviors, where the energy invested in them is out of balance, either with the normal reasons for producing such behaviors or with the amount of energy that might normally be expended on them. In dogs the 1st might be something like humping inanimate objects or chasing cars, and 2nd might manifest as separation anxiety or showing obsessive guarding of toys or other objects. Second, most if not all neuroses are the result of repressed emotional energy. I believe this is true in both humans and dogs.

In Freudian terms, the mind's "control panel" (the ego) has the job of deciding which internal and external stimuli (excitations) should be a) paid attention to, b) ignored, c) have their energies blocked (repressed), or d) have their energies projected (cathected) onto persons or objects in the environment including the subject's own body. So the gross physical trauma--the sheer mechanical force that accompanies a serious, life-threatening injury--demands that none of the mind's energy can be wasted on "mere trifles;" it all has to be projected onto the body itself so as to enable healing and/or self-preservation. Or as Freud put it, “the physical injury, by calling for a narcissistic hypercathexis of the injured organ, would bind the excess of excitation.” (610)

Meanwhile, for the subject whose injuries aren't as serious, those same emotional energies aren't projected (or cathected) onto the body, they're repressed by the mind, resulting in what Freud called "the compulsion to repeat," which is one of the chief features of PTSD (i.e., the subject is unconsciously compelled to repeat the feelings surrounding the initial trauma over and over again).

Furthermore, Freud made it quite clear that fright, fear, and anxiety were not synonyms; they represented clear distinctions in how we relate to danger. Anxiety, he said, “describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one. ‘Fear’ requires a definite object of which to be afraid. ‘Fright,’ however, is the name we give to the state a person gets into when he has run into danger without being prepared for it; it emphasizes the factor of surprise.” (598.)

Once again, if we look at the stories we hear from veterans about how their PTSD developed it’s not uncommon to hear them say that the danger “came out of nowhere,” or “I wasn’t prepared for what happened.” And since PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder, and anxiety is a state of “constantly expecting … danger or preparing for it,” this makes sense.

While I don't believe dogs think about their experiences, or try to explain or understand them through internal monologues, I think the basic principles can still be applied.

If I'm right, then Penny's injuries necessitated that whatever psychic (mental or emotional) energy she had available at the time be focused (or projected) solely on to the tasks of self-preservation and healing. Meanwhile the excess energy the traumatic event had stimulated in Oddy had no place to go. It got stuck, which in turn created an unconscious compulsion to repeat the event over and over.

I recently heard from Oddy's owners and they say that while he's still prone to act protective, he's much more relaxed and playful and has, in all other respects, become a completely different dog!

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Case History No. 3—Noodles

Miniature Dachshund or Incredible Hulk?

You dont want to make me mad. You wouldnt like me when I'm mad.— Bruce Banner

Three Ways to Diagnose PTSD in Rescue Dogs
This series of blog posts is intended to show the different ways that pet dogs can show symptoms of PTSD, and how to determine if your dog, or a dog you’re working with, might have the disorder. It’s also important to know that rescue dogs are probably more at risk for PTSD than military dogs.

Another important piece of information is that the brains of patients with PTSD show a signature similar to those who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury. This means that PTSD carries with it significant long-term changes in brain connectivity, making treatment and recovery more difficult than with other behavioral/emotional problems. Anti-anxiety medications can reportedly restore brain plasticity, reversing neurological damage. 

So can hard vigorous outdoor play.

How do we diagnose PTSD in dogs? There are 3 basic ways:

  1. Through first-hand knowledge and observation of the precipitating event, followed by subsequent behavioral responses that seem to be tied to the original trauma in the form of exaggerated responses to a similar stimulus or set of stimuli.
  2. Through second-hand accounts of the dog’s history, followed by careful observations of the dog’s behavior over time.
  3. If no history of trauma is known, yet the dog’s behavioral responses are exaggerated in the form of fear or aggression—especially when no real threat is at hand and the responses are repeated consistently in a stereotypical fashion—then the owner or trainer can make reasonable assumptions about the possible nature of the original trauma.

Miniature Dachshund or Incredible Hulk?
In the case of Noodles—a miniature dachshund who exhibited fear aggression and other signs of previous abuse or trauma—his owners and I started without knowing what, if anything, had actually traumatized the little guy. His original owner, a single male, reportedly gave up the dog for “financial reasons.” This information came second-hand from the rescue organization that took in Noodles, not from the owner himself.

However, since Noodles was biting people, and biting them really hard—sometimes for no apparent reason (such as when he was being petted)—I thought it was more likely that he’d been given up because of that specific problem behavior. I also thought it likely that the original owner had abused or mistreated the little dog during his oral and social developmental phases. That’s because when a puppy’s oral impulses are repressed, especially in a punitive manner, it almost always results in some form of behavioral problem in the adult dog.

After he was given up by his original owner, Noodles then had two different owners, both females, each for a period of about two weeks or so. These women both reportedly gave Noodles up because he was “too much work.”

His final owners, Mr. and Mrs. H., saw him on the street one day, dressed in a skeleton costume, and fell in love with him. The rescue group told the couple about the dog’s previous owners but didn’t mention anything about the biting behavior. Was this because Noodles hadn’t bitten his original owner or the two women who'd briefly adopted him?

It’s possible, though it seems unlikely.

As is often the case when a dog finds himself in a strange new environment, Noodles was on his best behavior for the first few weeks with Mr. and Mrs. H. (This may be why it took the two previous adoptees several weeks before they realized that Noodles was “too much work.”)

Then, Noodles became overly attached to Mr. H. and started biting his wife. These were really hard, deep pressure bites. Noodles would go into an altered state of pure rage when no real threat was present. In fact, being cuddled and petted, which for most dogs stimulates feelings of social bonding, could bring on one of these fits.

Noodles rarely, if ever, bit Mr. H., whom he seemed to adore in perhaps an overly-dependent, unhealthy way. The dog only bit Mrs. H. This didn’t seem to gibe with the fact that the dog’s original owner had been a single male: if his original owner had abused him, wouldn’t Noodles have been more wary of men than of women?

This suggests the possibility that one or both or his temporary female owners had been the abuser, and that’s why Noodles was targeting Mrs. H. and acting lovey-dovey with her husband. The only problem with that idea is that the behaviors Noodles was exhibiting were so beyond the normal range that the trauma almost had to have come during the dog’s developmental phases. And his original owner hadn’t given Noodles up until long after those phases were over.

Identifying With One’s Abuser
One of the strangest behaviors I saw in Noodles was his infatuation with an intact male dog who lived on my block. Whenever we’d run into Pushkin (a shepherd mix), Noodles would pull toward him, then do a crazy dance around the much bigger dog, zipping this way and that in a kind of happy—though perhaps overly-anxious—frenzy.

At first I thought there was just something about Pushkin that Noodles liked. But on a couple of rare occasions Noodles had a chance to meet other intact males, and acted in a similar fashion. This suggested that Noodles—unlike most neutered dogs—was highly attracted to whatever scent was being given off by Pushkin's normal testosterone levels. It also suggested that the reason for his infatuation with Mr. H., and his general disdain for and desire to attack Mrs. H., might have been based simply on the difference between male and female hormones.

Again, this didn’t seem to make any sense. After all, if Noodles had been abused by a male he should show signs of vigilance around men.

Then I remembered something Freud wrote in his 1925 paper on negation: “There is a most convenient method by which one can obtain a necessary light upon a piece of unconscious and repressed material. ‘What,’ one asks, ‘would you consider is the most unlikely thing in the world in that situation? What do you think was the furthest thing from your mind at that point?’ If the patient falls into the trap and names what he thinks is most incredible, he almost invariably ... makes the correct admission.” (General Psychological Theory, p. 217.)

Dogs can’t tell us why they behave the way they do. They can’t even explain it to themselves. But as I put the pieces of this puzzle together, I realized that if Noodles had been abused by his first owner—as seemed very likely—and had now formed a deep, long-lasting emotional bond with another male figure—which was less likely—it was probably because he’d formed a deep emotional bond with his original owner, not despite the abuse but because of it!

Dr. Frank Ochberg, M.D., an expert on PTSD in humans, says that victims of abuse often develop positive feelings toward the victimizer including strong feelings of attachment. And in some cases such victims actually identify with their abusers.

In an earlier article on Canine PTSD I said that a traumatic event or series of events can make a lasting imprint on a dog’s character and personality. Before I started working with Noodles he was almost always in “danger” mode. When he was with some people this was seen clearly in his bitey-ness. With his male owner it was made manifest as a neurotic overfriendliness. I think both behaviors come from the same source: a deep and lasting imprint of fear and pain that came at an important time in his early social and oral development. Both the biting/guardedness and the zippy, anxiety-based “happiness” were derived from the same original trauma.

Once we started working on Noodles’ PTSD—through making him feel safe, having him push for food, and getting him to engage in rough-and-tumble outdoor play—he at times began to show more affection for Mrs. H. than for her husband, though he adores them both.

Noodles hasn’t been totally transformed. Not yet. But there’s a looseness to his gait now that wasn’t there before. And he’s always engaging me and his owners in play, particularly late at night. Plus he’s happy to meet new people who come over to his house. He plays nicely with children. And he loves most other dogs he meets.

Yes, he still occasionally makes a snarly face when I try to pet him, and makes as if to bite my fingers. But he restrains himself beautifully. It’s as if the fixed-action pattern is still in evidence, but there’s no real juice (rage) behind it, and his bites aren’t real. 

Overall, Noodles is an amazingly sweet dog.

“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
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