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.

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Thursday, February 28, 2013

An Open Letter to New York City Dog Trainers

This blog post was originally posted on my other training blog. It was written not just for New York City dog trainers, but for all owners and trainers, everywhere. It's about an exercise that's vitally important to treating and even curing Canine PTSD.

Can One Technique Solve All Behavioral Problems?
I'd like to introduce you to a wonderful new training technique. It can help shy dogs become confident, turn aggressive dogs into love- muffins, eliminate fear, decrease unwanted barking, make dogs happier and more playful, increase obedience, and can even help with housebreaking issues. In fact, it does all that and a lot more.

I must be joking, right? 

Nope. It's called "The Pushing Exercise" and here are just a few case histories:

Ginger: I got an e-mail from a veteran dog trainer of 35 years who started out using “pack leader” methods but switched several years ago to an “all positive” approach. She wanted to know how to get her “shy,” 11 month-old Jack Russell terrier Ginger to stop eliminating in the house. Since the little Jack wouldn’t play, I suggested that the woman spend some time on the floor every day, letting the dog jump on top of her, and that she hand feed all her dog’s meals outdoors, using what we in Natural Dog Training call the pushing exercise. Within a week the little doggie had not only stopped eliminating in the house, she was much less shy and actually began bringing her owner a toy. 

Ba’sia: Some members of an online behavior board read about the pushing exercise here on this blog, and several of them tried it, just to see what changes if any it created in their dogs. Within 4 or 5 days the owners of a Belgian shepherd named Ba’sia, whose only real behavioral problem was that she loved to chase the Frisbee but wouldn’t bring it back, began bringing it back to her owners, on her own, with no prompts. She just suddenly “felt” like doing it. 

Fancy: When Fancy, a boxer, was a puppy she was sick for several months and had to be kenneled at the vet’s office. As a result she had trouble interpreting social signals from other dogs and was getting into skirmishes a lot at the park and at the dog run. I did the pushing exercise with her for a few days, and she slowly began to learn how to play nicely with other dogs. 

However, there was one unanticipated, yet encouraging, side-effect. Her owners called me about four days in to doing the exercise to ask if I’d also been working on her fear of sidewalk grates. I told them I hadn’t. In fact, I hadn’t even known about the behavior.

“Well, whatever you're doing is working like a charm. She’s no longer afraid of them!”

Kyla: A German shepherd mix (mostly shepherd) named Kyla had a very “dominant” temperament, and one problem she had was that she could not be bribed, cajoled, or coaxed with treats away from her intense focus on squirrels. She also pulled constantly on the leash, ignored her owner’s commands, constantly got underfoot at home, was always jumping up on the bed or the couch, barked incessantly at other dogs at the dog run, and scavenged like there was no tomorrow. But Kyla slowly and gradually became a totally different dog. She now loves to obey all her commands, she no longer pulls on the leash, she still shows a strong interest in squirrels, but is easily called away, stays off the furniture, and no longer scavenges. 

Why? Because of the pushing exercise.

Caleb: A Welsh springer spaniel named Caleb, who sometimes stays with me overnight, was starting to exhibit a very severe form of resource guarding whenever other dogs were staying with me as well. At meal time he felt he had to attack any dog who came near any food, even the food in their own dinner bowl. All food was his! This was an otherwise wonderfully social dog who had a knack for making almost any other dog love him, no matter what it took. But at meal time, with other dogs around, he became a monster. So, as an experiment, I did the pushing exercise with him for 2 days, and guess what? He never showed any signs of resource guarding ever again.

Muskoka: This is a Westie who had 2 problems — leash aggression and an absolutely frantic fear of walking anywhere near 72nd Street between West End and Broadway (the location of her vet’s office). She’s now no longer leash aggressive, and is slowly getting used to walking nearer and nearer the dreaded place where she gets all her shots and examinations, and used to get her toenails clipped.

Dudley: He’s a cocker spaniel who’d had separation anxiety for seven years, and during that time had also forgotten how to play. He was so frightened of being left alone, he was found by his owners several times, trembling in a corner covered in his own excrement, his eyes practically spinning with terror and despair. It took much longer to bring this poor little guy back to normal, but one of the primary ingredients was — you guessed it — the pushing exercise!

How is it possible that one simple exercise — whose only point seems to be to teach a dog to be pushy about eating — have such diverse effects, one of which is that it actually makes dogs less pushy?

If your background is in dominance training (or being the pack leader), this exercise would make no sense to you for a lot of reasons, the main one being that by simply allowing (not to mention outright encouraging!) a dog to push into his owner to get his meals every day you would be setting up the exact opposite dynamic of what the pack leader culture believes in. You would in the clearest of terms be allowing your dog to “dominate” you. And yet the exercise makes dogs more, not less obedient. It makes them less pushy about food. It makes them more likely to stay off the furniture, come when called, and less likely to get into fights or engage in resource guarding. In other words, it makes them less “dominant.”

If your background is in the “all positive” approach, the exercise probably makes no sense to you either because from a learning theory perspective all the exercise is doing is reinforcing a specific behavior, pushing for food. And yet it makes dogs less pushy!

How is this possible?

Working for a Living
Dogs are designed to work for a living. Pet dogs no longer have the utilitarian function in our lives that they once did. They don’t have to hunt, herd, or guard our flocks for us to get their daily provender. Their expectation (learned and reinforced by their owners) is that a bowlful of food will appear in the kitchen or on the back porch 2x a day, and that’s pretty much it. Oh, sure, sometimes they might have to perform tricks to get an extra treat now and then, but for the most part all the energy they’re designed by evolution to expend on working for a living goes into, what? Playing with other dogs at the dog park? Going on long walks? Playing fetch with a Frisbee or tennis ball? Patrolling the back yard for gophers? All worthwhile pursuits, but hardly dirty-fingernails, blue-collar, working-class stuff.

If they’re lucky — and if they’re suited for such tasks — they might get a chance to do Schutzhund or go to agility trials and dance through some weave poles. But again, it's hardly the real 8-hr. day, punching the time-clock down at the elk herd type stuff, is it?

Meanwhile our species, the human animal — who also used to hunt (and gather) for a living — now expend much less of our physical energy toward putting food into our dinner bowls. Sure, some of us still farm the land and pull nets full of fish out of the sea. But the difference (or one of them) is that those of us who engage in that kind of hard, physical labor on a regular basis don’t need gym memberships. Most of the rest of us do.

Why is that? Why do we go to the gym, or the golf course, or go hiking or kayaking or play tennis or go skiing?

Because pushing feels good. Whether your thing is lifting weights, jogging on a treadmill, doing pilates, playing golf or tennis, hiking, kayaking, skiing, or going to a spin class, you’re pushing against something to get a result. And the pushing feels good.

Think about it: in a spin class you’re pushing the pedals on the bike. In tennis you’re pushing your back, leg, shoulder, and arm muscles to go after the ball so you can put the right force and spin and velocity on it to “push” it back over the net. In golf you’re using those same muscles to put enough force against that little ball to drive it (push it) down the fairway. If you’re on a treadmill you’re pushing your leg muscles to work past your own internal resistance. If you’re doing pilates you’re pushing against your core.

Why is Michael Phelps the best swimmer in the world? His physical gifts are part of it, but there are other swimmers with his height, his reach. Why does he consistently perform better? Why do some football teams always seem to come from behind in the final minutes to win a big game while other teams tend to fade in the clutch? The kind of athletes who come through, when others can't, usually do so because they’re good at pushing past their own internal resistance, past that internal voice that says to the rest of us, “I can’t do this.”

Do dogs have such an inner voice?

Not exactly. But if the dogs I described in the case histories I cited above could talk they might very well say things like this:

“I can’t hold my bladder muscles until I get outside the house!”

“I can’t bring the Frisbee back to my owners!”

“I can’t walk on sidewalk grates!”

“I can’t control myself when I see other dogs eating!”

“I can’t obey commands or not chase squirrels or not be dominant!”

“I can’t walk down 72nd Street!”

“I can’t be left alone in the apartment!”

Well, my little doggies, the truth is, “Yes, you can!”

You just have to learn how to push past your own internal resistance. You just need to have someone with a nice big pouch of food, take you outdoors, and teach you how to push for your dinner. You don’t have to push very hard at first. You don’t even have to push at all if you don’t want to. But slowly and gradually, the more you learn how hard you can push, and how good it feels to push that hard, and then even a little harder, and a little harder after that, you’ll start to realize that:

You can do anything!

And guess who’s the one teaching you that wonderful lesson?

That’s right. It’s the person who loves you. He or she is the one who’s like Michael Phelps’ trainer, or Tom Brady or Joe Montana, the one person who knows you can do it. That you can come from behind, you can get out of the hole you’re in, and prevail! That you are a strong doggie with a wonderful, wild heritage. And that you can do anything.

All you need is a little push…

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Can “Bark Therapy” Help Cure Canine PTSD?

Like Talk Therapy for Humans, Bark Therapy Helps Some Dogs
August 31, 2012.

How a Sheltie Helped “Cure” My Dog Freddie’s PTSD
In 1993, when my Dalmatian Freddie first developed PTSD, he was having daily panic attacks brought on by any number of noises coming from the city streets: the air brakes from a city bus, a loud horn honking, the gate being closed on a beer truck, etc, etc, etc. 

We lived 4 city blocks from Central Park, where we went every morning to play Frisbee or chase sticks. In the park, Freddie was fully alive and completely happy. But most days it was torture to navigate our way there without some sudden noise causing a panic attack.

I had been training dogs for only a few years at the time, but I was constantly studying the subject, looking for answers on the best ways to train these wonderful animals, but more importantly the best ways to help them deal with emotional issues.

Just prior to the onset of Freddie’s PTSD I went through what I call my Karen Pryor phase, where I was fired up by the seemingly unassailable truth Ms. Pryor merrily puts forth in her book Don’t Shoot the Dog! Pryor was convinced about the complete and total effectiveness of operant conditioning. To Pryor—and to me at the time—behavioral science seemed to be as inevitable as the law of gravity.  

The trouble is, no matter how hard I tried, nothing I could find in the OC bag of tricks was of any help to Freddie. Nothing, nada, zippo. And while each of Freddie’s attacks didn’t last very long, they kept happening, over and over, day after lonely day.

I began talking to any and every dog owner I knew, hoping to find something that would keep Fred from going into what seemed like constant episodes of pure terror. One person I spoke to was the owner of a Sheltie named Duncan. Duncan and Freddie often played together in Central Park when they were young pups.

Duncan’s owner commiserated with my dilemma, then he said, “You know, come to think of it, Duncan used to be afraid of thunderstorms.”

“Really?” I asked, desperate to know the secret. “How did you fix it?”

“Oh, I didn’t. Duncan did it on his own.”

“Okay... How did Duncan fix it?”

“Well, one day he barked at the lightning, and he was never afraid of thunder again.”

Of course, I thought. Instead of going into the flight part of the fight-or-flight response, Duncan was fighting back, he was “attacking” the thing that scared him.

Luckily, I had already taught Freddie to “Speak!” So for the first time in months I was actually looking forward to his next panic attack, just to see if what had cured Duncan of his phobias might cure Freddie as well.

We were on our way to the park when the next attack came. 

Poor Freddie's ears went back, his eyes started to “spin,” his tail went between his legs, and he seemed ready to run in any possible direction.

I held the leash firm and calmly said, “Freddie, speak!”

Nothing happened.

I tried it again.

Again, nothing.

Finally, on the 4th or 5th try, a deep rumbling bark emerged from Freddie’s throat. And when it did he was instantly a different dog. His ears pricked up, his tail and shoulders returned to normal, his breathing became light and steady and he looked at me as if to say, “Why are we just standing here? I thought we were going to the park…”

Over the course of the next few weeks I used this technique repeatedly until a funny—or I should say a wonderful—thing happened. Freddie’s panic attacks became less and less frequent.

One important caveat: when using this technique with some dogs, the barking is such a release that it interferes with their normal impulse control behaviors. In other words the barking gets the dog too revved up to be able to settle down as quickly as Freddie did. For such dogs the next step after releasing the bark should be to give her something to bite or hold onto with her teeth and jaws. Doing that should settle the dog’s nerves quite nicely. Of course all dogs are different, so your mileage may vary. But that’s what works for me.

So how do you teach a dog to speak in the first place? And what do you if the dog won’t stop barking once he’s started?

How to Teach a Dog to “Speak!” and Be “Quiet!”
Teaching a dog to speak on command is a fairly simple procedure. You start by showing the dog a treat. You tease her with it, then growl a little. Then you bark a little. Keep teasing her with the treat, keep barking and growling.

At some point—it might take 3 seconds or it might take 30 minutes—either a bark or a small noise of some kind will start to tickle the dog's throat. When it does, immediately give her the treat, then say “Speak!” as she takes it in her mouth.

Repeat several times, and you’re done till the next session. It’s important to re-teach her the command in different locales, at different times of day, etc.

Note: It took Freddie over 30 minutes of frustration, on his part and mine, before he finally uttered a sound. It’s easier if you do your training at a time of day when your dog’s emotions are already primed for barking, for example when you first come home.

Once you can reliably get the dog to speak on command, the next step is to teach her what “Quiet!” means.

Here's how:

Tease her with a treat. Say “Speak!” and as she barks, keep repeating the command. Get her to bark 7 or 8 or 10 or 15 times, however long she seems able to sustain the barking. Then interrupt her by giving her the treat and saying “Quiet!” in a hushed, not angry, voice.

Again, repeat several times, then re-teach her the command in different locales, etc.

Once the dog is totally reliable with the “Speak!” command you can begin to use it to dispel all kinds of fears. 

For instance, I had 3 dogs staying with me recently on the 4th of July. Two of them had been taught to speak on command, and one hadn’t. Once the fireworks started, and the sound of “thunder” began to roll in, the two who had been taught to speak were unfazed by the racket, though one did have to be reminded to bark at her fears before they went away. The other dogthe one who hadn’t been taught to bark at her fearswas quite trembly for some time.

Does the Barking Cure Work on PTSD?
Severe traumatic stress creates a lasting imprint that's difficult, though not impossible, to erase. But teaching a dog to bark when he's frightened can help reduce or alleviate the fears he or she may be feeling in the now moment. Again, it’s a matter of switching the dog’s survival responses from freeze or flight to the fight component. [1]

With Freddie I had to do a few other things beside have him bark when he was in a panic before his symptoms disappeared entirely. But I think that speaking on command was the first chink in his PTSD armor.

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1.) If part of the dog's PTSD symptomology already involves excessive barking, this technique may be somewhat counter-productive at first, so please proceed with caution.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Case History No. 2—Fancy the Boxer

Are Pet Dogs More at Risk for Developing PTSD?

Seeing the Forest and the Trees
It has become clear in the past year or so that dogs can suffer from PTSD. Most of the media attention has been focused on U.S. military dogs who’ve suffered trauma during wartime deployment.

However, military dogs are “a special breed.” They come from hardy stock, chosen for their working character. During training they’re tested to withstand the rigors of combat. It’s rare for a dog who’s afraid of loud noises or is unable to focus on his job under chaotic conditions to ever make it into battle. Bottom line: these are tough, well-trained dogs with nerves of steel.

Certainly the kinds of trauma our military dogs experience goes beyond what we would normally expect a pet dog to endure. Yet imagine how difficult it is for dogs who haven’t had such rigorous training and who don’t come from the same genetic lines to be put into a stressful or traumatic situation, particularly one they can’t escape from.

Since I first wrote about Canine PTSD over a year ago I’ve had occasion to work with a number of dogs whose behavioral problems could probably fit into that category. Yet in some cases I didn’t see the forest for the trees, or rather the forest and the trees. Here I offer the first in a series of case histories where I originally didn’t think PTSD was a factor, and an now either convinced that it was or feel that it might have been.

This first case falls into the latter category. It took place about 5 years ago, back when Canine PTSD wasn’t on my radar screen and probably not much on anyone else’s either. It involves a sweet, sensitive white boxer named Fancy.

Emotional Compression?
Fancy was a little over 4 months old when her owners first contacted me. She had a mild case of separation anxiety; she wasn’t barking and whining or destroying the furniture, just soiling the carpet. Another problem was her frantic barking at other dogs, particularly at the dog run. She never bit any of them, but had been bit herself a few times. Finally, she had an irrepressible tendency to jump up on anyone who made eye contact or said hello; i.e., she was overfriendly.

Fancy had kennel cough as a puppy, which developed into pneumonia when she was about 3 ½ months (i.e., during her social development phase). She wasn’t allowed contact with other dogs during that time. Then, once the pneumonia developed she was kept in cage at the vet’s office for 4 days and nights. She had an IV tube in her leg, and had to wear a Victorian collar. When her owners came to visit every night after work, Fancy was wildly happy to see them. 

Unfortunately, this meant that the vet techs had to restrain the poor dog by surrounding her and clamping down hard to keep the IV from coming out and the Victorian collar from coming off. This only made her wiggle harder and struggle more to get free.

An unfortunate effect of being ill was that Fancy had to be kept away from other dogs for the first 5 months. She was taken on brief walks, and kept away from other dogs. 

However, I don’t believe that if a dog isn’t forced to interact with other dogs and humans during a “critical period,” she’ll never be socialized. I’ve known too many dogs who had little or no socialization during that period and were very adept socially, while others who'd been socialized too much became anti-social as a result. Fancy is walking proof that the socialization period isn’t as critical as once thought. She’s very social but under certain circumstances she starts to panic.

During my first few days with Fancy I noticed a that when she met a dog at the dog run whom she wanted very badly to play with, she liked to start her games very close to me, practically on top of me, or if I were sitting at one of the benches, practically under my feet. Unfortunately, the closer she played to me, the quicker things got out of hand with the other dog. If I encouraged her to run away from me and chase the other dog, or let the other dog chase her, she was free of all worries. It was only when she played in cramped quarters that the fear would rise.

For the first month we didn’t do any obedience work. Fancy was too young. Instead I encouraged her to play with me, I got her to chase me around the park, played fetch and tug with her, and did what’s called “The Pushing Exercise,” all of which I think should be the first points of attack for almost all behavioral problems, particularly PTSD.

After 3 days of getting Fancy to play with me, and to push into me while eating, her owners called to ask me if I’d been working on her fear of sidewalk grates. I hadn’t, but "The Pushing Exercise” and getting her to play with me had apparently solved a problem I wasn’t even aware of.

Fancy’s separation anxiety is long gone The dog run is still hit-and-miss, so her only playtime with other dogs is during off-leash hours in Central Park. She also plays with her friends when she comes to my place for day care or when I board her overnight. However, if she feels hemmed in by a strange dog outdoors, her hackles still come up and she still reacts.

Bad Socialization or Unintentional Traumatization?
Fancy went through a short but intense period of separation from her owners, and continual, daily feelings of stress. So her body was constantly producing stress hormones and neurochemicals while her young brain was still developing, which may have had a lasting effect on her behavior. I also think there’s a direct connection to being clamped down on by the vet techs and some of Fancy's behaviors around other dogs.

Being kept locked up in the crate was stressful but it wasn’t a critical factor. She’s fine with being kept in a crate and even goes in on her own. This indicates that the experience which caused her PTSD wasn't being crated but was probably being “kept calm” by the vet techs. But is it really PTSD?

It’s hard to say. However, the fact that the other dogs aren’t doing anything to set her off suggests that she’s not responding to their behavior in the now moment but to something that happened in the past. And the fact that she gets particularly prickly when she feels hemmed in suggests that a part of her is still trying to break free from the grip of those well-meaning vet techs. Remember, in the park, where there’s ample space for running, Fancy has a lovely time playing with other dogs. She’s happy, carefree and easygoing. She’ll often initiate play in new and inventive ways.

Ultimately, while we don’t know for sure that Fancy’s issues with other dogs are truly a result of PTSD, I think it’s important to keep our minds open to the possibility that a persistent behavioral problem involving survival-type behaviors such as fear and aggression may very well have its basis in a stressful traumatic incident, one that the dog, for one reason or another, seems compelled to re-live over and over.

What to Look For
I think this shows that in some cases the external events surrounding a case of Canine PTSD can be deceiving. Remember, the primary cause of this disorder is an event or series of events that stimulate sustained feelings of fear and danger, where there is no possible escape or where escape actually compounds the danger and the dog’s stress. Fancy desperately wanted to escape from the grip of these strangers, and make contact with her owners, but couldn’t.

It’s unfortunate that Fancy has had to endure this problem and that I wasn’t aware of it until recently. She’s an otherwise sweet-natured, good-hearted, happy dog. Her owners are always getting compliments on how well-behaved and well-trained she is.

Now that we're aware of the possibility that Fancy may have PTSD we can start re-doing some of the things that helped her initially: "The Pushing Exercise," playing tug-of-war outdoors, and working on impulse control. Most importantly we can afford to be a bit more patient with her. After all, NONE OF THIS IS HER FAULT.

Fancy is a wonderful dog. She’s making progress. It's true some days are better than others, but that's probably true for most of us as well.

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