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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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Case History No. 1—My Dog Fred

Does PTSD Cause Brain Damage in Dogs?

“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 it turns out that 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 to 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 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 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]

Glucocorticoidsreleased during stress-related experiencesin 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 permanent or 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 war games like Halo.

Some in the field believe that violent video 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.

It seems to me that 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 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 massaging his muscles in a very gentle manner 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 playing with a dog who has PTSD you can 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.

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

Friday, February 22, 2013

Canine PTSD: Its Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

How Can You Determine If Your Dog Has PTSD?

Reactivity in Dogs
I got the following email message the other day from a company called Dogwise. They publish and sell books primarily about reward-based dog training.

“Probably the hottest topic in dog behavior and training circles right now is reactivity. You may never be able to ‘cure’ a dog who is reactive—it’s hard to counter poor socialization and/or genetics—but there are a number of ways you may be able to control it, at least some of the time...”

My first reaction was to the word “reactive.” I’ve never understood how or why that term is being applied to behavior problems in dogs. It seems to me that if a dog doesn’t react to stimuli, that’s when he’s got serious physical, emotional or behavioral problems. 

Then, when the blurb informed me that “you may never be able to ‘cure’ a dog who is reactive,” I chalked that up to the fact that behavioral science techniques are usually ineffective, or at the very least only mildly effective, at solving most behavioral problems in dogs, because in my experience they’re geared to focus on changing outward behaviors rather than finding and changing the underlying cause. 

But as I thought more about it I realized that a very high percentage of the dogs being described as “reactive,” are actually over-reacting to stimuli, which suggests that they may be suffering from Canine PTSD, which is, indeed, very “difficult to cure.” 

Stress: The Underlying Cause
The database of the National Technical Information Service—an agency of the U.S. Government—shows that as many as 70% of individuals [human beings] living in the United States have experienced at least one serious traumatic event during their lifetime. But according to investigators at Boston University School of Medicine only 8% of those people whove experienced some form of trauma have developed PTSD as a result. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have a database showing the percentage of dogs who’ve experienced trauma. But given the number of dogs abandoned or brought to shelters every year, plus the number injured in fights with other dogs, and the number who’ve been mistreated by their owners, or mishandled by their trainers, groomers or vet techs (it happens), not to mention those who’ve been struck by a car, gotten lost, were fought over during a divorce, etc, etc, etc, I would be very surprised if the number of dogs whove experienced some type of trauma wasn’t at least 70%. And I’d also be surprised if the number of dogs who’ve developed symptoms of PTSD as a result of such wasn’t very close to the figure of 8% found in human beings. 

This would suggests that since there are roughly 75 million pet dogs in America, theres a real possibility that more than 6 million American dogs might have PTSD. 

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that “more than 5 percent of the approximately 650 deployed military dogs are developing some form of canine PTSD,” meaning that there are only 30 or so who’ve developed the disorder. Granted, in working military dogs the symptoms are usually much more severe than what see in pet dogs. But the problem still exists pet dogs, and in much larger numbers. 

So when does a traumatic event of any kind stay a one-time thing, and when does it actually cause PTSD? And can we apply any of the criteria used in diagnosing PTSD in humans to diagnose our dogs as well? 

I think so. 

Diagnosing Canine PTSD
In humans, PTSD is not just caused by a traumatic experience, but one that causes a tremendous amount of stress. The traumatic event causes the body to release a cocktail of hormones and neurochemicals specifically designed to deal with that stress. But in large doses those chemical agents also can reportedly cause the same or similar kinds of neurological damage found in patients with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). This can adversely affect mood, memory and learning in deep and lasting ways. (See: Does PTSD Cause Brain Damage in Dogs?) *

Since much of the literature on how stress affects memory, learning, and behavior in humans comes from animal studies—primarily on rats and mice—and since a dog’s body produces the same basic kinds of stress hormones produced by rats and humans, it’s very likely that dogs—even pet dogs—can develop symptoms of PTSD. 

In humans these symptoms include re-experiencing the original trauma, fearful avoidance of stimuli associated with that event, and increased forms of arousal such as an sleep disturbances, rage, aggression, and lastly hypervigilance, or in the lingua obscura of some dog trainers: “reactivity.” 

Granted, our lives are much more complicated and stressful than the kind our dogs lead. A human being can develop PTSD simply by observing the scene of an accident or natural disaster. Some can develop symptoms just by looking at videos or photographs. Dogs aren’t as deeply affected by the passive observation of horrific events as we are. 

On the other hand, there are far more cultural taboos and legal restrictions against doing harm to human beings than there are about hurting dogs. Remember, up until a few years ago the most popular training book in America—How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, by the Monks of New Skete—contained the following “training” advice: “How hard should you hit your dog? If she doesn’t yelp in pain you haven’t hit her hard enough.” 

Hurting dogs is pervasive in our country. People like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick—who spent time in prison for running a dog-fighting ring out of his home—are just a drop in the bucket in terms of the kind of people out there brutalizing dogs on a regular basis.

With all that in mind I would be very surprised to find that the number of dogs in America who have Canine PTSD isn’t more than double or even triple the 6 million I suggested above. 

Diagnostic Signs of PTSD in Human Beings
  • Criterion A – Exposure to a traumatic stressor. 
  • Criterion B – Re-experiencing the event (flashbacks). 
  • Criterion C – Avoidance and numbing. 
  • Criterion D – Hyperarousal. 
  • Criterion E – Duration of symptoms for at least 1 month. 
  • Criterion F – Significant impairment of normal functioning. 

Personally, I think dogs can exhibit all 5 of these signs and symptoms. The only one that might seem controversial is the idea that dogs can have “flashbacks.” I think that depends on how we view the differences between how memory operates in humans and dogs.
In human beings, memory operates on three basic levels: physical (i.e., unconscious or procedural) memory, emotional (or affective) memory, and mental, or declarative memory (which includes semantic, episodic, and autobiographical memory). Only the last requires both a sense of self and a linear sense of time (knowing that there’s a past, present, and future), forms of cognition that dogs don’t have (or don’t seem to). 

In human subjects, flashbacks come primarily from sense memory; the sound of chopper blades for example. This then triggers emotional memory, where the fear, panic and helplessness experienced during the original trauma, come flooding back, raising blood pressure, releasing stress hormones, etc, etc. In many cases, the subject doesn’t even realize that he or she is not actually safe in bed or hiding in the closet, but is convinced that he or she is back on the battlefield or is about to be sexually assaulted, etc. 

It seems to me that dogs are quite capable of experiencing both sense memory and emotional memory. In fact, the work of two Russians—physiologist Ivan Pavlov and theater director (and inventor of “method acting”) Constantin Stanislavsky—show quite clearly that sense memory and emotional memory are inextricably linked. 

I should point out that the 5 diagnostic criteria I mentioned above are only broad categories, and that there are many much finer points to be looked at when diagnosing PTSD in humans. I think the same should hold true for diagnosing Canine PTSD as well. 

To help with this I’ve created a mock-up for a potential Canine PTSD questionnaire to be filled out by a dog’s owner, veterinarian, trainer or behaviorist. It can be found by clicking here. (I would be very interested in getting feedback, whether some things should be added, subtracted, or tossed out altogether.) 

Please keep in mind that most of what I’m saying is hypothetical. We need more research, we need to create a much larger yet credible database. We need to start thinking along new lines. PTSD is not something that can only happen to human beings, or to our military dogs. Those brave and hardworking four-legged members of our armed forces are showing us that there’s a much larger problem right under our noses, affecting millions of American doggies, animals who are currently nestled safely on their doggie beds or sleeping on our couches, and yet who may be in emotional distress and need our help. 

If you agree with or relate to anything I’ve said, please pass it on to your vet, dog trainer, and anyone else you think might be able to help us move forward in making this problem more widely known. 

I firmly believe that Canine PTSD is a very real condition that can be found in a great many pet dogs, and we need to start addressing it now.

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