Thursday, February 28, 2013

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.


  1. My teenage son and I are volunteer dog walkers at our county dog shelter. This summer we became fond of a 3-5 year old Boxer/Shepard mix named Alpine. Over the course of the summer at the shelter, Alpine had been adopted and subsequently returned twice for 'anxiety issues'. By the end of the summer, he had become thin and withdrawn and considered potentially un-adoptable. Having recently lost a dog to old age and having some experience with the extra effort required of special needs cases, we brought him to our home.
    For the first two weeks, he slept constantly. The third week his anxieties became noticeable when it thundered or rained or any other unexpected loud noise. One afternoon he actually pushed through a screen of a first floor window and ran away, after being spooked by the washing machine making a loud clunking noise. ….Thankfully a good samaritan picked him up and he was unharmed.
    From the beginning we suspected and treated him as if he had separation anxiety and slowly worked up to leaving him alone and he did very well, staying calmly on his dog bed for periods up to 2 hours.
    One day last week while I was out for a few errands, a brief and unexpected rainstorm with thunder moved into the area and Alpine attempted to escape through every door and window in our house, tearing down curtains, damaging window frames and pulling a metal kick plate off the door.
    We have noticed that panic attacks are more likely to occur on the weekends and hearing just seconds of a televised football game will elicit a major panic response where he paces the house looking for an escape.
    After constant research on how to help him it occurred to me that he likely suffers from PTSD. He has what look like panic attacks where he wants to escape coupled with frequent night terrors... and all of his canines are worn down or broken. Trauma?
    I have him on a high quality home cooked diet supplemented with fish oil, ground flax, and coconut oil. Each morning and evening he gets one Composure chew and when he is panicked, I will add a thunder shirt (just helps calm the shaking), pheromone spray and flower essences (ETS for Animals by Perelandra). I'll put him in a sit or lay down to halt the pacing and window checking. All help lower the level of panic a tad but its evident he is still miserable.
    He is walked at least 60 minutes a day and usually more. I have been joining a neighbor and walking with her and her dogs and Alpine has shown much success in adapting to their very different personalities. One is well mannered, the other can be pushy. Might it be a good idea to let them play off leash?
    My husband and son play with him off leash just about every day…mostly fetch but really it looks like a game of keep away where Alpine has to work to get the ball then he runs like crazy. His face is relaxed and happy when they play…usually its the only time in the day he looks happy.
    From the beginning my instincts told me he didn't know how to relax and be a dog. It was noticeable the first week or so when meeting other dogs in the neighborhood. I have contemplated doggie daycare to help socialize him and offer more playtime.
    Do you find this helpful for dogs with anxiety and PTSD?
    We plan to start immediately on the Bark and Push therapies. Any other suggestions?

  2. Hi Jaret,

    Taking a dog to day care won't cure separation anxiety/distress. It might keep him out of trouble, though I got an email from someone yesterday who tried that with her dog, and it didn't work. It sometimes DOES work, though.

    As for fetch, it provides only a limited amount help, especially if Alpine isn't bringing the ball back to you.

    Have you tried the "two-ball trick?" When he's got the first ball in his mouth, tease him with a similar ball until he drops the one he's got, then throw your ball for him to chase. If you time it right, it's a good way to induce the dog to bring the ball back to you. The fact that he's not indicates that he's got some social resistance toward people in general.

    Tug is much more therapeutic than fetch, though you can mix the two together.

    So try the pushing exercise and the bark therapy. You should also try doing the collecting exercise. You can find videos of it on my Youtube channel.

    Also on my website:

    And this might help, too:

    Let me know how it goes,


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  5. Its been several weeks and I wanted to write you with follow up on our Alpine.
    Immediately after writing you last time, we started the pushing exercise as well as tug and bark therapy.
    Over time we have noticed that barking helped reduce the escalation of panic and has greatly shortened the recovery time. He still gets scared, but less so and he gets over it much more quickly.
    I first wrote you after a rain storm resulted him trying the escape every door and window in the house. The other day it was raining and sleeting loudly enough to normally get him into a full quiver and panic. I was shocked….on his own he retreated to a room that is quiet (no sky lights) and was sleeping! …Not sure I'm ready to trust him alone during a storm just yet, but I was very pleased with his problem solving.
    And at first, he was unable to tug and could or would not grip down on the rope. He now seems to really enjoy the game and has definitely improved, now proficient at grabbing and tugging. I have noticed his play skills with other dogs is improving as well. He is definitely much, much more affectionate with us …but still does not bring the ball back.
    We have a couple of questions. We had been doing the pushing exercise on our patio but its now winter here. Should we break on that exercise until the weather allows?
    Anything else we could be doing to help keep the momentum going on his progress?
    Thank you so much for your help. We are thrilled with his progress.

  6. Hey Jaret,

    Thanks for the feedback! It really made my day!

    I'm so glad things are going well.

    There are a couple more things you can do. One is the collecting exercise. Here's a video showing how it's done.

    Here's another:

    Essentially you want Alpine to "collect" all his energy onto his haunches, while he settles back into a down position.

    I would also do some deep tissue massage of Alpine's shoulders, back and haunches.

    I would also love to post part of your comments on my website along with a photo of Alpine, if you'd like me to. If not, that's okay too.

    As to your last question, about keeping the momentum going, the key to getting rid of those last bits of fear and anxiety is to try and match the intensity of whatever the trauma was that happened to Alpine originally, but in a way that he can let it all go. I'm not saying you want to repeat that experience. I'm saying that you want to be able to build his intensity in play to a point where it matches the intense nature of the original trauma.

    I think the collecting and the massage might help, but I think he really has to bite down on the tug toy as hard as he can so that all that residual fear can be released.

    If you have any questions or problems, please let me know.