Originally published in "My Puppy, My Self" at PscyhologyToday.com on August 1, 2011.
In her recent blog post, "Why Dogs Heal PTSD," Tracy Stecker beautifully describes how the canine-human bond can help war veterans overcome PTSD and start getting back to normal.
We usually think of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a condition primarily afflicting such veterans. But battered children and spouses can also exhibit symptoms. Victims of automobile accidents, natural disasters, and violent crimes can too. So can abused dogs.
Nicholas Dodman, of Tufts University, says, "There is a condition in dogs which is almost precisely the same, if not precisely the same, as PTSD in humans."
There was a case in the news recently of a canine Iraq-war veteran, a formerly-playful 2-year-old German shepherd named Gina, who developed PTSD as a result of her duties as a bomb-sniffing dog. She returned home to Colorado cowering and fearful.
"She showed all the symptoms," said Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, the kennel master at Peterson Air Force Base. "She was terrified of everybody." She was no longer the "great little pup" Haynes remembered. She wanted nothing to do with people. "She'd withdrawn from society as a whole."
Haynes and other handlers coaxed Gina on walks, sending someone ahead to pass out treats for bystanders to give her. They got her over her fear of walking through doors by stationing someone she knew on the other side to reward her with pats and play.
"She started learning that everyone wasn't trying to get her," Haynes said. "She began acting more social again."
Dr. Nicholas Dodman says he doubts that Gina can recover completely. "Fears once learned are never unlearned. The best thing you can do is apply new learning, which is what (Gina's handlers are) doing."
I think fears can be unlearned, or at least disposed of. I've helped many dogs with PTSD-like symptoms recover completely.
I once worked with a Jack Russell (also named Gina) who had been so abused by her previous trainer (who believed in dominance) that if you said the words "stay" or "down" casually, even on the phone, she would panic, evacuate her bowels, and hide under the bed for 4 hours.
I asked Gina's owner if there was anything she did, in any situation, where she acted like a real Jack Russell, determined to bite or wrestle with something or someone.
They told me there was. They called it the spoon game. If you dropped a spoon (or fork or knife) on the kitchen floor, Gina would come tearing out from under the bed, grab the utensil in her mouth, shake her head around furiously, "killing it," then race to the living room, hide it under a sofa cushion and bark at it until someone came to pull it out for her.
Her owners didn't like playing this game because Gina didn't know when to stop. But I knew (or felt) it was the key to curing her fear of the words "down" and "stay."
Over the course of half-an-hour, I helped Gina get over her fears.
First, I dropped the spoon on the kitchen floor, watched Gina go through her playful/predatory routine, then I pulled the spoon out from its hidey-hole, teased the dog with it, and said, in a very happy and playful voice, "Down!"
Each time I did this she bolted straight back to her spot under the bed.
I'd wait a few minutes, then drop the spoon on the kitchen floor again. By the end of our session I had not only cured Gina of her panic, but she was actually obeying the down command as if it were the most fun thing in the world to her.
She loved it!
Some might say I was desensitizing Gina to the word "down." I can understand that, but I don't see it that way. I see this as what drive trainers call conflict training. Putting the dog in a state of conflict over what she wants to do (run and hide) as opposed to what you want her to do (lie down on command).
It works by making the dog see that, a) she's safe from harm, and b) that obeying the command is more fun, and more satisfying, than hiding under the bed.
Once a dog feels safe, at least within certain controllable parameters, it will naturally start to gravitate toward playful -- i.e., predatory -- behaviors, because the prey drive is the source of a dog's strongest, deepest, and happiest social impulses.
The reason I thought I might be able to cure Gina's PTSD-like symptoms was because the first dog I ever cured of such fears was my own dog, a Dalmatian named Freddie.
When he was around 14 mos. old, Freddie was frightened by the sound of a Manhattan store gate being dropped very loudly right next to his head. He bolted across the busy street, almost getting hit by several cars, which frightened him even more.
Some well-meaning pedestrians on the other side tried to stop him, but they lunged at him, trying to grab his collar. This put him in a blind panic. He ran all the way from Second Avenue to Central Park, where he hid out in a secluded section called "The Ramble." He lived there, hidden from view -- drinking lake water and eating grass -- for 3 days.
A nice young woman found him while walking her Doberman pinscher. She'd seen one of the flyers I'd put up all over town, and called to tell me the good news. Fred was a bit skinny, and his poops were green, but otherwise he was fine: tired but happy.
About a week later he started having panic attacks. The slightest noise -- the kind that most New Yorkers (and most New York dogs) easily tune out -- would set him off. His eyes would widen, his ears went back, his breath became quick and shallow, and his head, shoulders and tail went down. He was in a blind panic.
This went on for months. There was no escaping the ubiquitous noise of the city. And nothing seemed to help. Desensitization didn't work. And once he was in a panic, distracting him with food was impossible. The only two things that helped, at least temporarily, were having him bark on command, and having him carry a toy in his mouth.
The first -- barking -- I learned from a Sheltie name Duncan, who cured himself of thunder-phobia by barking at the storms. Once I learned about Duncan's trick, I immediately tried it with Freddie. I had already taught Fred to speak on command so the next time he went into a panic state, I said, "Speak, Freddie, speak!" I had to repeat the command a few times before he could "hear" me over the fear. But as soon as he barked, his ears, shoulders, and tail came up, and he behaved as if nothing had happened.
This was a very helpful tool for dealing with his panic state while they were happening, but it didn't stop them from recurring.
The second technique -- carrying a toy around in his mouth -- seemed to work like a baby's pacifier. As long as Freddie held the toy firmly between his jaws he was less prone to be thrown off-balance emotionally by sudden noises.
Dogs need to know where the danger is.
One of the hallmarks of canine social play -- where two dogs play together -- is the mock danger involved. Take most playful behaviors, remove the playfulness and pretense, and you've got aggression and, yes ... danger.
The other forms of play that most dogs and owners are familiar with, involve chasing and biting prey objects: Frisbees, tennis balls, sticks, and tug toys. Going back to the wolf model, an inhibited wolf -- one who's shy about chasing prey objects (in this case rabbits, mice or moose) -- won't survive long. So the act of chasing a prey object involves losing one's inhibitions. The act of catching up with it, grabbing hold of it, and "killing" it, is also enormously satisfying.
The thing that eventually cured Freddie completely was when I was able to engage him in all-out, whole-hearted, rough-and-tumble play, where he got to chase a tennis ball with all his might, and bite down on it as hard as he could. The day I got Freddie to play like that, with all his heart, was the last day he exhibited any symptoms of panic or PTSD. And he lived to the age of 15 (which in dog years is 105!).
That's why I knew (or hoped) that "the spoon game" would cure Gina.
Going back to the other Gina (the former bomb-sniffing shepherd). She was described by her handlers as being a playful pup. Well, of course! All puppies are playful. But part of the treatment that enabled her to trust people again, and to no longer be frightened of doorways, etc., was "giving her pats and play" whenever she went through a door.
Play therapy can work wonders in dogs with PTSD.
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