Do Dogs Get PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychological disorder generally considered a result of real or perceived threat(s) to life, serious bodily injury, witnessed threat to others, destruction or loss of a home or community. Similarly, dogs can develop PTSD from these same situations. I’ve seen dogs after such events. The jolt, the pain, of experiencing one or more traumas were beyond what the dog was capable of handling. There are some very recognizable behaviors in a dog with PTSD. They can be grouped into two categories: fight or flight. Some examples…

1.) I’ve seen dogs that became seriously aggressive after just one dog fight. I worked with a pit bull that was attacked at an off leash park. Prior to that attack, this dog was generally calm, playful, good with people and good with other animals. After that attack, he became hypervigilant, and very aggressive towards other dogs, and suspicious of strangers. Muscuolskeletal injury can trigger PTSD.

2.) I’ve seen dogs that were tormented by people who became seriously fearful. I remember a dog that was terrorized by a man’s neurotic girlfriend. This dog became dangerously aggressive towards people it didn’t know, and had put several people in the hospital.

3.) I spoke recently to a woman who lived a rough life as a drug addict. Her dog saw her beaten up by several men. As an adult dog, that dog would not let men get near her. The dog was good with women and children, but had attacked several people, including her current boyfriend, and put him in the hospital. It is well known that cattle who have been threatened by wolves don’t gain proper weight, reproduce less, have smaller calves, are sick more often, and are generally more fearful. Similarly, even witnessing domestic violence in the home can trigger PTSD in a dog.

4.) I’ve seen PTSD dogs that got loose, ran away, and lived on the streets. No more family, no more territory. I’ve seen PTSD dogs after being in animal shelters for days or weeks. It is especially acute with puppies in typical government run animal shelters. Many of these normal and friendly dogs become hypervigilant. Some become terrified of everything and everyone. Others become hyper aggressive. I’ve also seen dogs that changed after the death of another dog in the home. Some will bond very quickly and closely to one person after being rescued, yet others won’t bond and won’t trust afterwards. You often see these PTSD dogs who act as if they are meeting a dangerous stranger, even if the person lives with that dog and is around the dog every day.

PTSD dogs exhibit hyperarousal, always looking out for danger, are jittery, reacting to simple sounds, sights, and even known people. Many of these dogs just can’t settle down. I remember one case where the owners said the dog “never slept”. It was always pacing, always moving, awake all day and all night. Yes, the dog actually fell asleep, but only briefly, but was then back up and about, vigilant, barking a lot, pacing. The PTSD dog is anxious all the time.

Regarding treatment, I have not found medications alone to be all that effective. I see PSTD dogs on drugs, and they don’t have much effect, except in some cases to make the dog sleep all the time. That isn’t a solution.

There are behavioral interventions I use with these PTSD dogs, but it takes a long time (months, and sometimes years) and a diligent, caring owner. Recovery is slow, and it takes the patience of Job to work on the daily homework. Previous training is often lost, and has to be started all over again, but in tiny steps. I’ve seen owners get angry or forceful with these dogs, saying the dog is stubborn or disobedient, that they are trying to be stronger leaders, often banishing the dogs to the back yard or a room when the dog starts barking or acting out, but their efforts aren’t working. I have to show them that the dog is not stubborn or fighting them, but is in bad shape and needing kind and thoughtful help.

If you have a dog exhibiting PTSD symptoms, let’s set up a consultation.

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