Originally published in slightly different form on October 3, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.
“You don’t want to make me mad. You wouldn’t 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.
There are three basic ways to diagnose PTSD in pet dogs.
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 strangely and overly attached to Mr. H. and had 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 something about Pushkin that Noodles liked. But on a couple of other occasions Noodles had a chance to meet other intact males, and acted in a similar fashion. This suggested that, unlike most neutered dogs, Noodles was highly attracted to the scent given off by these dogs’ testosterone. 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 fear or caution 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 in so doing makes the correct admission.” (General Psychological Theory, 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 wiith 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, he’s an amazingly sweet dog.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
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