In 2006, Willie who came to us as an eight-week old puppy who behaved as if he’d served three tours in Afghanistan, and came back with the canine version of PTSD. The title of The Education of Will is in part based on his name. In the book I talk about how all mammals can be psychologically traumatized, and that they share many of the same needs as human survivors for a sense of safety and autonomy.
One of my motivations for writing the book was to make it clear to the general public that dogs can experience trauma, and that the last thing they need is force or coercion to “behave.”
Given that I’m traveling around the the country talking about this issue through the very personal lens of Willie and myself, it seemed appropriate to repost this article that I wrote in September of 2015, about how to identify a traumatized dog, and how to help it recover.
In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Dr. Perry writes about his experience with Justin, a horribly abused young man, as well as other horrifically abused children, to inform the world about the effect that trauma has on a developing brain, and how he and his team have gone about helping damaged children to heal.
The book is flat out brilliant, and anyone who works with an individual who has been traumatized, human or canine, should read it. I’ve believed for years that many of the dogs I’ve worked with had behavioral problems because of some kind of trauma, and I think a lot about what we’ve learned working with human trauma victims can be applied to dogs.
Of course, what we can’t do it talk to dogs, ask them what happened, or advise them to start writing in journals or drawing pictures. All of those things, done the right way at the right time, can help victims heal from all kinds of traumas. But what CAN we incorporate in working with dogs who behave as if they have been traumatized?
Much of what he writes about reinforces what I’ve learned in the past and spoken about at APDT in 2014 in a talk titled People, Dogs and Psychological Trauma. Here’s the essence, the essential points from what is a very complex topic:
How do we identify the dogs? We can’t ask them, and they can’t tell us that something horrible happened to them in the past. So often dogs are “diagnosed” as “dominant” or aggressive for some reason that involves what we’d think of in people as character flaws. To my surprise, this happens commonly with children; many of Perry’s cases involved victims who were diagnosed with a range of issues, from ADHD, to just being plain stubborn or manipulative. Rarely had anyone ever asked what had happened in their past that might explain their behavior.
Here are some symptoms we can look for that MIGHT indicate trauma in a dog: Anorexia, won’t eliminate, pacing, inability to sleep, hyper-vigilance, extreme fear, being easily startled, outbursts of aggression or rage that have no predictable pattern, and refusal to play. Of course, this list is just a start, but we have to start somewhere.
If we suspect trauma in a dog’s past, then how might we go about trying to help him or her? Again, we can look to what helps people:
Create a sense of safety. Job One, no question. Traumatized individuals have a brain set on constant alert. Without doing all one can to create a sense of security, it’s impossible to go much further. With dogs, that might mean letting it have a “safe house” to go to, without being forced to interact for predictable portions of the day. In my experience, a lot of dogs are pushed too far too fast, without being given time to feel safe and secure.
Give the dog some control. Victims of trauma were subjected to experiences that stripped any feelings they had of autonomy. Perry’s first sessions with the children he worked with was to give them control over the session. Want not to talk? Fine. Let’s color together. It was up to the child to initiate conversation. Dogs can get back some sense of control too, by teaching them appropriate behaviors that get them what they want, and letting them learn that they have some control over what happens to them. This means that the use of force must be avoided whenever possible. Granted, there are times it is needed to keep an individual safe, but being forced is the opposite of being in control (by definition), so we should avoid it whenever we can.
Social Support. Dogs and people both are highly social species; that is, of course, why we get along so well. One of Perry’s most important observations is that much of what healed the children he worked with occurred outside of therapy. What mattered most were relationships–social support from others that provide a sense of belonging, security and being loved. I suspect the same is true for dogs. Of course, it can be extremely difficult to create a relationship with an individual who has experienced profound trauma (especially if the trauma was in the early part of life when the brain is still developing), but it is the key to helping victims heal. Surely it is true also for dogs. The challenge of this leads to my last point…
Time and patience. Perry says: “I also cannot emphasize enough how important routine and repetition are to recovery. The brain changes in response to patterned, repetitive experiences: the more you repeat something, the more engrained it becomes. This means that, because it takes time to accumulate repetitions, recovery takes time and patience…” He goes on to note that regrettably, neither qualities are in abundance in today’s society. Agreed.
There is so much more in this book that can apply to dogs: [In the 2015 post I began by talking about an amazing book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog] One of the most important is the author’s “neurosequential” approach, which involves figuring out the stage of brain development at which the trauma occurred, and providing what the child didn’t get at that stage of development, even if it has little to do with the child’s chronological age. That is trickier with dogs, but the fact is that understanding the brain and its development in relation to behavior is an important ingredient in treating trauma. His use of appropriate medication (very thoughtfully used) and heart rate monitors is also something we need to continue to explore with dogs. (Note the groundbreaking work done by CAABs Peter Borcheldt and Nancy Williams on heart rate variability in dogs.)
This is such a complex topic, I could write about it for hours for today. But I’ll stop here, except to direct you to a few other interesting sources. Two related articles that I’ve written discuss the relationship between digestive problems and fear and how Confrontational Techniques Elicit Aggression. (Note that many of the children Perry writes about were subjected to extreme force as “treatment,” including by professionals in the field.) You might also be interested in the work of Rise van Fleet, a child psychologist who uses play to work with traumatized children, and has used similar techniques to help traumatized dogs. The best book I’d ever read, up to reading Perry’s book, on trauma and recovery was written by Judith Herman, titled, appropriately enough, Trauma and Recovery. As I said, it is such a big topic. But if it interests you, pick up Perry’s book right away. I read it almost cover to cover yesterday and this morning.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this important and complex topic. Please write in with anything you have to add; I look forward to reading your comments. Note that there were many insightful comments to the original post; take the time to read them if you can.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: After 5 talks in 5 days in 4 cities, I got to be home for a day and a half. Although I am happy to be home for a brief respite, I still want to thank all of you who have come up at book signings and said such thoughtful, kind and supportive things. The words “Thank you” aren’t enough, but know that they come heartfelt.
And I’m extra lucky… winter snow and sun greeted me at the farm. So beautiful! Went on a lovely walk with the dogs, and Maggie and I worked sheep, both of us so happy to have the chance. When you read this I’ll be on the road again, but how sweet to be home for awhile.
Lots of ice a few days ago, turning the trees all white and sparkly, but luckily not so much that it caused a lot of damage.
And Willie says THANK YOU Ohio Vet School Vet Behavior Club for his present. Regretably, it only took about 5 minutes for this toothy Badger to dismantle the Buckeye… (I’d include a better photo, but Willie never stopped ripping and tearing. Why DO dogs love to rip stuffing out of toys so much?)
This just wet my appetite for The Education of Will. I already have the book, and it’s the next thing on my reading list!
This topic of trauma in animals is near and dear to my heart. Two years ago, I adopted a cat, Gigi, whose shyness was exacerbated by some traumatizing events that happened around the time of her adoption. It was months before she would let me pet her, let alone hold her, but now she follows me around the house and chatters at me for attention. I like to tell people that those first few months with Gigi, spent socializing and trust-building and researching every scrap of cat behavior I could get my hands on, taught me more than twenty-odd years of living and working with cats. Gigi will never be the lap-cat that most people dream about, but she is invaluably precious to me.
Thanks for the article; very enlightening. On the last item – I’ve always said that if you could invent a stuffy toy designed for safe de-stuffing (and potential eating) you’d be able to retire on the proceeds.
Wonderful post, and heartbreaking to read the comments in the original. I rescued a malamute x several years ago. At a year old, Peg was shy and had clearly been mistreated. With your books and daily structure and routine, she became a loving, well-behaved dog for the most part.
As someone who was a victim of a violent crime, I have suffered from chronic PTSD. It it mostly managed but at times it takes some work, and there are things that almost always trigger a panic attack.
I have always felt a special kinship with Peg because I saw so many similarities in both of us. I’m convinced she also suffers from PTSD. I am also convinced that like me, Peg has gained confidence and a sense of security by having a safe space and safe people around her. But I am also mindful that while PTSD can be managed, it never goes away. There will always be triggers, and it’s my job to watch for them, be aware, and help her feel safe and calm when something causes her anxiety level to go up.
Trama does a job on the brain, for sure. Logically, I know I’m safe and my reactions to things are sometimes not befitting of the situation. But there’s something in my primitive brain that tells my body to go all out, fear takes over, and I’m convinced I’m going to die right there. So… even if dogs could talk, I’m not sure we could fully heal from whatever trauma they have experienced. We just do our best to provide them with the tools they need to get through whatever situation might be difficult in their particular case, without trivializing it even if it seems silly that a dog could be scared of something so inane.
Thank you for everything you do.
Finished The Education of Will and another little novel by Dana Mentink (Paws for Love). Could not get over how this quick read was so similar in the topic of “functioning” under stress/duress. I only picked up Paws in my local library solely because of the cute little dog on the cover. I was totally surprised by the traits that described the main character. At times, I really thought I was reading The Education of Will!
Excellent job on The Education of Will. Thank you.
The Education of Will was in my mailbox last night about 6:00 when I collected the mail. I finished it a bit before 3:00 this morning so you kept me up way past my bedtime but it was totally worth it. I’ll be getting another copy for a friend who will recognize many of the themes as she struggles to heal from her own trauma. I think it will be a big help to her.
Living with a profoundly damaged dog I can attest to the needs for safety and consistency. We don’t really do routine at my hosue since our life patterns repeat across months rather than daily. Knowing that, I’ve done my best to create consistency around regular events. She always gets to come outside and play ball whenever I come home which sometimes means I’m chucking her squeaky balls around wearing formal wear but if that’s what it takes to help Finna feel safe that’s what I do. Mornings don’t always happen at the same time at my house but the events of the morning are as consistent as possible. And I try to give her as much control and autonomy as possible. It didn’t take her long to recognize the difference between Wanna and Let’s; Wanna means the choice is hers and Let’s means the choice has been made by me. She hears Wanna a lot more than Let’s. Wanna go in means she can run to the door to go inside or she can wander the yard and sniff her choice what she wants to do. Let’s go in means it is time to go inside now.
She’s a work in progress but last night after an initial bark and lunge at a dog who was outside barking (I’m guessing he was in a backyard since we never saw him) she was able to practice check it out where she looks at the source of concern then back to me for a treat and even began offering sits as part of looking back to me. It was stressful but she managed to stay mostly undercontrol. She reacted when she was first barked at and she reacted when barked at when we were at our closest point. Unfortunately the barker was almost directly across from the end of our street and there isn’t an alternate route. She stayed in control of herself as we approached the barker and began to relax when he stopped barking. Then he started up just as we were about to turn onto our street and she lost it but I could see her trying to listen even as she was pulling and barking and once we got back to a safer distance she got control of herself again and with each step increasing the distance from the barker she dismissed it as a problem.
I’m sad I’ll be missing your talk in the Seattle area. I’d been looking forward to it but I can’t make the timeline work out. One of the therapy dogs in our chapter had to be put down due to cancer and Ranger is filling in for him at the school where he was a tail waggin tutor. It’s been hard on everyone but especially the kids who were very attached to their furry friend. Ranger will help them through their grief because he’s brilliant at picking up on just what people need. I often joke that if he had a human job he’d be a trauma counselor.
Megan O'Connor says
I got my dog (Lyra, a border collie) when she was 8 weeks old. In that first week, she heard two sounds that made her panic: a bus, and a garbage truck. Two years later, it’s as if the sounds linger like phantoms in her brain. She no longer shuts down or shakes; after many months of counter-conditioning and medication, she is now able to keep upright and respond to cues, even play, if she hears either of those noises at a distance; up close, she can still be terrified. Little is known about the nuances of sound phobias and how to treat them; it’s really not as simple as putting on a CD and handing out treats, once the fear is lodged. Once, she heard a recording of a garbage truck in the living room — too low for my own ear to pick up — and she refused to come into the room for weeks afterward.
Yet if she gets startled by a new noise, she quickly recovers. It’s as if a few specific fears that got etched in her brain at an early age can’t be smoothed over; while her more mature brain can register a threat, shrug, and move on. This rings true to my own experience — where events, at certain moments, left a mark that feels indelible, even haunting, while others slid past, as if the measure of the impact is inseparable from timing.
My point is that trauma can take subtle forms. I can’t tell you how many people ask me if Lyra was beaten as a pup — when she ducks from an outstretched hand — or hit by a bus. I’m tempted, sometimes, to make up a story to validate her experience. But I think it’s important to stick to the facts. If a dog exhibits signs of trauma, then they likely feel it, whether it makes sense or not. Dogs, like people, shouldn’t have to earn the right to suffer — or earn the right to our care, when they do.
Now, at age 2, Lyra is happy much of the time, through a triad of management, medication, and training. I am crazy about her.
I can’t wait to read your book — on order at my library — so am re-reading The Other End of the Leash 🙂
It was interesting reading my post about the Sammy on the previous thread. Helps me to remember just how much progress she has made in the past year and a half.
Here’s an idea for re-stuffable dog toys! http://kolchakpuggle.com/2014/04/restuffable-easy-diy-dog-toy.html I’m going to use polar fleece or old t-shirts instead of felt just because that’s what I have on hand.
And any day now my book will arrive! WhooHooo!
Anna Kathleen says
I immediately ordered your book after your last blog and am almost finished reading it. You do not know what a Godsend this book, and your blogs are. I recently started fostering and a friend directed me to your blog several weeks ago. My first foster is an 8 yr old Border Collie mix who definitely exhibits PTSD which includes but is probably not limited to being bullied and bit by a pack of dogs when she was a stray. In The Education of Will the behaviors you describe for Will as well as additional attributes listed in this blog describe Chelsea. At the same time, I realized early on that Chelsea mirrors some of my own insecurities resulting from childhood abuse. The patience and compassion needed for working with Chelsea is also the patience and compassion for working with myself. A thousand thank you.
I adopted Sammy when he was 3 ½ years old. He is Piebald/longhair miniature dachshund and had been used for breeding. His owners surrendered him. I presume he lived his life in a inside/outside dog run; he knew how to use a doggie door, but appeared to have never been leashed.
Sammy is an incredibly loveable to dog to his people, but he is fearful of people and dogs he does not know. He generally seems to hope that if he ignores them, maybe they’ll disappear. His other approach is to give a big huge dog bark from his tiny dog body. At home, he seems happy, relaxed and content.
His one major problem is wetting his bed at night. We’ve had his urine and blood tested every which way, his water intake and output measured. Made the room cooler, warmer…. Apart from a stomach that needs to be minded due to his nerves—yes, his gut does have emotions if not a brain—he seems to be in perfectly good health.
The odd thing about the bed-wetting is that this does not faze him in the least. Even when I know he knows the bed is wet—for example in the morning when he comes to greet me and I can feel his tummy is damp—he’ll turn around and go back to his wet bed to lie for a few more minutes before our walk. I believe he wets it in his sleep. One evening he went to his kennel/bed quite early. A couple of hours later I went and clearly disturbed him out of a deep sleep. He’d already wet his bed.
After reading your post about trauma it has me wondering more about Sammy’s first 3 ½ years of his life, and whether there could be a connection to his bed-wetting.
Thank you, Patricia. This post and some responses will now allow me to discuss meds for my dear rescued 12 yo Basset AND set some safety boundaries in place for her. (No dogs when the 3 yo grandson is here. Noise, space, fear)
Chloe De Segonzac says
Well yes I made mistakes. I am so sorry and sad to have pushed my dog too hard. I spent most of my free time with dog Agility folks with working dogs, with dog sport champions, with some of the top trainers in the world and yet, 11 years later it is clear that the advice was faulty. Of course we know so much more about behavior now. I was told to not coddle her and although I was always gentle she is the one who had to show me what she needed. No children interactions, meds for the crazy holidays, the favorite bed in the closet, watch and see where she settles in a hotel, at a friends at a Housesit and make that her den. And know that although she is always happy to go to work and jump in the car and meet all the dog clients and go for day hikes ans swims in the house in the city I will probably not see her for hours.
If we are in a very quiet place she will completely transform into a puppy interacting offering toys etc an active Collie with not a care in the world but wind or loud rain or cracklings or fires or… Will send her back into her den.
If she is too anxious to eat I have found that a rapid game of tug or fetching will get her out of her anxious state and will remind her that she is hungry.
Movement tricks and play work the best. She had a lot of training because she was going to be an Agility champ like most of the dogs from her lineage.
Many dogs that were born of those parents had big behavior problems over the 12 years of breeding. And yes a litter at the age of 12! A mistake they said. I knew most of the people who had siblings and we talked at trials. They all had fear issues, and past litters had some serious aggression problems. What we learned is this: the pups came from a cattle ranch in Idaho. The pregnancy was a mistake. They were born in a barn during a harsh winter. Two of the pups died from hypothermia. They had minimum human interaction. Friends who picked up their pups at 10 weeks did much better than mine who was put in a crate with her sister in the back of a pickup and driven from Idaho to Oregon. Mine was not chosen because she was half the size of the other pups. I am sure that from a barn in the country to a 10 hour drive in a pickup totally traumatized her that in addition to not having been introduced to the world until that ride.
I care for a client Border Collie (in the last year) who shows a lot of anxiety and instead of hiding like mine velcros to me. And let me tell you he gets the cuddles and kisses he wants!!! And with that safety we get things done. So glad I know more now.
See you in Portland on Saturday.
Any chance you will be coming over to visit us in Holland some day soon?
Love to meet you and buy the book!
This is one way that the idea that “dogs live in the moment” can be so pernicious. There’s so much emphasis on what tools and methods are appropriate for a dog, but not nearly as much in understanding a dog’s past and considering how it may still live with them. Loved your book, thanks for writing it.
winifred tigerlily says
I loved your article and also the commenter above who differentiates between “wanna?” and “let’s!” We’ll have to try that with our very fearful rescue, also a Border Collie mix. She’s come a long way in the 2+ years we’ve had her, with the help of prescribed Prozac. She can now pay attention to us when something frightens her outside or inside (far fewer things than before). But it never ends … we’re now dealing with getting her to not freak out at the very quiet (but different!) sounds made by the washing machine in our new house. Our old apartment had what we thought was the loudest, thunkiest machine ever. This one whooshes and knocks a bit. Ah well with love and patience, we’ll get there!
Lisa Lane says
I have 5 rescued dogs and one recently rehomed purebred dog. Today is his one year anniversary as our dog and this first year has been daunting. The other rescues have all had issues to work through, but this little 5lb. dog has a huge personality,but is so broken. We got him from the breeder after 2 failed homes. The previous owners had no time for him. Apparently during the housebreaking/kennel phase he was left to soil his kennel for endless hours while the people were at work. We have had 7 rescue dogs and our kennels are our salvation tool for multiple dog management and opportunities for one on one training,as well as for travel to our various dog sport events. No couch potatoes here. This tiny creature doesn’t just soil in a corner and wait for us to come clean his space. He paws it into every nook of the crate and covers himself in it! He can make tiny poop into a major cleanup.
He can do this within minutes of having been out to potty. His “belief” is that the Kennel is for soiling and he screams the minute he enters ONLY if we leave. He is fine if we are in the room. We have learned that we won’t have to do these cleanups if we let him travel with us and never leave him home. We tried co-kenneling,but he soiled the shared crate. Today is his one year anniversary with us and so far he won’t soil a kennel in a vehicle. I guess he knows that even when I am working my shift that I will check on him even if he sits in 5he vehicle for 6 hours (I worked him up to that over time). I truly hope that someday he will be able to stay home in the Kennel room when we have to work. We even had someone come and let him out for potty breaks,but we still came home to a major mess and a full bath for him.
I volunteer at a crowded facility, basically the county dog pound. Many of the dogs are long term residents, several have been there more than a year. Dogs learn quickly which kennel is theirs. After walking, they will lead the volunteer back to their own kennel. Impressive considering there are 6 different corridors with 80 kennels.
Recently, for reasons none of us understand, staff decided to switch everyone. All the dogs were moved to different corridors, with different neighbors, different sounds, different smells, different everything. The change has been very stressful for the dogs. At best they are nervous when previously they were confident. Many of them are quite agitated, growling, lunging and nipping at other dogs and sometimes even the volunteers when they were calm prior to the move.
Lisa, could your little Dachshund be having nocturnal seizures? Even very “mild” ones? They can cause that. Believe it or not, seasonal allergy was the cause of night time wetting for one of my friend’s dogs. Benedryl during her allergy season solved it. Best wishes to you!
I have a Labrador Retriever who came to me at approx 18-20 months old as a Board & Train for a Lab Rescue that I had served on the Board for multiple years.
She was out of control and initially it was assumed she was just a typical young dog who had had very little training & that I would establish some structure and work on getting her trained and ready to be adopted.
I began to work with her and realized that she had a hard time connecting to me or my other dogs, would pace non-stop, had no self-control ( she would literally jump over tables and furniture to get to food I might be eating), drink non-stop, had horrible digestive problems ( soft stool and vomiting), serious separation anxiety etc, etc.
I also came to the realization that her former owner had used an electronic collar on her as he was training her to hunt- so if you asked her to retrieve a ball or bumper she would comply but seemed very worried she was doing it incorrectly and that there would be major punishment when she brought it back to me.
I had owned multiple Labradors and had fostered hundreds of them when I was on the Board for the Lab Rescue. She was unlike any Labrador Retriever I had ever worked with before. She was the most emotionally and mentally damaged dog I had ever worked with.
We gave her a battery of blood tests, trying to see if there was some sort of medical reason for her behaviors ( thyroid, diabetes,etc). Ultimately, my Vet determined she had Generalized Anxiety Disorder and we started her on Dr. Karen Overall’s protocol of 40 mg of Fluoxotine 2x a day and 100 mg Gabapetin 2x a day ( she would eventually be on 600mg of Gabapentin 2x daily).
I began to incorporate many of the principals discussed in Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed- she began mat training & relaxation protocols. We also enrolled her in classes and I began to work with her on a variety of things.
It was determined that she was an “unadoptable” dog and I agreed that she would live with me for the rest of her life.
Mentally & emotionally she began to improve and she loved training but we still struggled with her digestive issues. So not only did she suffer from GAD, but she also suffered from an inflamed large intestine ( similar to IBD) and reflux.
I owned a Pet Specialty Retail store and I would try her on a variety of different foods trying to get her to have a firm stool. Additionally, she would often have indigestion and throw up small amounts of her food.
I struggled for 18 months to get it under control. We tried home made, raw, canned, kibble (dry), freeze-dried, and dehydrated. And Ultimately found a solution of dehydrated and raw that seemed to work 90% of the time.
Fast Forward almost 5 years later, and she has earned her Canine Good Citizen & Canine Good Citizen Community Titles, has competed Rally, has become a Therapy Dog, competes in Nosework, & has become the best Shop Dog/Store Greeter that anyone could ask for.
We still struggle with her digestive issues and must maintain our training regimen and structure to help with her anxieties. She rarely shuts down any longer and she truly loves people and her work as a Therapy Dog. But all in all, we are in a maintenance pattern.
I have ALWAYS maintained that her digestive issues were directly related to her Anxieties/fears. And that the Traumas associated with the way her former owner was training her combined with a high drive/soft personality and then being dumped at a large rural shelter were what created her digestive issues. In my business, I often saw tons of rescue dogs that customers had adopted who would have similar digestive issues and have often wonder the correlation between their fears/anxieties (traumas) in their previous lives to their chronic GI issues.
I look forward to reading your book and can not thank you enough for your writings and insight into the human/canine connections
Jon Sutz says
Thank you so much for posting this, Dr. McConnell. It cuts to the bone with me, because I had zero idea of the issues you raise, until I got my first dog, a pup, after a long search, soon after 9/11 and an unrelated series of serious personal traumas. I got her knowing that she’d been rescued from three days in a storm drain, with her twin sister, but her parents not present, and it inflicted severe emotional trauma on her.
I ended up writing a book about how, through the magical partnership we developed, we ended up healing each other.
If you’ll be speaking in or near Charlottesville, Virginia, please advise.
Alice R. says
Finished the book right after I got it…loved it! Your information and kindness saved me when I returned the only dog I’ve ever given up. I tried everything I learned from vet, trainers, and you, but lived in an environment that would not let me keep the older pup under threshold. Consequently, the fear based behavior kept escalating and escalating. It was clear that my home and neighborhood were further traumatizing my little girl, and after making myself literally ill trying to figure out what to do, I returned her to a quiet country home where she has remained. She is happy, and has showed us that she can improve given the right environment and understanding. I was roundly condemned by many, heartbreakingly my son and my sister were among them. Your understanding and kindness helped me forgive myself and those who kicked me when I was as down as I’ve ever been. Interestingly, my vet, trainers, and the pup’s owner were not among them. So, I agree that the most important element for improving any frightened animal (including humans)is a home where they feel safe, and the feared elements will not appear without warning.
I wish we’d had this book 10+ years ago when we got Milo. He is the sweetest dog, but only with those he trusts (basically 4 people). Otherwise he treats everyone as an enemy. We cannot have people over unless he can he outside. We cannot have people in the yard unless Milo is sequestered inside. We’ve suspected for most of his life his aggressiveness was fear based. I wish we could get him further from the fear because he is Mr. Personality to those he lets in.
Anne Howe says
Took all of 24 hours to read The Education of Will. Am now reading the recommended The Gift of Fear not only for myself, but to appreciate when my dog is reticent about a person or place. How I wish I had these books when working as a Social Worker and School Counselor. Looking forward to getting the the other recommended books.
As so many of us who go into human services I, too, had trauma issues but felt they were not as bad as things I have seen others go through; I appreciate the concept of serial traumas which, after reading the book, I listed from my own life, which were interspersed with times of calm, which can be very confusing, causing doubt, anxiety, and hypervigilance: A lot of puzzle pieces fell into place.
Another aspect of The Education of Will is that it is not an intimidating book, it draws the reader in, and for me, it provided a sense of safety: Patricia McConnell displays a genuineness and sense of care. Last but certainly not least, her honesty, that she too gets frustrated and not always perfectly calm.
Trisha, I bought the online edition of your book the day it came out and want to thank you for stripping your soul bare to help us understand both you and Will. It didn’t get put down until I finished it and then I wanted to read it again; it was like losing a friend to have no more pages.
My JR, Dewey, came to me when he was four. He was from a reputable breeder who had to rehome her dogs because of illness. The friend who picked him up for me and transported him the long drive home and I could only guess that it was the trip that traumatized him, because he was a basket case. We got to know each other and luckily, he liked other dogs, but working with him was trial and error for me and PTSD wasn’t known like it is today. The poor little guy is has severe OCD and I learned to let him do things his way. He was terrified of everything and could make your nerves bad just being around him because he jumped at so many noises. His list of mental problems is long and he was terrified of anybody but me. The strangest thing happened and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else because it was such an unusual result. Dewey’s buddy, my other Jack Russell, died of old age. I made arrangements to get another companion dog, but because I felt so sorry for him in the interim, I let him go to work with me in my store, figuring he could stay behind the counter where he was safe. This weird little guy, scared of all people, started to follow customers around the store. At first he did it rather furtively but after a week or so, he was like a little floorwalker, following everybody and watching everything they did. He didn’t want to be petted, but he had no fear if they turned and talked to him. Still jumped if there was a noise, but he stayed with them and actually started to enjoy people.
He’s 17 now, not jumping at noises as much because he’s pretty deaf, still doesn’t want to be picked up or helped up, and still severely OCD. I’m his world, he’s very happy and he’s making things rather difficult for me to plan agility meets with my other two dogs. Boarding him is not an option so I’m going to try a house sitter for a weekend and hope he’s okay at home. Wish him luck !
Emma in La Crosse WI says
I just finished The Education of Will which I pre-ordered after hearing Dr. McConnell on Wisconsin Public Radio. Thank you Patricia for baring your soul to all of us.
Christie A Veitch says
I live with a dog that is reactive because of trauma! Here is our story:
When we met Cooper, he was actually “Scout.” There was a lot we didn’t know about him or rescue dogs. We heard only that he had originally been rescued in Houston, heartworm positive and malnourished. He chose us while we were being interviewed by other dogs at a rescue in Colorado.
Walking on a leash, he looked over his shoulder right into our eyes. He “asked” to join us as we left the yard — a soft lean messaged, “can I come?” He sat quietly between us and his rescuer mentioned, “if you take him home, you should be aware, he’s shy, and mostly been around women and may take some time to warm up to men.” He calmly put his head right in my boyfriend’s lap. The message couldn’t be mistaken, “I can do it. Give me a chance.”
Later, on adoption day, Scout became our Cooper. It took a couple of months before he opened up to regular play; longer still before he blessed me with lap snuggles. I settled in with the assumption that time and training would help him develop security.
I didn’t yet appreciate that a smart dogs understand so much of their history, good and bad. They may not process memories as we do, but they do create meaning from a collection of experiences.
Gifts and Challenges
In six months, his personality unfolded – his playfulness had unfolded. And his sweetness and desire to be a caretaker emerged when he stoically sat with me as I recovered from a violent crime. Head aimed up at my face, he tended me for hours, and then encouraged me to move. In another version of Cooper’s life, maybe he’d be a therapy dog. Several of his people have experienced him “nursing” them – I’m forced to admit he isn’t just in tune with me. He is a smart people-pleaser, and has a special sensitivity that suits him to helping. But Cooper’s life has shaped him so that his sensitivity is joined with challenges. In these months, we also saw increased anxiety behaviors and concern around other dogs. This preceded Cooper reacting at two other on-leash dogs that were far behind him. He didn’t bite but closed the distance between them so fast he hurt himself!
We tell people what Cooper is good at first – “He loves people, but not other dogs” because we want them to give him a chance. Because . . . if you saw Cooper on the street, you might not see how loved and well trained he is. If your dog is with you, stressed barks would greet you and you might see his one-quarter pit characteristics and wonder . . . We understand when people cross the street with their dogs. We’re in a quandary when pit-bull prejudice or accusations of “needing to socialize him” are shouted by neighbors who insist on off-leash dogs as they accuse Cooper of being “the problem.”
Getting to work
Cooper has been evaluated by a vet and a team of trainers. No one thinks this is an issue of socialization or resource guarding. Cooper is exceptionally anxious from whatever happened to him “before” – triggered by hearing and seeing other dogs and his extraordinary sensitivity doesn’t help. We learned that he doesn’t actually want to fight or bite – he’d rather noisily tell other dogs to “back up!” Later, the hopefulness in him not biting and not needing a muzzle was pointed out to me. At the time, I worried he was reacting in ways that meant I couldn’t help him.
It’s important that I admit considering releasing him from this life. I can’t tell you how far we’ve come without sharing that I sobbed, “How can I give him a happy and safe life? Keeping him safe, inside all day isn’t happy. Out into the world means asking him to face down his monsters.” I felt desperate – everyone said, “you are the best home for him,” as encouragement. I felt it as failure. When our trainer said the same words I lost it. We all cried and I said,“It has to be BOTH safe and happy, “ and she agreed.
Then we got to work with the vet (ruling out illness, injury) and the trainer to overhaul his routine and lifestyle. They both concurred he came to us shut down, possibly depressed, and only showed his understanding of the world as he felt more secure. That was when we saw his personality, but also his trauma. Our vet gave us meds, explaining, “If a person is triggered like this, we call it PTSD. There’s a medical intervention because therapy works much better when reactions are lowered.” He hugged Cooper, and us, and pledged his help.
Our trainer offered a complete overhaul on his daily routine and lifestyle to pair with those meds.
Gone were waiting and seeing if he might react. We trained to observe his body language, and help shape reactions. We covered our windows and played soothing music to limit his neighbor-dog triggers. We got puzzle toys and a flirt pole and use them every day. We trained on techniques where reactive dogs learn to communicate noticing something without reacting aggressively (” Look at that” and BAT) and clickers, clickers, everywhere! We learned mat work as a relaxation technique. We learned to see training not as a road towards obedience but as a way of communicating and understanding him – being his teammates.
Things got better, but not like a Disney movie – improvement in inches, not in miles, and we are still working our program every day. Six months in, more walking. A year in, we added hiking. We hope in this year to add even more happy experiences to his life – swimming, perhaps?!
We can do it
We can only guess at Cooper’s past – abuse, dog fights, other trauma? We don’t know. Cooper’s future looks brighter, now though. Everyone agrees he is a special needs dog, and that he needs meds for life. He still has fear reactions to dogs, but they are less severe, and he recovers much more quickly now. He will not be a dog-park dog but in our yard, he plays like there’s no difference.
Cooper’s appearance – his breed looks and size – continue to fool people. He looks like such a bruiser if you don’t know dog body language. We’ve gained the understanding that size doesn’t correlate to courage, and the empathy to read his signals. Often now, he’s communicating, “let’s try” with hesitation but resolution – he’s scared but willing to learn with us and teach us.
Special needs means something different to us now too: we’ve realized that when you love someone, their needs are special to you. It is our pleasure to know and help the real Cooper – challenges and gifts. He barks at dogs, yes, but also invents and teaches us games on our staircases. He is fearful, but also a hard worker. Our motto is “safe AND happy,” – we are grateful he experiences both everyday now.
Eve Middleton says
I know why the abused dog described above wets the bed. As a traumatized child myself, my brothers and sister and I all wet the bed. Why? Because to relieve one’s self you must relax the nervous system. (It’s either the parathetic or synthetic nervous system, I can’t recall which.) When under a lot of stress, as we were daily, we didn’t urinate during the day, so at night when we’d fall asleep our bodies would naturally relax and release urine. Hence, the bed wetting. Sadly, we were punished and humiliated and threatened for doing so, which in turn made the problem worse. My parents couldn’t figure out why we wet the bed. But even I could figure this one out. It’s not rocket science.
Interesting that you mention heart rate variability. I bought a used bluetooth HRV monitor for triathletes hoping to track Rottie’s responses to prozac and to events in her life, particularly hoping to know whether she was more stressed the day after our DS/CC trials, her response to prozac, and her recovery from various other stresses, such as our vacations when she has a housesitter. I abandoned this project for now, because it was too hard to desensitize her to the need for wetting her fur before the daily reading, and we had other priorities. (one day I found myself chasing her with a wet washcloth…..want…data…..oy!) But the money and technology are now within easy reach of the average dog owner.
I hope that considering similarities to human PTSD will also inspire veterinary behaviorists to broaden their horizons beyond the SSRIs and benzodiazepines, and that more owners of reactive dogs will be open to considering medication trials. As a mental health prescriber in my day job, I use a lot of prazosin for PTSD- for nightmares and for daytime adrenergic responses, which unlike its cousin Sileo, costs pennies per dose. Also, there is good evidence in humans to support use of a beta blocker right after trauma to prevent memory consolidation, and thanks to a sympathetic consulting veterinarian, we have a small supply of propranolol to give her during or right after experiences that I know will be quite stressful, such as a recent 3 day post surgical stay in a veterinary kennel, and I think it has made a big difference in her “stress hangovers.”
Bruce I love the updates, because the posts on son and Sammy, and the “neutral like Switzerland” discussion taught me a lot about the relationship between arousal and reactivity, and the pros and cons of using exciting food in situations of potential reactivity. Learning these things in the context of wit and touching human vulnerability……..what could be better?
What an amazing community here!
I highly suggest “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”
by Bessel van der Kolk – it is one of the best studies of trauma and healing ever written. So much can be used to explain what may happen in dogs brains as well, to help us understand what is driving a traumatized brain.
I’ve worked with abused and disabled people all my life. I’ve read those (Perry’s) books, and another author to consider is Torey Hayden, who worked with autistic and other mentally challenged children.
I didn’t know I was getting a fearful dog when I rescued her. I had no idea of her first 18 months of life, but I have a pretty good suspicion now.
I had no training or expertise, I just played it by heart. My work experiences endowed me with incredible patience, and I think that’s one reason why my Bailey has been able to move forward. Slowly, really slowly! But that’s OK with me, as long as SHE is okay.
I’m looking forward to meeting you in a few days, I’ve cried so much reading your book I hope I don’t blubber all over you and embarrass myself! But your writing and that of a few others, have been my Bibles the last two years. We couldn’t have come this far, without you. Thank you.
I just got a copy of your book yesterday, and am already over half way through it. It is by far the best book I’ve read in a long time. It is such a human story. Of course, the dogs are stars, but it is so relatable as a woman who suffered trauma as well. So many of the same thoughts have been in my head. I realized recently when I went out for a walk in the woods without my dogs that it had been well over 2 decades since I had walked alone in an isolated spot without them. And I probably will not do it again because I did not feel good about it. I have a security blanket around owning dogs who are alert to noises as well as far more alert than me toward people who don’t act right. One time I was stopped in the same area by a very large man and we were chatting about things. My dog Ben did not bark or growl, but he put himself between me and this man and didn’t take his eyes off him once. Ben is a 40 lb dog who in the past has not hesitated to take on many thousand pounds of steer just because they were going the wrong way or looking at him wrong.
By page 7 of your book I was already in tears from the story of Luke and the attacking ewe reminding me of my Aussie, Cinder, who had to be put down last year at 15. She passed away in my lap as I stroked her.
When she was much younger I took her with me to feed the cows at my parents’ place. The cows were all lined up behind a gate while I poured their grain into buckets. Then I was going to open the gate and stand back as they came in. I told Cinder to stay back out of the way because her normal instinct as a very fetchy dog would be to bring me the cows and I didn’t want them rushing them any faster through the gate and alley way.
I didn’t anticipate how quickly they would rush the gate or how little they would care about my presence, and I couldn’t get out of the way. There were about 15 hungry cows coming at me in a narrow alley, but a couple of feet before they crashed into me this little snapping red flash came up from behind me and was at their noses turning them all back. In that moment she was purely about protecting me, I think. She was a soulmate dog and a best working buddy and it pains me that she’s gone still.
“All mammals can be traumatized”. This would also apply to the animals people use for food.
Thanks for writing this courageous book. In some points I see things in Will that I also see in Spot. Especially the “high wired” – gastrointestinal troubles.
And in the fact that when I was heading for the fall (burnout) his behaviour regressed.
A friend once commented about Spot “he lacks filters – he sees everything and reacts on everything. Everything hits him hard” and I wonder if that is not something that is wired in his brain, not something caused by a trauma. I hope you understand what I am saying, because I find it difficult to explain. I sometimes wondered if it might be slightly similar to some forms of autism? In the sense of having difficult in making sense of the world around him.
Second item: I wonder if you have ever heard of the book “it didn’t start with you” It is about heredity & trauma: how sometimes traumatic events can work trough generations, by DNA changes. In humans and animals. Fascinating reading, although I find it hard to believe some of it.
I read The Education of Will in two days and was deeply affected by it both as it regarded helping reactive dogs ( because I have been there) and as it addressed healing on a very personal level. Gave me much to think about and brought me to tears at times when you expressed your love for your dogs. A very special book!
Kevin Etheridge says
This so much touches on a dog I’ve been working with for the last 5 years.I’ve gained his trust and love through work and training.Play wasn’t a thing he knew but now he will even try to get me to chase and play with him.I’ve learned a lot about abused dogs through him.He has been adopted a few times only to be returned for aggressive behaviour.He returns to me and calms and is fine.Took him time to let my wife into his little world.Wish I could talk more about this to you this has helped open up a lot about his little world.I work with him and others through Gentle Jakes coonhounds rescue.I am a trainer but don’t do much anymore with others as I’m busy with my boys
Barb Stanek says
Good job on your newest book. Got it. Read it in a week. Already have lent it out. Thanks, Trish, for writing it.
Jenny H says
Unfortunately, IF you do not know the history, you cannot know whether the behaviour is due to trauma of not 🙁
We took on a 7 year old dog, and I was surprised that the dog appeared and behaved as though he had been ill-treated. He would cringe whenever a hand of object was raised near him.
However he fathered my Bitch’s pups — and one of the pups had this exact behaviour! O knew that she had never been hit or beaten by anyone.
Then I now have one of his granddaughters. She is an amazingly timid dog, with no history of mistreatment at all
Jenny H says
Timid dogs, dogs with digestive problems and allergies all need similar consideration. Even though there is no history of abuse to cause the problems, the problems are still very real for the dog.
All dogs and humans need a sense of security, safety and enough control over things to not feel afraid.
The best thing I ever taught any of my dogs — be they aggressively reactive or excessively timid, was to be able to tell me when they wanted ‘out!’ And to take them away from that stressful situation. Or if I cannot to at least talk to them calmingly and NEVER get angry with them for their behaviour.
Margo de St.Legier (Mrs) says
Our Pomeranium + six years old has been attacked by our 13yr old Tibetan Spaniel – no sign of outward injury but seems unable to respond in his usual bouncy way and unable to react – just standing or lying down not knowing what to do with himself. I feel he m5ay be suffering from the trauma of being attacked by the Tibby? I am taking him to my vet tomorrow and maybe get an insight as to what is wrong with him.
Michael Arriola says
Hello, my name son’s dog is named Buddy. He recently broke off his lead and ran away. Thankfully with all the lost dog sites and everything we’re able to find them 11 days later. When we did finally get to him we found out he was hit by car and thankfully the person that hit him took buddy to the Fort Wayne Animal Hospital. He he was admitted on the 11th, which comes to find out he was only out running around for one day I was locked up for the other 10 days. We’ve had him since he was a pup, and is now 5, and had thus routine, the boy would wake up at 4:30 am take him out to go potty, put him on his lead and come back in get dressed , leave him out for 10 to 15 min, in other words my son is scared to put him on another lead or chain, which was recommended and is worrier that his pooping in the house is not going to stop. I feel that he has PTSD and not being trusted to get back to his routine that he will never go back outside to poop, being locked up in a cage an pooping where you basically sleep. What can you suggest to him, he won’t listen to my point of view. Thanks for your time.
Michael, please find a positive-based trainer who could help you, even for just one visit. I would never put the dog back on a chain outside, but take him out on a secure leash to potty. If he’s too afraid to go outside, start with lots of pieces of cut up meat in your hand, and just ask him to sit on the doorstep. Give him treats for any progress at all. Gradually work your way outside, and gradually walk him around the area where he used to potty. Paws crossed, and good luck!
Jessica O’Neill says
I have been working professionally with dogs for over 10 years. In our behaviour practice we have always focused on RECOVERY and coincidently one of the first books I ever read cover to cover was Dr. Perry’s The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. It sparked my initial interest in psychology and led me to my career first with humans and then dogs. I came across this post as I prepare the content for my seminar FEAR, AGGRESSION & RECOVERY. This will be the fourth time my colleague and I will be delivering this seminar and we like to add more content each time. I recently have completed the PRIDE program Through my local children’s aid society. It was mandatory after taking in a 15-year-old child to my home as a foster parent to join my four other children. The similarities between trauma in children and dogs has become even more Apparent to me. The content we have developed to help owners work with their dogs and the content we covered in the program had uncanny similarities. It has certainly changed my approach to fear and aggression in all dogs but specifically rescue dogs whom are far more likely to have experienced unknown trauma.
Georgie Hollenbeck says
I found your article while looking online for ways to help my 6 year old Lababull (lab pit bull mix) who already had anxiety issues as it was but last night some jerks (I have many more colorful words and names for them but keeping it clean here!!!) lit off 2 2 very loud fireworks right outside or window where she and I sleep over 9 hours ago. She immediately jumped and curled up at my feet trying to climb under the couch (that is only 3 inches of space from base to floor) to hide. She is constantly scanning and on high alert, panting, drooling and won’t eat her favorite treat (turkey pepperoni slices) ,drink water interact with her doggy or human friends or go potty. I was in tears a few times this morning watching my baby and knowing she is somewhere in there but is so scared that she is not herself. I am going to clear out a few areas and make her a couple of hiding dark private spots for her to go in if she wants to where she can feel safe and relax (I hope she can anyway). And if by tomorrow morning things haven’t changed/improved I am going to call the vet and take her in and have the vet decide if she needs some meds to help calm her down. I just hate human beings sometimes (heck most times to be honest. When I have a choice to interact with animals or humans I always choose animals!)
Argh, sorry Georgie. I have grown to hate fireworks to. And right next to your window? Grrrr. So sorry. Hope your girl gets better soon, never a bad idesa to talk to your vet!
Esther Watrous says
I adopted a Papillon/Chihuahua mix who was severely abused for the first 4 years of his life. I’m currently working on trust issues, but sometimes when he wakes up suddenly, be will growl and/bite. This also happens when he doesn’t want to be touched. He barks and growls at any stranger he sees or hears. I can’t find any trainers in my area who are willing to work with PTSD dogs so I am doing this on my own.
Barbara Ballantine says
I need help. I’ve just rescued a 3 yr old female who is just wonderful with this exception-she is petrified of the light news people make when the walk by my window (I live in an apt). I am not able to get a nights rest as I’m constantly trying to reassure her that’s it’s ok. I get up and pet her until she calms down.
It’s a voracious bark. She is otherwise a very happy dog during the day. What can I do?
Oh, Barbara with the barker, you have my sympathy! Sometimes the only solution is management–she sleeps in a crate, covered, at night? Better blinds? Good luck, hoping you get some rest soon!