When your dog’s past is a mystery, you focus on the here and now and spoil him the best you can. But when he has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a reminder of a past trauma can trigger behaviors that surprise you, no matter how good he’s got it now.
That’s right—just like people, dogs can experience PTSD. Things like accidents, natural disasters, abuse and the loss of a caretaker can cause a dog to develop this kind of anxiety. It’s also seen in military canines.
When the anxiety is triggered, signs include vocalization, attempts to escape, aggression, an intense awareness of and sensitivity to nearby sights and sounds, and urination and defecation. In working or military dogs, they may stop doing their specialized tasks or avoid buildings or spaces where they used to feel at ease.
For example, a dog who’s gone through a traumatic experience during a bath may do everything he can to avoid going back for time in the tub, like thrashing around and pulling away on his leash.
While a seemingly simple fix is to avoid any triggers, it’s often not that easy. There are therapies for canine PTSD, though the success of individual methods depends on a pooch’s temperament and the trauma he experienced. Owners who think their pup may be experiencing PTSD should consult their veterinarian.
One type of therapy is desensitizing a pup to triggers, which involves exposing your pet to an extremely low level of the stimuli and rewarding him when he doesn’t react, and then gradually increasing the level over time as long as he continues to not react. Each time, you offer a reward and encouragement to focus on you.
Exercise and playtime with you or other dogs, as well as giving your dog a “job” with help from agility equipment or another canine sport, can also bring improvement in the behaviors, along with a balanced diet. Medication, pheromones and supplements are options, too.
There usually is no cure for canine PTSD, but it can be managed throughout a dog’s life.