By Nicole Pajer
The Wall Street Journal ran a story about Gunner, a bomb-sniffing dog stationed in Afghanistan. After being exposed to the realities of war, Gunner became so skittish that he was declared “excess” by the Marine Corps and relieved of his duties. Upon returning to The States, it was decided that Gunner exhibited symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Although recently in the news, canine PTSD is a fairly new concept and one that veterinarians are still debating. Doctors are hesitant to slap an official “PTSD” label on a stressed-out dog; however, many agree that dogs that have experienced certain traumas, such as Gunner, do exhibit symptoms consistent with standard PTSD.
Dr. Christopher Pachel, a board certified veterinary behaviorist based in Portland Oregon, says that he’s definitely seen canine clients with clinical signs that may match a “PTSD-like” pattern.
“I’ve treated dogs within my practice that show behavior patterns similar to those reported in people. We had direct knowledge of a specific trauma and the nature of their reaction was more consistent with PTSD signs as opposed to the more typical fears and anxieties that we see in our other patients.” Pachel says that in cases such as these, the primary obstacle that prevents him from diagnosing the condition as actual PTSD is the lack of understanding of what the dogs are experiencing mentally.
“I’m a little hesitant to use that term because on the human side, one of the hallmark signs of making a PTSD diagnosis is really some of those intrusive thoughts or replaying of events – flashback type episodes… We can observe some of that in dogs but it’s really difficult to know what exactly is going through their heads.”
Whether or not it’s clinical canine PTSD, the real take-home point, according to Pachel, is that dogs that are exposed to extreme stress or trauma need to be properly treated.
Dogs can be thrown into a state of extreme stress over a variety of different experiences. Common causes may include weather – including natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, car accidents, household accidents, and physical or emotional trauma during interactions with people or other animals.
“I’ve seen severe fear reactions that have developed from things such as a dog being attacked by another dog or from being startled by a person appearing suddenly from around a corner. I’ve also worked with dogs that have been exposed to confrontational training methods that consequently react fearfully or aggressively when someone reaches for their collar or goes to put on their leash. Their reaction is excessive for the situation at hand in a way that suggests they are responding more to the previous trauma than the current interaction,” says Pachel.
It’s inevitable that your dog will encounter the occasional stressful situation that may inflict some temporary anxiety, but at what point do you need to seek out treatment for your pet? There are two things that Pachel looks for that suggest that a patient might need professional treatment:
1) The extremeness or the severity of the reaction. “I once worked with a three dog household where all three dogs were exposed to the same situation but one dog in particular responded significantly more emotionally than the other two.” Pachel cites that example as a situation where the nature of the animal’s response may indicate a need for more immediate intervention: “This dog is not responding in the way that these other dogs are, so maybe we’re going to need to take a more involved approach.”
2) The duration of the reaction. “If I was involved in a car accident, I’d probably be nervous getting behind the wheel tomorrow and perhaps the next day and the next day. As I continued to go out and get in my car and drive accident free, that fear should start to subside. If it’s not, or perhaps it’s even getting worse each time I need to get behind the wheel of the car, at that point it’s probably not going to get better on it’s own,” says Pachel who explains that on the human side of the diagnosis, doctors often use the criteria of one month to judge whether or not a patient may be dealing with something larger than stress. “If the persistent excessive reactions last for at least a month without resolution, then we know that it might be time to seek professional help,” he says.
If your dog has undergone trauma or stress and is not showing signs of improving, Pachel recommends that you have your dog evaluated by a professional before the condition worsens.
“I had an owner bring a dog to me that had survived a tornado. A tree hit the house and it was very stressful to the dog. The dog’s anxiety continued to escalate and just a couple of days later, somebody in the home accidentally slammed a door in the household and the dog jumped through a second story window! That’s a situation where you need to bring him in immediately. That’s not exactly a situation where you can say, ‘Let’s wait a minute and see if it gets better by itself!” exclaims Pachel.
The best option, according to Pachel, would be to make an appointment to see a veterinary behaviorist. If there is not a behaviorist in your area, take your dog into your veterinarian. They will assess the basic problem and will be able to refer you to additional resources your dog might require, such as diagnostic testing, specialized training, or prescribed medication.
An animal behaviorist will go through your dog’s history and will assess his condition. He will then look at behavior modification options such as counter-conditioning, basic training that hasn’t been done already, or behavior exercises that the owner is able to do at home.
Dogs undergoing severe trauma might require additional behavior modification training in the office or may be assigned to a specialized trainer. Other treatment plans involve prescription medication, which can include food therapy, herb therapy, or over-the-counter pheromone supplements, as well as prescribed anxiety medication designed to alleviate fear, anxiety, or aggression issues.
The majority of dogs with PTSD-like symptoms can be treated. Pachel, however, stresses the importance of seeking out the help of a trained professional. “It takes specialized therapies and knowledge to address some of the more complex behavioral issues and, if handled correctly, a dog can work through them and return to its pre-trauma state.”
How about the other way around? Has your dog helped you recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Share your experience with us in the comments.