Can dogs have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 9/12/10
By: Gail T. Fisher


A reader writes: “Dear Gail: Can dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder? We recently adopted a severely malnourished, abused, heartworm positive, non-spayed black lab, probably between 1 and 2 years old. She is extremely intelligent, obedient and loving, and fits in as if she’s been with us for years. She and our other dog love each other, playing together for hours.

"The problem is when Roxie is soundly sleeping. She will suddenly make a high-pitched, loud and intense scream. If we approach her or abruptly wake her, she will attack, eyes still closed! When she fully awakens and realizes what she is doing, she immediately backs off. One night when she screamed, our other dog rushed over to see what was wrong. Roxie awoke and still half asleep, viciously attacked, leaving several deep puncture wounds and tearing off a piece of her ear. She also bit my husband's foot when he accidentally nudged her when she was sleeping.

"When Roxie is awake, you couldn't ask for a better dog. She loves everyone, loves other dogs and children. But when she is asleep, we have to walk around on tiptoes. How on earth do I train or discipline a dog that's sleeping?”

What an interesting letter—and one that fits into the topic I’ve been working on recently in preparation for my free workshop on
Dog Aggression this week. 

First, yes, dogs can suffer from PTSD. Post-traumatic stress is a reflexive, emotional reaction that we (and dogs) cannot cognitively control. In people, PTSD manifests in nightmares or fearful reactions in specific environments and circumstances related to the traumatic event. The trigger is often one that, in different circumstances, might be completely neutral, but as a result of a particularly painful and/or frightening experience, our brains develop a reflexive, conditioned response.

When a dog exhibits an undesirable reaction when awake, a strategy that may work is called counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization. Counter-conditioning is creating a positive emotional response to an incompatible behavior. For example, let’s say a dog reacts aggressively on leash when he sees another dog. Counter-conditioning might start by first establishing a conditioned (positive) emotional response to, for example, remaining in a sit to receive treats—no other dogs in sight. Once the dog has formed the positive association that good things happen when I remain sitting, desensitization would involve using the counter-conditioned behavior, placing the dog far enough away so he is comfortable remaining sitting and eating treats when he sees dogs quite a distance away. Gradually, over time, the triggering stimulus (the sight of another dog) moves closer, until ultimately the dog will remain sitting quietly as another dog walks by.

The problem you have, however, is that Roxie is having nightmares—and there’s no way to know what she’s envisioning, and therefore no way to try to replace it with a positive emotional response. Since Roxie is otherwise a nearly perfect pet, here’s my advice.

Give her her own bed, and train her to sleep there rather than allowing her to sleep anywhere. You can even have several, putting one in the room where the family spends most of their time. Place it away from the traffic pattern so no one walks by her when she’s sleeping. When she starts to dream, call your other dog and prevent her from approaching Roxie. And when Roxie is having one of her nightmares, gently call her name until she awakens, give her a moment to orient to her awake state, and then have her approach you, rather than you approach her. If her nightmares are a potential problem when you’re out of the house, crate her to protect your other dog. With these management strategies, you and your family should be able to enjoy many years with Roxie.

For more information on Dog Aggression, join me at All Dogs Gym on Thursday, September 16th from 7:00-8:30. Reservations are required and space is limited, so please call (603) 669-4644 or click here to reserve your space.

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