When we first adopted our dog Lenny, my husband and I noticed she had a strange aversion to a particular hallway in our apartment building. It was a long hallway with no doors or windows and footsteps tended to echo loudly. Lenny was so terrified of going down this hallway that we had to carry her in our arms anytime we needed to pass through it, and she would physically shake.
Lenny was rescued from an abandoned lot and we had no idea what her early life experience was. It seemed as though she had a memory that was causing her to be afraid of an entirely new place. It was so similar to human behavior it made me wonder if it was actually possible for dogs to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Although the concept is still relatively new, emerging research has shown that dogs can and do get Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. C-PTSD is a class of anxiety disorder that affects dogs who have experienced one or more stressful events such as surviving a life-threatening event, abuse, or combat situations.
Current estimates are anywhere from five percent to ten percent of military dogs deployed by American combat forces have developed C-PTSD. But just as with people, dogs do not need to be on the front lines of battle to develop C-PTSD. Experiencing a car crash, tornado, or abuse from a previous owner can all cause otherwise healthy doggies to change in temperament.
And while each dog might react to C-PTSD differently, Dr. Walter F. Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base knows the symptoms well. Sharp changes in temperament, Hyper-vigilance, potty accidents, whining, barking or hiding for no reason, and sometimes displaying aggression out of the blue.
Triggers also play a large role, as dogs often pair an object, location or person with the traumatic event that occurred. “If you want to put doggy thoughts into their heads,” Burghardt said, “the dog is thinking: when I see this kind of individual [place or object], things go boom, and I’m distressed.” For Lenny, there was something about the long hallway in our building that appeared to be a cue for her, but only a veterinarian tell us if she had C-PTSD symptoms.
The severity of C-PTSD can also vary, with some dogs only needing extra exercise and gentle playtime while other dogs can return from Afghanistan totally traumatized. “They’re essentially broken and can’t work,” Burghardt said. For those dogs, a more intensive treatment is given, involving a combination of anti-anxiety medication like Xanax and gentle desensitization counterconditioning. This process has proven successful in many dogs suffering from C-PTSD, so much so that dogs are able to rejoin their trainers and continue working again. Those that still appear to struggle are retired from duty and become available for civilian families to adopt.
There is also emerging research of new successful ways to treat C-PTSD. Animal Neuroscience Researcher Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University has studied ways to weaken traumatic memories in dogs by involving them in rough active play on a daily basis. This active play actually releases substantial amounts of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (SDNFs) which facilitate new neuronal growth, In other words- newer, better memories are replacing the older traumatic memories.
If you believe your dog might be showing symptoms of C-PTSD it is best to consult with a trained professional for proper care. Often, trying to treat on your own may actually worsen the symptoms. But with proper treatment and management, many dogs are able to return to the happy goofy selves they once were.
As for Lenny, I am happy to report that she now gallops down the hallway without fear or worry that her out-of-shape owners are panting to keep up.
Sources: Animal Wellness, Vet Info, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fox News, Scientific Reports