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Bridging the Gap: Insights into Canine Trauma Care

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

Watching a dog whose behaviour clearly shows distress is not easy; it is heart-wrenching and not easily dismissed from one's mind’s eye. Simply stated, it is one of those things that can’t be unseen.



It compels us to act, to relieve the discomfort of a dog who, having innocently sought human companionship, was taught through hardship that life is hard. Trauma, an overwhelming experience which eclipses a dog's ability to cope, leaves an indelible mark on their mental and emotional health. Trauma can be caused by a single event, like a car accident, natural disaster, or it can result from prolonged exposure to circumstances, such as abuse, neglect, witnessing family violence, or abandonment.


Trauma often leads to a range of symptoms and behaviours, including fear, anxiety, hypervigilance, and avoidance. Imagine walking in the park when suddenly your newly adopted rescue dog, so far a friendly fellow, growls at a stranger and bares his teeth. Such unexpected aggression or fearfulness could be signs of past trauma. In the context of dog behaviour, trauma can occur when they’ve experienced a distressing event or series of events that disrupt their sense of safety and security, leaving them without coping strategies. So, if you've ever felt puzzled by your dog's sudden change in behaviour, understanding the impact of trauma is your first step to helping them. Traumatised dogs may display a variety of surprising behaviours, such as taking long pauses before responding to a simple request, swings in emotional states, reluctance to be touched or approached, and taking a long time to calm down after an eruption. Understanding the intricate nature of traumatised dog behaviour is crucial in order to provide appropriate care and support for these animals.


Impact on Dogs


The impact of trauma on dogs can be profound, affecting their behaviour and emotions in various ways. Just like humans, dogs can experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and exhibit symptoms such as fear, anxiety, aggression, changes in appetite, and excessive vocalisation. Traumatic experiences can leave lasting impressions on dogs, leading to long-term effects on their mental and emotional well-being.


Dogs with brain injuries resulting from trauma may face unique challenges. The long-term prognosis for these dogs depends on several factors, including the severity of the injury and the effectiveness of treatment. Some dogs may make a full recovery, while others may experience persistent behavioural issues or cognitive impairments. Consider this: just like a person recovering from a head injury might struggle with daily tasks and cognitive processing, even continuous headaches, dogs with trauma-induced brain injuries face their own set of challenges. Beyond the emotional implications, a dog with a head injury can experience loss of sight, hearing impairment, and vestibular syndromes. Not all of these are obvious. In fact, several cases of dogs rescued from abuse in our practice at Pivotal Change have shown hearing impairments. They are unable to locate the source of a sound, and the noise seems to surround them, causing distress. It is a symptom common enough to be regularly observed in our practice.


Recognising the signs and symptoms of trauma in dogs is crucial for providing them with the care and support they need. Fearful or anxious behaviour, aggression towards people or other animals, changes in appetite (such as sudden weight loss or refusal to eat), and excessive vocalisation (barking or whining) can all indicate that a dog has experienced trauma.


Developing effective interventions and treatments is not a simple exercise for dog parents and professionals. Approaches and interdisciplinary studies in canine psychology, systems thinking, neurobiology, and complementary trauma-informed therapy used in humans can provide valuable insights into the complex nature of traumatised dog behaviour.


Trauma is why, when asked by dog parents, “What do I do with my persistently reactive dog?”, simple answers won’t suffice. It is through this interdisciplinary approach that we can unravel the complexities of a traumatised dog’s behaviour and pave the way for effective healing. However, further research and quantitative studies are needed to explore the long-term effects of trauma and improve outcomes for dogs who have experienced such adversity and a heart-breaking past.


Types of Trauma in Dogs


Dogs can experience various types of trauma that can have a lasting impact on their behaviour and well-being. One such traumatic experience is the dog meat trade, where dogs are bred and raised for consumption. Dogs in this trade endure extreme conditions, confinement, and abuse, leading to profound psychological trauma.


We met Angel, who was traumatised by her experience in a meat market before being rescued by an extremely patient and committed dog parent. On the surface, she was extremely distressed by small, white animals. Trauma does not need to have a direct correlation with a trigger, so the connection between small, white animals and her behaviour is unclear. What was evident was that the behaviour was persistent and complex, needing much more than simple counter-conditioning. A complete strategy was wrapped around the dog parent and the dog allowing them to grow, connect and develop coping skills.


Hoarding cases also pose a significant threat to a dog's mental and physical state. In these situations, dogs are often neglected, overcrowded, and deprived of essential care. This can lead to chronic stress, fear, and a lack of socialisation, resulting in long-term behavioural issues.


Nigel has been our most memorable hoarding rescue. It helped that he resembled Max from 'The Grinch That Stole Christmas', endearing him to us even when he exhibited odd behaviours related to chronic stress, fear, and poor early development, such as peeing on legs, snapping unexpectedly, and barking excessively. Recognising how early development affects brain growth steered our attention towards strategies for executive functioning. This, coupled with a multifaceted approach, assists the dog parent in becoming aware of the dog's biological limitations and the necessary adjustments required


Entering a shelter can also be a source of trauma for dogs. Imagine the heartbreak of a dog suddenly left in a shelter, the confusion and sadness they might feel. This sudden change can be deeply traumatic for them. The sudden change in the environment, separation from familiar individuals, and exposure to other stressed and anxious animals can cause significant distress. Dogs in shelters may exhibit signs of stress, anxiety, depression, or aggression due to their traumatic experiences.


Consider Bella, a collie who found herself in a shelter after her caregiver's sudden move. The once vibrant dog became withdrawn, a shadow of her former self, illustrating the deep cut of such a traumatic upheaval. We support the family to help Bella find the joy of life with her new people and with the ongoing lifetime of support we offer clients, we connect regularly to see how Bella's mental health continues to be stablised. In fact, she gained a new four-legged friend who has helped enormously in building her confidence.


Understanding the types of trauma dogs can face is crucial in providing appropriate care and intervention. To truly help our dogs, we need to become detectives, understanding the different types of traumas they might have faced. Only then can we offer the right care and support. It is important to recognise the signs of stress and anxiety in traumatised dogs, and by doing so, you’ve made the first step towards healing, allowing you to become the pillar of support they desperately need. Equally important is assessing our own dog parenting capabilities to employ the multiple roles the dog will need for emotional support. The dog parent must also be committed to positive reinforcement-based training to help them overcome their fears and regain their trust in humans.


In conclusion, dogs can experience trauma through various situations such as the dog meat trade, hoarding cases, and entering a shelter. These traumatic experiences can lead to long-term behavioural issues, including stress, anxiety, and aggression. Recognising the signs of trauma in dogs is essential, along with educating yourself on what will be necessary to support and care for them. Guiding a dog through recovery to a fulfilling life is not just a goal; it's a journey of mutual healing and joy.


Prevalence of Traumatised Dog Behaviour


Have you ever wondered about the deep-seated effects of trauma on the dogs invited to become our family members? In my field, I’ve observed a rising curiosity among both researchers and dedicated dog parents. And while trauma can leave a profound mark on our dogs, the silver lining is the burgeoning research in this realm, offering a beacon of hope.

Let's dive in: When we talk about traumatised dog behaviour, we're delving into the shifts in behaviour seen in dogs who've faced heart-wrenching events - think abuse, neglect, witnessing family violence, or the sorrow of abandonment. It is estimated that a significant percentage of dogs have experienced some form of trauma during their lives, resulting in a range of behavioural issues (Wallis et al., 2018).


Understanding the prevalence of traumatised dog behaviour is crucial in order to provide appropriate care and support for these animals. By examining the prevalence and patterns of trauma-related behaviour in dogs, we can gain valuable insights into the complex nature of trauma and its effects on canine psychology. That allows us to be better equipped to craft impactful interventions, ensuring our traumatised four-legged family members find their way back to joy and well-being.


Causes of Trauma in Dogs


Traumatic events can have a profound impact on dogs, resulting in a range of behavioural issues. The causes of trauma in dogs can vary, from extreme scenarios such as those found in the dog meat trade or hoarding cases, to more common occurrences like entering a shelter or transitioning to a new home.


In cases of the dog meat trade and hoarding, dogs are often subjected to severe physical and emotional abuse. The fear and pain inflicted on these animals can leave lasting scars, leading to long-term behavioural and psychological issues.


Even for dogs in more common situations, unfamiliar environments such as shelters can be distressing. The sudden change in routine, separation from familiar people and places, and exposure to other stressed or aggressive dogs can cause immense anxiety. Similarly, transitioning to a new home can be overwhelming for dogs as they try to navigate an unfamiliar environment and adjust to new routines.


These traumatic experiences can result in a dog associating certain environments, activities, or even people with pain or fear. This can manifest in a range of behaviours, including aggression, fear or separation anxiety, excessive barking, and even repetitive or compulsive behaviours. While these traumatic experiences can result in stress, anxiety, and even aggression, with patience and love, an opportunity to heal and find peace are within reach for these resilient souls.


Signs and Symptoms of Traumatised Dog Behaviour

When dogs experience trauma, it can profoundly impact their behaviour and overall well-being. Understanding the signs and symptoms of traumatized dog behaviour is crucial for identifying and addressing their needs effectively.

Common indicators of traumatized dog behaviour include:

  1. Fear and anxiety: Traumatized dogs may display excessive fear and anxiety in various situations. They may cower, tremble, and exhibit avoidance behaviours, such as hiding or excessive panting.

  2. Aggression: Some traumatized dogs may exhibit aggressive behaviour, including growling, snarling, and biting. This aggression is often triggered by fear and a perceived need to protect themselves.

  3. Hyper-vigilance: Traumatized dogs are constantly on high alert, scanning their environment for potential threats. They may exhibit excessive barking, restlessness, or an inability to relax.

  4. Avoidance and withdrawal: Dogs that have experienced trauma may become socially withdrawn and avoid human or canine interactions. They may isolate themselves or retreat to a hiding spot to feel safe.

  5. Repetitive behaviours: Some traumatized dogs may develop compulsive and repetitive behaviours, such as excessive pacing, spinning, or tail chasing, as a coping mechanism for their anxiety.

  6. Hyperventilation and excessive panting: Trauma can lead to physiological symptoms like hyperventilation and excessive panting, even in non-stressful situations.

It is important to note that each dog may exhibit a unique combination of these signs and symptoms, and not all traumatized dogs will display every indicator. Therefore, adopting an interdisciplinary approach that considers the complex nature of traumatised dog behaviour, including the use of complex systems theory, can provide a holistic understanding of their needs and aid in their rehabilitation.


Estimating the Prevalence of Traumatised Dog Behaviour


Trauma, violence, and abuse are alarmingly prevalent in the lives of many dogs around the world. From being victims of neglect and abandonment to experiencing physical and emotional abuse, these traumatic events can have lifelong impacts on a dog's behaviour and well-being. Understanding the prevalence of traumatised dog behaviour is crucial in order to address the scope of this issue and its implications.


Estimating the prevalence of traumatised dog behaviour requires a comprehensive approach that involves collating data from various sources, such as animal shelters, veterinary clinics, and animal welfare organizations. These sources can provide valuable insights into the number of dogs that have experienced trauma, violence, or abuse.


By quantifying the prevalence of traumatised dog behaviour, researchers, animal behaviourists, and animal welfare advocates can gain a deeper understanding of the extent of the problem. This knowledge can help inform interventions and strategies aimed at better supporting traumatised dogs, ultimately improving their quality of life and well-being.

In conclusion, estimating the prevalence of traumatised dog behaviour is essential to grasp the magnitude of the issue and develop effective solutions. As we illuminate the often hidden struggles of traumatised dogs, we empower you, the dedicated dog parent, to champion a future where every dog's welfare is at the heart of their care, helping them to transcend their past traumas.


Disclaimer: Original Content


All insights, ideas, and content presented in our materials are the result of original thought, extensive expertise, and dedicated research in the field of canine psychology and behaviour. The methodologies and approaches are developed from a unique Human-Centric perspective, tailored by Sparky, an award-winning Canine Psychologist and Behaviourist, specialising in the care and rehabilitation of traumatised and rescued dogs.

Our content is crafted with the utmost integrity and a commitment to the welfare of dogs and their human caregivers. We pride ourselves on authenticity and innovation in our field, and we assert the originality of our work in all its forms. Any resemblance to other published works is coincidental and not intended, as we uphold the highest standards of professional ethics and originality in our contributions to the field of canine psychology.

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