Have you ever wondered what goes on inside your furry best friend's head? Dogs are intelligent animals with complex nervous systems and brain connections that allow them to process information and respond to their environment. Understanding how your dog's nervous system and brain work can help you better communicate with them and provide appropriate care.
Dogs, like humans, can experience trauma that impacts their overall well-being and behaviour. However, with the advancement of scientific understanding, innovative approaches such as Polyvagal Theory are emerging as powerful tools for healing. This article will explore how Polyvagal Theory plays a crucial role in helping dogs overcome trauma and develop resilience.
"Contemporary strategies for health and well-being fail our biological needs by not acknowledging that feelings of safety emerge from inside the body ... It is proposed that feelings of safety have a measurable underlying neurophysiological substrate". (1)
The polyvagal theory is a concept that explains how our nervous system functions and affects our behaviour, emotions, and relationships. PivotalChange.ca has been applying Polyvagal theory concepts to our Behaviour Dog Parent Training (BDPT) since 2020. Our first question in severe dog behaviour cases is, "Do you think your dog feels safe?" and if so, "Why?". We follow by "Do you feel safe with your dog?". These questions drive advanced insight into the systems activated inside and outside a dog and human's sphere of influence. The Polyvagal Theory is one of six game-changing challenges to traditional approaches to dog behaviour solutions still commonly used today, whereby a one-size solution fits all. (Note: the other five include; advancements in behavioural epigenetics, sensory integration theory, nutritional psychiatry, systems thinking and canine cognitive & trauma-informed science).
According to the Polyvagal theory, the nervous system has three branches: the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, and the social engagement system. The social engagement system regulates emotions, forms relationships, and develops executive functioning skills such as decision-making, problem-solving, and impulse control.
When a dog experiences trauma, it can activate the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight or flight response. This can lead to anxiety, aggression, and other behavioural issues. Additionally, trauma can impair the development of the social engagement system, which can affect the dog's ability to regulate emotions, form relationships, and develop executive functioning skills.
In addition, trauma in young dogs (<4 years) will likely impair the proper development of executive function. People who've experienced chronic mistreatment in early childhood are known to likely suffer from developmental trauma disorder (DTD)(2). As with many other mental illnesses, we see similar afflictions in dogs. (3) So, decision-making, problem-solving and impulse control may not have been developed, yet expectations are not adjusted. Why are we asking newly adopted rescue dogs to control themselves when they have no means to do so?
PivotalChange.ca developed a colour-coded method to help new "dog parents" quickly pinpoint what is being activated in the dog's nervous systems and how to respond. Those in our roster seek excellence in dog parenting and recognise the essential need to understand the connection between their dog's biology and their behaviour. They seek us out when other solutions have not worked or worked only for a short time period. Brilliantly, when understanding how trauma affects a dog's nervous system, human-born compassion and patience are activated, allowing for a greater understanding of the dog's behaviour and providing support to heal, learn and develop.
Additionally, by providing a safe and supportive environment for our dogs, we help them develop their social engagement system and executive functioning skills, leading to better behaviour and a stronger bond with them. This can enhance our overall quality of life and help us achieve excellence.
The Three States of the Autonomic Nervous System with Case Studies:
The polyvagal theory introduces three distinct states of the autonomic nervous system: the ventral vagal state, sympathetic arousal, and dorsal vagal state. Understanding these states is crucial in comprehending how trauma affects dogs and the healing process.
Ventral Vagal State:
The ventral vagal state is associated with a sense of safety, connection, and social engagement. When dogs feel secure and supported, their nervous system operates from this state, promoting calmness, relaxation, and positive interactions.
Case Study: Harmony's Journey to Healing and Resilience
Harmony, a four-year-old dog, had arrived in the home from a 'backyard breeder' and likely had a traumatic start or had a predisposition that left her fearful and reactive in various situations. She exhibited anxiety, hypervigilance, and aggression towards unfamiliar people and dogs. They joined our practice when a trainer's efforts at classical conditioning and desensitisation failed. Harmony also was described as having low confidence and, notably, little impulse control complicated by high prey drive. Harmony's caregiver sought help to understand and address her behavioural challenges, leading them to PivotalChange.ca's specialised multidisciplinary holistic approach.
By applying the principles of polyvagal theory, the approach was to create an environment that supported Harmony's nervous system by shifting her towards the ventral vagal state. Harmony's interactions with her primary caregiver were initially carefully developed to provide a sense of safety and predictability. Once foundations were established, we promoted a sense of connection and social engagement using positive reinforcement techniques. Harmony was rewarded for calm behaviours and provided opportunities for positive interactions with trusted individuals and friendly dogs. Gradually, her confidence grew, and she began to display more relaxed and friendly behaviours.
To support Harmony's overall well-being, her diet was adjusted to include greater frequency and additive complex carbohydrates to contribute to stress reduction and cognitive function. This integrative approach aimed to address the interconnectedness of physical and psychological health.
Over time, Harmony's progress was evident. She became more comfortable in new environments, displaying reduced anxiety and improved social interactions. Harmony's guardians noticed a remarkable shift in her overall demeanour, with increased calmness and a greater sense of security.
"... The same friend came over, and she did a perfect turn away, but I also put a few kibbles in the puzzle ball and told her to show it to Anna, and she was so happy, wagging her tail and greeting nicely with no jumping. We were having s little choir rehearsal, and she was doing some attn. seeking behaviour, so I brought her raised bed in the same room as us, and she hopped on it and stayed there the whole time, which was over an hour:)) ... This visit was a huge success!"
The case of Harmony exemplifies how the ventral vagal state, associated with safety, connection, and social engagement, can be nurtured in a traumatised dog. Harmony's nervous system gradually shifted towards a more balanced and resilient state by creating a supportive environment, implementing positive reinforcement techniques, and addressing dietary and biological factors. Through patience, understanding, and a trauma-informed approach, Harmony's journey led her from fear and reactivity to healing, resilience, and a newfound sense of well-being.
The sympathetic arousal state is activated during stress or perceived threats. Dogs in this state exhibit increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and heightened alertness. Long-term exposure to sympathetic arousal can lead to chronic anxiety and fear-based behaviours.
Case Study: Bella's Journey Towards Regulation from Sympathetic Arousal
Bella, a three-year-old Maremma, displayed persistent signs of sympathetic arousal characterised by hyperactivity, restlessness, and heightened reactivity. Her caregiver sought assistance to help her manage her intense vigilance of boats and activity on his waterfront property. "...(Bella) ... chases and barks at passing boats from our cottage to the point of exhaustion. Her strength of character has exceeded my resolve to break her of these habits ..."
This persistent and complex behaviour problem lead them to our BDPT program.
The program aimed to regulate Bella's sympathetic nervous system and promote a more balanced state. Initially, her caregiver focused on environmental management, creating a calm and structured living space for Bella. They ensured she had a designated area for relaxation, free from excessive stimuli that could trigger her arousal. We established a stronger and more reliable relationship between herself and her caregiver whereby interventions were based on trust and didn't compromise their friendship.
Daily exercise routines were emphasised to help Bella release her energy in a controlled manner. This included engaging her in structured activities like training, interactive play sessions, and mentally stimulating games. Regular walks and opportunities for appropriate socialisation were also provided, allowing Bella to channel her energy in a positive and controlled manner.
Alongside physical exercises, Bella's guardians incorporated relaxation techniques and calming activities. This included learning how to have a dialogue with their dog and creating permissible gentle touch. We introduce sensory enrichment tools like puzzle toys, scenting games, and interactive feeders. These activities helped redirect Bella's focus, engage her cognitive abilities, and promote a sense of relaxation.
To further support Bella's journey towards regulation, her diet was adjusted to include ingredients known for their calming properties. These dietary changes addressed any potential imbalances or deficiencies that could contribute to her sympathetic arousal.
Over time, Bella's progress became evident. Her guardian noticed a significant reduction in her hyperactivity and restlessness. Bella became more responsive to cues, exhibited improved impulse control, and demonstrated increased tolerance towards stimuli that would previously trigger her arousal. She started displaying more relaxed body language and a general sense of calmness in her daily interactions.
The case of Bella highlights the effectiveness of targeted interventions in regulating sympathetic arousal in dogs. Through environmental management, structured exercise routines, relaxation techniques, and dietary adjustments, Bella's sympathetic nervous system gradually found balance. This resulted in a more regulated state, allowing her to navigate the world with increased composure, reduced reactivity, and improved overall well-being.
Dorsal Vagal State:
The dorsal vagal state is the freeze response, often seen in dogs experiencing extreme fear or trauma. In this state, dogs may become immobile or disconnected or display shutdown behaviours as a survival mechanism.
Case Study: From Frozen Fear to Resilience: A Trauma-Informed Journey with Charlie, the Rescue Dog
Charlie, a five-year-old rescue dog, had a history of abuse and neglect, leaving him with deep-rooted fear and trauma. Whenever he encountered triggering situations, Charlie would enter the dorsal vagal state, exhibiting freezing behaviours and disconnecting from his surroundings as a survival response.
His new caregivers enlisted help from PivotalChange.ca, as specialised trauma-informed canine behaviourist and psychologist, experienced in supporting dogs like Charlie's through a healing journey. The goal was to create a safe and nurturing environment that would gradually help Charlie regulate his nervous system and move away from the freeze response.
We first deepened the relationship and nurtured trust between himself and his new caregiver. We educated the caregiver on the implication of trauma and the brain's development to help explain behaviours, including submissive urination when greeting family members. As Charlie was a small dog, all engagement with his body, unless he agreed, stopped. "Skilful Dialoguing", a specialised technique to create a request, listen and respond cycle, was mastered by the caregiver. Charlie learned to signal 'yes', 'no' and 'maybe' and fully trusted it would be respected. We implemented a gradual desensitisation and counterconditioning plan tailored to Charlie's specific triggers, but only when it was evident that a secure bond had been established and Charlie felt safe for a period longer than 2 weeks. Initially, exposure to stimuli was kept minimal, focusing on creating positive associations through reward-based training and gentle interactions. This allowed Charlie to slowly build trust and feel more secure in his environment.
To address Charlie's freeze response, we incorporated techniques to promote self-soothing and relaxation. This included introducing tools such as a sleeping pacifier using hypnotherapy and calming pheromone diffusers in Charlie's safe space.
In addition to environmental modifications, we taught the caregiver positive reinforcement training to empower Charlie and boost his confidence. Through small, achievable tasks and rewards, Charlie gradually gained a sense of control over his environment, helping him feel more empowered and less prone to freezing.
Over time, Charlie's progress became evident. He started showing increased engagement, more exploratory behaviours, and a greater willingness to interact with his caregivers and the environment. The frequency and duration of his freeze responses decreased significantly, indicating his gradual healing from the dorsal vagal state.
Through a comprehensive trauma-informed multidisciplinary approach, Charlie's caregivers guided him towards healing and resilience. By creating a safe and supportive environment, building up the caregivers' dog parenting capabilities, targeting desensitisation techniques, and emphasising positive reinforcement, Charlie overcame his freeze response and experienced a greater sense of trust, connection, and emotional well-being.
Today Charlie is extremely happy, developed into a well-rounded and mentally sound dog who is loved at first view and protected from touching by his committed caregiver.
The Autonomic Nervous System has three different states, according to the theory: the ventral vagal state, sympathetic arousal, and dorsal vagal state. The ventral vagal state is when a dog feels safe and connected, promoting calmness and positive interactions. The sympathetic arousal state is activated during stressful situations, leading to chronic anxiety and fear-based behaviours. The dorsal vagal state is the freeze response seen in dogs experiencing extreme fear or trauma, where they may become immobile or display shutdown behaviours as a survival mechanism. Understanding these states is essential for understanding how trauma affects dogs and their healing process.
Applying Polyvagal Theory in Healing Dogs:
Polyvagal Theory provides a framework for understanding how trauma impacts dogs and guides us in supporting their healing journey. Below are key approaches informed by Polyvagal Theory and other disciplines:
Creating Safety and Trust:
Building a safe and trusting environment is essential for dogs to move from sympathetic arousal or dorsal vagal states towards the ventral vagal state. Consistency, positive reinforcement, and gentle interactions help establish a sense of security.
Consistency for a dog parent who has adopted a fearful and anxious dog requires patience, understanding, and a willingness to work with the dog's needs. A psychological assessment gains insight into some underlying emotions fueling the behaviour issues. One important aspect is establishing a routine for the dog, including feeding, exercise, and playtime, to provide stability and predictability. We often believe feeding a dog twice a day is the recommended routine; however, when working within a behaviour modification program, like PivotalChange's BDPT, they see impressive results in feeding the dog three times a day that often supports a feeling of safety, amongst other strategies.
Consistency in how the dog is taught, the language used, the approach and future desires for the dog and what rules apply are crucial if the dog is coming into a family with several caregivers. Positive reinforcement techniques should be used exclusively on rescued dogs. Family members should ensure they all agree with positive reinforcement. If not, special education on effectiveness, kindness and compassion should be provided. This worldwide scientific consensus is plentiful, so seeing Positive Reinforcement as the only way to go is not difficult. Once all are on board, the caregivers will encourage desirable behaviours.
Manage first, then Build:
It is vital to "Manage" the dog's triggers and avoid situations where the dog may be unable to cope. In fact, behaviour experts at PivotalChange request new dog parents to develop strategies to manage all triggers for several weeks when first brought home. This allows the dog's mind to calm, become fertile for learning, and develop a bond with their humans. After a few weeks of calmness, they work with the caregivers to gradually expose the dog to new environments and experiences in a controlled and positive manner.
Canine Paralanguage Method (CPM) teaches new dog caregivers to use their voice and expressions to enhance communication with the dog. It is important in building trust and reducing anxiety.
Regulating Arousal Levels:
Learning to recognise signs of heightened arousal in dogs is crucial. PivotalChange.ca's colour-coded frameworks teach dog parents how to recognise emotional states and respond effectively. They learn to employ touch, sensory grounding, and calming cues to regulate their dog's nervous system and promote relaxation.
Gradual Exposure and Desensitisation:
Progressive exposure to triggers or environments that previously caused distress allows dogs to develop resilience; however, impatience and misunderstanding of traumatised dogs, or those with persistent behaviour challenges, will significantly inform the success. The slow and gradual exposure to maintain a sense of safety and create positive experiences will require mastery of reading signals and canine paralanguage methods (CPM) (A method used by PivotalChange.ca to develop quality understanding between dogs and humans) and skilful dialogue for the caregiver before exposure. The point is for the dog to rewrite associations and build confidence - this takes time and dog parent capabilities.
Building Social Connections:
Positive social interactions and bonding with trusted caregivers play a significant role in promoting the ventral vagal state. Engaging in activities like play, training, and gentle touch nurtures the dog-human relationship, reinforcing feelings of safety and belonging.
The polyvagal theory offers valuable insights into understanding and healing dogs who have experienced trauma. By creating a safe environment, regulating arousal levels, and gradually exposing them to positive experiences, we can help dogs transition from trauma to resilience. With the application of Polyvagal Theory, we embark on a journey of compassion and empowerment, enabling our beloved canine companions to thrive and embrace a brighter future.
(1) Porges Stephen W., Polyvagal Theory: A Science of Safety, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 16, 2022 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnint.2022.871227
(2)Nancy Parish-Plass, Jessica Pfeiffer: Implications of Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Developmental Trauma Through the Lens of Interpersonal Neurobiology, July 2019, DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv2x00vgg.8
(3) Mariana R. Olsen, A Case for Methodological Overhaul and Increased Study of Executive Function in the Domestic Dog (Canis lupus familiaris), Montana State University