My Dog Isn’t Just Scared…  She has PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in dogs is something that has only been recognized in the most recent years.  Like with humans, it develops when a serious trauma has occurred.  This trauma could be a natural disaster, a war, a serious accident or event (or a series of events). 

Sienna shortly after she came to live with us.

Disclaimer: This site does not provide medical or veterinary advice.  It is intended for informational purposes only.  It is not a substitute for professional medical or veterinary advice, diagnosis or treatment.  If you have a medical emergency or situation, contact your local veterinarian or emergency animal hospital

Our Experience with PTSD: Sienna’s Difficult Past

When we adopted Sienna she was already about 3 years old (vet’s best guess!).  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, she’s had a hard life.  She lived in Mexico, about an hour south of Mexico City.  She must have been a street dog at some point.  She displayed many indications of being a street dog such as:

  • shy and standoffish
  • had a lot of trouble making eye contact
  • would wolf down food and had no limit to the amount of food she would eat, if given the opportunity
  • did this thing where she would purposefully look away from you…  kind of like “if I can’t see them, they can’t see me”
  • didn’t want to engage with us, unless it was for food
  • had a hard time trusting, and didn’t want to let herself enjoy being pet

Sienna was one of the lucky ones to be rescued that day.  She got the care she needed and deserved, and 4 months later she was flown to Canada (with a quick stop in Texas) with a number of other dogs to be adopted into loving Canadian homes. 

Once in Canada, the foster parent that had been assigned would drive to the pick-up location, the dog would be put in the car and would go immediately home with the foster.  We were in the middle of the pandemic, so there was no opportunity for gentle introductions. 

Sienna was now with her foster, possibly in a home for the first time ever, and in a new, colder country where she no longer recognized any of the language.  After a scary plane ride, this must have been a shock. 

She was with her foster mom for a month before we adopted her.  Her time with her foster mom was filled with scary vet visits, as were her first few weeks with us.  During her time with her foster mom, it was discovered that something was not right with her hips and pelvis and it was determined she would need surgery soon.  We now suspect that she was hit by a car while in Mexico, and the fractures and damage didn’t heal properly. 

Sienna’s Surgery

Sienna walked out of her surgery using all 4 legs, which is not very common.  Often dogs will baby the leg during recovery and not use it for several days or weeks.  I’ve been told by vets and therapists that the fact that Sienna used her leg right away was likely an indication that she had already been living in pain for a very long time, and that it was the status quo for her.  What a sad thought… 

Once Sienna’s surgery was complete and she was well on her way to healing, we engaged the same trainer that we had used with Willow.  Sienna had opened up to us a bit, but she still had a ways to go.  We were having a hard time moving her recovery forward because she was scared to cooperate and even to go for walks in our neighbourhood. 

The trainer taught me some super simple games that got Sienna moving and really helped her come out of her shell.  Soon she was approaching us for petting and even hanging out with us in the evenings instead of hiding in the bedroom.  What a difference!  Since then we’ve done several rounds of group classes with the same trainer, and it’s been a pleasure to watch Sienna continue to come out of her shell and learn to be a real dog.  She still has a ways to go, but every time she does something that we would consider ‘bad’ for a normal dog (like bark at a squirrel, grab a shoe from the door, or even chase a skunk) I celebrate a little because it means she is developing the confidence to do normal dogs things!  We’ve been super lucky that she hasn’t made these behaviours a habit!

It was my Mom who first suggested that Sienna had PTSD, although our trainer, who is also a behaviourist, readily agreed.  Honestly, after all she has been through in her short life it isn’t surprising.  What is surprising is how quickly she has warmed up and opened up once the right activities were introduced.  She will likely always be a little on the shy side, but we hope to continue to build her optimism so that new things, places and people are no longer scary and so that her default reaction will not be to shut down!

What causes PTSD in dogs?

PTSD is caused by some sort of traumatic event.  The more stressful the experience, the more likely the dog is to develop PTSD.  Like with most humans, how stressful an event is can vary from dog to dog.  Possible traumatic events could include:

  • Weather events – a bad thunderstorm, a tornado, a hurricane, flooding
  • Loss – loss of a dog friend or human caretaker
  • Interactions – a bad interaction with another dog or a human.  Getting attacked or beaten
  • An accident or traumatic event – a car accident, a fire, an emotional trauma, fireworks
  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Abandonment
  • War / combat situations

Signs of PTSD

A dog’s behaviour may change as a result of PTSD.  They may become more nervous, more aggressive, or even shut down.  The signs vary from dog to dog and can include:

  • Chronic anxiety, panic, severe separation anxiety
  • Physical signs like tucked tail, pinned back ears, panting, crouching low to the ground
  • Clinginess, depression, Hyperawareness
  • Aggression
  • Howling or barking excessively
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Elimination in the house, or reluctance to eliminate at all

What were the signs of PTSD that Sienna displayed?

  • Sienna was shut down.  She didn’t want to engage, didn’t want to let herself enjoy being pet, didn’t want to do anything at all, except eat.  She wanted to just hang out in the bedroom by herself in the dark
  • She had a lot of trouble with eye contact (more than the average rescue)
  • She would park herself when we went out for a walk and started to lose sight of the house she would plant herself and refuse to move unless it was back to the house
  • Whenever she was somewhere new or in a new situation, her tail was tucked underneath her and she always tried to make herself as small as possible
  • She. didn’t.  make. a. noise.  Yes, you read that correctly.  No barking, no crying, no whining; she was completely silent for months and months
Sienna shortly after she came to live with us.

There were many other signs, but these were the biggest/most obvious ones we observed.  When dealing with a new dog it can be difficult to differentiate what is the status quo for that dog, what is them just decompressing and getting used to a new home, and what is possibly PTSD.  As you can see in the image above, she looks dejected and completely uninterested in anything that’s going on around her.

How to help a dog with PTSD

Recovering from PTSD could take months or even years.  It may never be completely gone, but your dog can still live a happy, healthy life.  Making sure that there are no physical reasons for your dog’s behaviour is key, and you could also consider engaging a behavioural trainer.  Overall, patience and love is key, but there any many other things you can do to help:

  • Create a Safe Space – dogs need a safe space.  If they’re crate trained, that might be their crate, perhaps with a blanket draped over it for a cave-like experience.  Their safe space might be a spare room, or it might be a soft dog bed in your bedroom (or even your bed!).  Dogs need to know that they have a safe space that they can retreat to when the house gets too noisy or when they just need to decompress
  • Medicate, if necessary – there is a lot of debate about dog medications, however, some humans need medication for mental illness so why wouldn’t some dogs.  If you think that your dog might benefit from anxiety medication or something similar, there is no shame in this!  You can work with your vet to determine the right medication and dosage that will help your pet
  • Set Them Up for Success and to Make Good Choices! – setting your dog up for success is so important.  This can mean playing games to help build confidence and working on novelty, and helping to open up their world in slow doses that they can handle.  It also might mean managing the situation for them for awhile, and not putting them in situations where they will feel overly stressed or nervous
  • Build your Relationship by Playing Games – playing games will help your dog feel more confident and self-assured, and will help your dog come out of their shell a little bit. 

What did we do to help Sienna?

Sienna always had a safe space to go to.  She had access to our bedroom, her safe space, 100% of the time.  She also had several other places she could go throughout the house if she chose to (at first she did not).

Once we engaged a trainer, we learned several games that really helped!  We were taught to animate food, meaning to make the food move by rolling it or gently tossing it across the floor.  While doing this we tried to ignore her, focusing on something else, and rolling food away from us for her to get.  She was extremely hesitant at first, but this was the game that really started to build our relationship and got her moving.  We slowly introduced other confidence building games.  Play therapy was a breakthrough for Sienna!

We made it a no pressure, no rules environment.  We tried our best not to add any additional stresses and let Sienna make the choices, celebrating appropriately (she wouldn’t have appreciated loud whoops and yahoos!) when she made choices that showed her confidence was growing.  You could see Sienna shrink back when she would hear the word No, even if it wasn’t directed to her, or if there were any raised voices, so we did our best to ensure that was minimized around her.  No rules, no pressure does not mean that there was no encouragement.  It means that if Sienna chose not to do something, it was fine, we didn’t stress her about it. 

That also meant that as she started to come out of her shell, she began to exhibit some “naughty” behaviours.  We’ve been very lucky that she hasn’t started doing anything obsessively or anything dangerous.  Secretly I celebrate a little when Sienna barks at a squirrel, jumps on my legs,  steals a bone from her sister or even chases a skunk because it means she finally is starting to feel like a confident dog again.  Outwardly, I try to redirect the behaviour, but inside I know what a big step this has been for her! 

We gave Sienna space and, as much as possible, let her come to us.  Slowly but surely she learned that coming out of the bedroom was a good deal!  First, she began by coming out to the living room in the evening to lie in her bed while we watched a TV show.  Then she started coming up to us to be pet!  She is even starting to come up to us for cuddles now!

Sienna, happy and content in bed

Where are we now?

Sienna has lived with us for close to 2 years now, and had her surgery over 1.5 years ago.  She is still nervous sometimes, but she has come a long way.  She hears her halter jingle and she rushes out of the bedroom to see where she is going.  She is eager to go out into the world.  At home, she is becoming a snuggle bug.  It’s not just us engaging her in snuggles, she is beginning to actively seek it out.  She still spends much of the day in the bedroom, but now it’s sleeping while I work, not hiding in fear.  Whenever I get up I hear the thump as she jumps onto the ramp to our bed and then onto the floor.  She wants to check out what we’re doing and usually wants to be involved.

Overall, we still have some ways to go, but she is well on her way. 

Have you had a dog with PTSD? What helped them the most? Share your story in the comments below.

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