Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, September/October, 2006.
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Lefty had always been a friendly dog-the dog everyone in the neighborhood knew and loved. An amiable Labrador, he loved nothing better than to play with the neighbors' kids on expansive suburban lawns. One summer his family took a vacation unsuitable for dogs, so Lefty went to a friend's house. A week later, the family returned and picked him up.
They were recounting this story to me in my office, and they stressed that he seemed fine, just fine, when they brought him home. He was a bit quiet, but he'd played a lot with other dogs at the neighbors', and his family assumed he was just tired.
A week later, Lefty was in the backyard when one of his buddies, a 12-year-old boy, came over to say hello. As the child reached out to pet him, Lefty exploded in his face. The frightened child rocked backward as Lefty barked-BARR RARR RARR-deep growly barks that brought his owners running from the house. Lefty quieted as his family ran to him and the hapless boy withdrew, but everyone-the boy, Lefty's owners, and possibly Lefty himself-was shocked. Lefty and the boy had been friends for years, playing fetch under summer sunsets and sharing hamburgers at neighborhood picnics. His behavior seemed inexplicable.
Lefty's barking and lunging toward the boy was so out of character, the family could barely believe it had happened . ... They decided to watch him closely, but couldn't imagine such a thing happening again.
It did. A few weeks later, Lefty lunged toward a 7-yearold boy, and a month after that he cornered the plumber against the bathroom wall. By the time Lefty's family came to me, his behavior had deteriorated to barking aggressively toward any unfamiliar male, young or old. He hadn't bitten anyone yet, but his barks were deep and threatening and the family was afraid of what he might do next.
As we talked, Lefty greeted me exuberantly, bringing me tennis balls and chew toys. His body stayed loose and his mouth was relaxed, and for most of the hour he appeared as happygo-lucky as he'd been for most of his life. But when a man walked by the office window, Lefty dropped the tennis ball and lunged toward the man with deep, threatening barks. The hair over Lefty's shoulders stood straight up, his body had become stiff and tight, his ears were pinned fiat, and his eyes were round. Lefty may have been lunging forward, but if you looked at him closely, you could see that the corners of his mouth were pulled back in a fear grimace, and his pupils were fully dilated. Lefty's behavior may have been frightening, but Lefty was as scared himself as he was scary to others.
The family was scared, too, and confused about why, after six years as their sweet, loving, easygoing best friend, Lefty had changed into a dog who was not only untrustworthy around strangers but also jumpy and reactive to noises he'd previously ignored. We talked at length about what could have precipitated his change in behavior, but couldn't come up with an explanation. Two veterinarians had carefully checked him for hidden health problems. Lefty had come up clean. The family hadn't changed his food or his routine, and nothing had happened at home that could explain his behavior.
Finally, one of the children noted how quiet he had been when he returned from the neighbors' house. Looking for any insights into Lefty's behavior, I called them to find out whether anything could have happened. The mystery began to resolve when they told me that a visiting relative had brought along her 12-year-old son, and on one afternoon they had seen the boy teasing the dogs.
The boy trapped Lefty in the laundry room and taunted him by screaming in his face. Lefty had been terrified.
Responsible dog lovers, the neighbors put a stop to the abuse right away. To their relief, Lefty seemed none the worse for wear, happily greeting everyone who came to visit, playing politely as always with the other dogs at the house. But none of the family was a 12-year-old boy, and no one knew that the effects of trauma are not always visible on the surface, or that they can spread like ripples beneath the surface of a dog's future.
Besides a genetic predisposition and a lack of exposure during development, dogs also can be fearful because they have learned to be. Perhaps one dog has learned that a rolled-up newspaper means she's going to get hurt. Another may have had a painful procedure at the veterinarian's and begins to pant and drool the next time the car pulls into the clinic's driveway. I've met dogs who loved other dogs, except individuals of just one breed or color, who look like the dog who attacked them when they were younger.
Fear derived from traumatic experiences is actually less common than people imagine.
Trainers and behaviorists see clients almost daily who say, "I'm sure she was terribly abused before I got her, because she cowers/growls/snaps/hides at every man/stranger/dog she sees." Most often these dogs are either genetically fearful, undersocialized, or, most commonly, a bit of both. Shy dogs are often more afraid of men than of women, so a dog doesn't have to have been abused by a man to be fearful of all men.
However, sometimes dogs do get hurt and scared during their lifetimes, and these traumatic events can resonate through their lives just as they can through ours.
When people and dogs are frightened, parts of the limbic system (the regions in the brain that control emotions) record the details of the event like a detective at a crime scene. However, neither limbic systems nor detectives know which of the details might be predictive of a similar danger in the future, so they record everything they can, in case it turns out to be important later. A dog attacked by a big, white dog may forever be afraid of white dogs, because "white" was one of the features his brain recorded at the time.
Another dog, attacked by the same white dog as the first, may remember size, rather than color, and be afraid of big dogs in the future. We know from brain activation research that when a person is terrified, the brain recruits input from neurons all over the brain, sweeping up both significant and insignificant details at the same time. One of the challenges when trying to turn around fearful behavior is to figure out what features were recorded as being relevant to the problem. These features, or triggers, become an important aspect of soothing the fear.
Prior experience is an important factor in how a dog reacts to a frightening event. An attack by another dog is going to have much more impact if it happens to a pup who's never met another dog. It also matters to dogs, just as it does to people, what happened in the days preceding an incident . ... A dog might react very differently to an attack if he'd been scared the night before by a thunderstorm, or just been to the vet's for vaccinations. The impact of the environment can be additive, which is one of the reasons that dogs seem to behave erratically. Perhaps your dog might welcome a guest one day, and bark like a banshee at the same person the day after. Don't let some inconsistencies in your dog's behavior throw you. Many factors influence how frightened a dog will be by any one event. What has happened in his past is just one of them. Usually the effects of any single incident fade away over aperiod of days, but on occasion, just as in people, one single incident is enough to change a dog forever.
Terror's Long Shadow
Some dogs are so affected by what happens to them they behave as though they have been clinically traumatized. Someone rolled her eyes once when I used this term in relation to dogs. She asked, her tone dripping with sarcasm, if I wasn't being just a little bit anthropomorphic when I used such a 'human" term in relation to a dog. No, I replied, I wasn't-at least, not in a problematic way.
"Trauma" is defined as a serious shock or injury to the body or the emotions; an event that causes "great distress and disruption." There's virtually nothing about the way dogs are designed to preclude their being "distressed and disrupted" by a terrifying event. That dogs can be frightened by something, and that those fears can affect their behavior, is hardly surprising to any of us who know dogs. What did surprise me was my realization over the years that dogs exhibit many of the same symptoms as people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Lefty, the dog whose story began this section, is a classic case of a dog who behaved much like a person with PTSD. As is often true in humans, his behavioral problems didn't begin immediately after he had been scared. Also, like a human PTSD victim, he began to generalize the triggers that he associated with his fear, first being afraid of just one 12-year-old boy, then of other boys of similar ages, and eventually of males of any age. That's often how trauma affects humans-its effects aren't always obvious right away, and over time the victims begin to generalize their fears from one specific stimulus to wider and wider categories of events.
An infamous story about the progression of trauma comies from the work of the influential early-20th century behaviorist John B. Watson. Watson wanted to show the power of associative learning, in which an innate reaction to one thing (like the fear of a loud, startling noise) can be transferred to another thing (a benign object, such as a small, furry animal). Watson brought Albert, an 11 month-old child, into his laboratory and sat him down in front of a friendly little white rat. Albert was charmed by the furry creature in front of him, and cheerfully tried to pet it. However, every time Albert reached for the animal, Watson slammed a hammer onto a piece of metal just a few inches behind Albert's head. After one short session, poor little Albert burst into tears every time he saw a white rat. By the end of the week he had become afraid of anything furry, including a rabbit and a fur coat.
This experiment was heartless enough given the knowledge of the time, but is made even more painful to contemplate by our current knowledge that Watson was permanently changing the function of Albert's brain, and predisposing him to be far more reactive to trauma than he would have been before his unknowing mother brought him into the laboratory.
Little Albert the boy and Lefty the dog have a lot in common: both suffered from an event that was frightening, and in both cases a specific fear became generalized to anything that their brains had associated with the trauma. Albert started with an attraction to white furry animals, and Lefty to little boys. However, when these things were paired with something frightening, they became frightening all by themselves.
Over time, both boy and dog began to generalize their fears: Albert to anything furry, Lefty to anyone male. Lefty was friendly to me not because I'm a trained behaviorist, or because I love dogs, but simply because I'm not a guy.
The bad news is that trauma can stay with us forever; just ask the victims of war or other violence. We know this is true of many species beside ourselves-rats who have been traumatized by inescapable shocks have longlasting changes in their physiology, and deficits in their ability to learn.
There's good news, though, about trauma and its effect on people and dogs. For one thing, most frightening events don't result in clinical levels of trauma, and dogs can be as resilient as people can in recovering from a scare here and there. Being scared at the vet's office or being charged by a frightening dog isn't likely to cause lifelong problems in a healthy, stable dog, any more than one bad experience at the doctor's is going to leave you with a phobia about getting a physical.
The other piece of good news about our reactions to frightening events is that as we start to understand more about the biology of fear, no matter what its source, we're also starting to develop better ways to treat fear. Some of these methods are dependent upon speech and are of no use to those of us with traumatized dogs.
But other methods work without words, and can do wonders for dogs whose fears are compromising their lives. Chief among these is classical counterconditioning, in which you are trying to counter an emotion that already exists. Classical counterconditioning is a powerful tool used by animal behaviorists to turn around behavior problems that are motivated by fear. As an applied animal behaviorist, I simply don't know what I'd do without it.
The technique can work wonders, but it's not intuitively obvious. There are books that describe the process (see sidebar) but it's best for owners to consult a professional animal behaviorist to develop a program to help their dogs overcome their fears.
That's how Lefty's family helped him. They gradually exposed him to friendly men who came bearing treats and tennis balls, and eventually, with great care for safety, reintroduced the neighborhood children. The program allowed him to put the frightening incident behind him; he was soon out on the lawn again, romping with his old friends.