You may have heard about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in people, but did you know dogs can get it, too? It happens when a dog is exposed to some kind of trauma. He won’t get this because you whacked him on the snout that time he chewed up a pillow. But he might develop PTSD because of:
- A natural disaster, like a hurricane
- Being abandoned to live in the wild
- The loss of his caretaker
- Military combat
- Physical or emotional abuse
- A serious accident
- Bad interactions with other animals (think dog fighting)
Signs of PTSD in Dogs
It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between PTSD and other anxiety disorders in dogs. For example, these can be signs of PTSD and separation anxiety:
- Peeing or pooping in the house
- Howling, barking, or whining
- Destructive behavior
Or a dog with PTSD might show these signs of stress:
- Tucked tail
- Pinned back ears
- Crouches low to the ground
Other clues your dog could have PTSD:
- He clings to you in fear
- Sudden aggression
- Hyperawareness of his surroundings
Anything you know about his history with bad experiences can help your vet make the right diagnosis.
A type of behavioral training called systemic desensitization is common for dogs with PTSD. It exposes your dog to whatever it is that brings on his anxiety or fear. If noise is the trigger, your dog will hear the noise very quietly at first and get a treat for good behavior. The noise will slowly get louder and the treats will keep coming, as long as he stays calm. The goal is to get your dog to associate the trigger with treats, not trauma.
Other important parts of PTSD treatment include daily exercise, play sessions, and positive reinforcement training.
Training could take weeks or years. It may not cure the PTSD, but it could help your dog live a healthy, happy life, so long as you limit his exposure to the things that trigger a stressful episode.
Other Emotional Problems in Dogs
Even a dog who hasn’t lived through major trauma can still have fears that cause anxiety or aggression. Some of the most common are:
- Riding in cars
- Going down stairs
Some dogs are naturally fearful. But most act out because of something that did or didn’t happen to them when they were young. It could be living through a storm or just a lack of exposure to people. Just because a dog doesn’t have PTSD doesn’t mean his behaviors aren’t difficult for the owner and potentially dangerous to others.
Managing Your Dog’s Fears
What should you do once your dog starts to act with fear or aggression? Hint: It isn’t the same as what you do with kids. Don’t offer comfort, like soothing words, pets, or kisses. These things don’t let your dog know that everything is going to be OK. Instead, they tell him it’s OK to act afraid or aggressive. That means his behavior isn’t likely to change.
The best way to work through fear and anxiety? Ignore the problem and do something else with him. If he’s barking at a worker in your house, calmly clip on the leash and start practicing commands with treats. Remember -- you’re the leader of the pack. Your actions teach your dog when it’s time to worry and when it isn’t.