Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or C-PTSD in Dogs
An estimated 3-4% of adults in the U.S. suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. You may not know it, but people aren’t the only ones susceptible to post-traumatic stress. Dogs are susceptible also, and Canine-PTSD (C-PTSD, not to be confused with complex PTSD (abbreviated CPTSD) can affect up to 5% of dogs who served in the military.
Many dogs adopted from shelters may suffer from post-traumatic stress due to previous abuse. Symptoms of C-PTSD include problematic and sometimes destructive behavior, and dealing with a post-traumatic dog can be extremely difficult. If an owner or prospective owner understands what C-PTSD is, dealing with a post-traumatic pet can be much easier.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a syndrome which may result from direct or indirect exposure to a traumatic event or events. Symptoms may include intrusive and distressing memories or dreams of the event, disassociation as a result of being reminded of the event, hyper-vigilance (always on alert) and avoidance of people, places or things that may remind one of the trauma.
Dogs are susceptible to post-traumatic stress, but Canine-PTSD is not as well known or understood as PTSD in humans.
Mowgli, the Miniature Pinscher
We adopted our mini-pinscher, Mowgli (so named because that’s what the kids wanted to call him), in 2014. We were told that he had been abused and that he has "issues," and had been previously returned to the shelter. At the time, we still did not realize how badly affected he was.
After more than four years with us, Mowgli still trembles uncontrollably. He fears abandonment and breaks through screens and even plastic window shutters to escape when he's alone. He barely ever plays, and when he does, is very easily distracted. He's always on the alert. For months he didn't bark, and now he's our "early warning system" because he goes haywire when someone is outside—even if it is someone he knows.
He still starts at every passing bus or truck, tries to nip at guests, joggers and bicyclists, and goes hell-for-leather at any dog bigger than him. He has, on more than one occasion, saved me from wild dogs who wander around our town, and who, apparently, are smart enough to realize that Mowgli's small size belies his ferocity when provoked. He likes the family well enough, but that's about it.
We love him, but he can be a real pain.
What Is Canine PTSD?
There is a lot of popular literature but little hard science on C-PTSD, and when I looked for "Canine PTSD" on Google Scholar, I found only a handful of research. One of the first papers by McMillian et al. was published in the "Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science" in 2015.
Dr. McMillian and his colleagues identified 69 dogs that had, to a high degree of probability, undergone some form of abuse by prior owners. They then asked the present owners to report on their dog's behavior, using a questionnaire called the identified "Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire." The scores given by the owners were compared with scores given by owners of non-abused dogs to their pets.
McMillian et al. found that:
" . . . abused dogs were more excitable and exhibited more attachment and attention-seeking behavior than non-abused dogs… Abused dogs also exhibited more aggression and fear directed toward unfamiliar humans and dogs, more frequent rolling in feces and other malodorous substances, greater fear when walking on stairs, more hyperactivity, more persistent barking, and more frequent bizarre, strange, or repetitive behaviors."
Most recently, a 2018 paper by Svatava Vitulová from the Department of Animal Protection, Welfare and Behaviour in the Chez Republic and her colleagues found that while a majority of dogs adopted from shelters exhibited behavior problems for a few weeks after adoption, in previously abused dogs, the problems were more common and lasted significantly longer. In fact, abuse was the only variable tested that predicted persistence of behavior problems beyond the first few weeks after adoption.
The symptoms exhibited by abused dogs are slightly different than those described by James Dao in his groundbreaking 2011 NY Times article on military working dogs: "After duty, dogs suffer like soldiers." In his article, Dao describes post traumatic symptoms in military working dogs: " . . . sharp changes in temperament, including becoming timid, clingy or unusually aggressive with a handler, hyper-vigilance, or refusal to do the tasks they are trained to do."
So, while there might not be a uniform symptomology of C-PTSD, knowing your dog's background will help you know what to look for. In any case, chances are that the dog in your local shelter or pound won’t be a retired army dog.
A 2018, a study found that a majority of dogs adopted from shelters exhibited behavior problems for a few weeks after adoption. However, in previously abused dogs, such problems were more common and lasted significantly longer. Prior abuse was the only variable tested that predicted persistence of behavior problems beyond the first few weeks after adoption.
Ask Before You Adopt
Adopting a dog from a shelter is usually win-win. The adopting family gets a loving pet and the dog gets a safe and loving home. However, adopting an abused dog is no easy task. Chances are he or she will wreck something in your house at least once, be hard to train and hard to control. Ask the shelter about abuse history. A vast majority of dogs who are returned to shelters are because of behavior problems in the new home had previously exhibited behavioral problems in the shelter, so if you think an abused dog is too much for you, better to find out earlier than later.
Some shelters have training or other programs to increase "adoptability" and reduce risk of return. Ask the shelter for information on how to deal with problems that may arise, make sure you have someone to call and talk to at the shelter if you are unsure about the new dog's behavior.
Signs That Your Prospective Pet May Have Been Abused
- The dog is scared of people, which may be exhibited either by an attempt to hide or aggressive behavior
- He or she doesn't want to play
- He or she looks dejected guilty or shamed
Tips for Caring for an Abused Dog
You will probably see your new dog be afraid of everyday objects (which may remind of past abuse), he may be lackluster, and have terrible separation anxiety. He may have panic attacks and urinate inside (ours likes my bed, of all places) when startled.
Since many abused dogs are also aggressive, or in general hard to train, here are some things you can do to help him calm down:
- Put him in a cage when you're away. This may seem counter-intuitive, but small enclosed spaces like cages help dogs stay calm. The cage needs to be just the right size (not too big not too small). Too small will be uncomfortable, too large and the dog will just go crazy in it (Mowgli chewed through the metal bars— although he didn't make a large enough hole to escape).
- Get the dog a "safe space." We bought ours a bed, but as soon as he walked in he claimed our daughter's bean bag- and that has been his safe spot ever since.
- Be calm, and nice. Don’t yell or hit, or throw books at him, no matter how angry he makes you. A firm "no" immediately after the bad behavior will suffice.
- Smile at him, tell him "good dog" and pet him if he lets you.
- Don't force him to play, eat or be pet.
- Take him on long walks, preferably away from main streets with lots of cars, joggers, bicycles, children or anything else that may scare him. When we first got Mowgli, we walked him early in the morning and late at night or down in the valley below the town, away from noise. Now he walks on the sidewalk, but he still scares easily and can be hard to control.
- Never let him off the leash. He may run away and not come back, or he may attack someone or another dog.
- Consult a trainer. Abused dogs are hard to train, but a good trainer has tricks up his sleeve which may help. The trainer on our block had us bring in strangers who, together with family members, slowly gave the Mowgli treats and won his trust. This stopped the extremely unpopular behavior (four years after adoption) of him trying to chew on my daughter's fiance's leg.
- Be patient. It may take a few months or maybe longer, and although your abused dog may never fully recover, he will learn to feel loved and safe with you, and you will quickly come to love him.
- Canine PTSD | Psychology Today
If a dog has a dysfunctional or traumatic past, it may set him or her up for C-PTSD when confronted by some terrifying, life threatening event
- Behavioral Rehabilitation Center for Cruelty Victims | ASPCA
The ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center provides treatment for extremely fearful and emotionally scarred animals. Learn about our life-saving program.
- Helping an Abused Dog Feel Calm and Trust Again
Helping an Abused Dog Feel Calm and Trust Again. Unfortunately, there are too many cases of animal abuse. This has long-term consequences for the animal, even when it is rescued in time...
- C-BARQ: Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire
The Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire, or C-BARQ, is designed to provide dog owners and professionals with standardized evaluations of canine temperament and behavior.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 David A Cohen