Over the years we've heard these and other derogatory terms used to describe dogs that in one way or another have had a rough life and are riddled with behavioural issues. Are these dogs really broken beyond repair or are they suffering from nightmares or PTSD?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that is caused by trauma. Recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1980, PTSD is only partially understood in humans and is even less understood and rarely diagnosed in dogs. It's a highly influential factor in both human and canine minds and can greatly affect behaviour and quality of life in both species. We know that stress and anxiety are killers and are a leading cause of serious physiological and psychological ailments.
With that in mind, it’s always wise to remember when people are miserable or angry or behaving irrationally, that we don’t know what may be going on in their lives that may be affecting them emotionally. This is one of many reasons that we need to be patient and compassionate with one another. But what about the dogs? They can’t tell us how they’re feeling or what they’re experiencing. And there are so many factors that contribute to human and animal behaviour that we can’t assume to understand why anyone behaves as they do.
During one of our daily off leash hikes with our dogs, Greg and I had a rousing discussion about doggy nightmares and PTSD. Our opinion is that because it’s been scientifically proven that dogs dream, that the potential is there for emotional fallout from these dreams. And we have seen plenty of dogs that appear to have symptoms associated with PTSD such as: avoidance of things they were previously comfortable with, hyper-vigilance, changes in temperament and an inability to respond to previously learned cues. Every single case had a history of abuse, mistreatment, neglect, daily trauma and/or a single traumatic event. So we thought we would ask our good friend – world-renowned author, scientist and psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren, Ph.D for his opinion.
Here is what we asked Stanley:
We know that dogs dream about life experiences so we’re assuming these dreams can be both good and bad. When we remember our nightmares it can effect how we feel when we wake up. We know that dogs live in the moment but they also have good memories. Do you think that a dog could remember a nightmare and have it trigger unpleasant emotions after it wakes up? And could these memories and unpleasant emotions affect the dog's behaviour throughout the day and over extended periods of time?
"Your question has an answer which is a bit iffy. We know that dogs dream, and it seems evident that dogs can also have bad dreams or nightmares. If we want to look at the effect that these nightmares have on dogs' behavior a good place to start is by looking at a severe condition, PTSD. Like people, dogs also can suffer from PTSD, and we are seeing more of this in returning military service dogs. A tear-jerking example of this is in the new film "Max" about a dog with this problem.
In humans part of the symptomology of PTSD is frequent and repetitive nightmares, and there's no reason to believe that that is not the same in dogs. The effect that these nightmares have on people is that they awaken and start the day in a state of negative emotion, which can persist for many hours. This can bias the person toward negative thoughts, which can persist through the day and result in poor performance and bad social interactions. A secondary effect of nightmares is that they greatly reduce the amount of sleep and the mental restorative property of sleep and this alone can also cause problems. There is enough similarity between the mental processes of dogs and humans so that we can draw a parallel with a reasonable degree of certainty.
For individuals and dogs that don't have PTSD but do have nightmares I am inclined to believe that the effects are very much the same, but of course scaled down in terms of magnitude (unless the frequency of nightmares is very high).
All of this is based on extrapolation since, unfortunately, we can't talk to our dogs and expect them to give us an introspective account of what they are feeling, and what is running through their heads, at any time. However an awful lot of experimental psychology is based on the belief that we can draw such parallels between animals and people.”
So it seems that as our knowledge of human PTSD increases, so will our knowledge of canine PTSD. What is important is that we recognize that the results of trauma, punishment, emotional and physical abuse, neglect and negativity on our beloved companions are similar to what we experience. As professional dog trainers, we should always consider the possibility of PTSD and avoid making general assumptions about the cause of a dog’s behaviour.
To protect our dogs from the potential long-term repercussions of unpleasant experiences, it’s essential to control our own emotions, behaviours, insecurities and anxieties in order to keep our dog’s experiences positive.
Our dogs’ quality of life depends on it because caustic and traumatic experiences could literally haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Written by Greg Ceci and Norma Jeanne Laurette © July, 2017
Many thanks to Dr. Stanley Coren