Those of us in the rescue community have all seen it: the dog from a scary situation who can’t seem to relax, whose “fight or flight” kicks in at the sight of a specific trigger. The dog may be reacting to past traumas, desperately trying to avoid a painful or frightening experience. Behavior specialists are noticing these behaviors in military dogs and are diagnosing it as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the same condition that challenges some humans on a daily basis.
The diagnosis is part of a slow movement in the scientific community to recognize the similarities between humans and other animals. Like us, it seems dogs and other animals are deeply disturbed by violence. Researchers are finding that dogs and humans react to PTSD in the same ways. Like us, some dogs react with aggression, some cower, others become hyper vigilant. Some sniffing dogs stop alerting their handlers to scents despite appearing to be working. These dogs are treated with time off and lots of playing and obedience training. Some also receive desensitization training. Still others will never return to work, their traumas being too great.
It is saddening that human war takes its toll on so many generous animals, but we can learn some lessons from these traumatized dogs. For one, we must realize that animals are emotional beings in the same way we are. Cruel actions hurt an animal just as they hurt a person. Every animal deserve kindness and care because, while dogs and others may live in the moment, like us they never completely forget. On the other side of the coin, ascribing “human” mental conditions to animals can legitimize our own troubles. Knowing that Spot is also able to suffer from PTSD can help a human patient realize that it is not “all in his or her head.” From what we know of animal psychology, a dog’s troubles are, in a way, pure. Spot cannot read about PTSD and, therefore, cannot add to or enhance his or her symptoms. Diagnosing animals with these disorders can only make them even more real. Lastly, we hope the effort our military puts into helping these dogs overcome their disorder can be translated to the many animals we rescue and rehabilitate every day. Any new technique that will help our dogs overcome their pasts and become happier and more adoptable will be a welcome advancement.
It’s not surprising to hear that dogs suffer from PTSD. As we continue to learn more about the minds of animals, we will doubtlessly learn that their thoughts are more complex and sensitive than we ever thought. And really, we shouldn’t be surprised because, when you think about it…we aren’t at all that different.