Parenting Emotionally Challenged Pooches

Thursday, 24 March 2011 15:16 by Dr. Sarah

In the last few months, we’ve been besieged with images and stories of destruction, the magnitude of which is difficult to comprehend: Australian floods, New Zealand earthquakes, and most recently the devastating earthquakes and tsunami in Japan. While the loss of human life and the impact on the human survivors makes up the majority of the coverage, we know that many of these people included pets in their families. What are the lasting impacts on behavior of the surviving companion animals? Is it true, as many people believe, that the emotional scars caused by trauma (whether it’s due to a natural event like an earthquake, or an unnatural act like physical or mental abuse) can lead to fearful or aggressive behavior? Just how common is emotional scarring in companion animals? The answers to these questions may surprise you.

The unfortunate companion animals affected by recent environmental catastrophes are likely experiencing what we call “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). PTSD is a recognized anxiety disorder induced by exposure to life-threatening trauma. Widely recognized as a diagnosis for people, PTSD has actually been studied in non-human animals, too. Research has actually shown that the brains of traumatized animals exhibit chemistries that differ from non-traumatized animals! True PTSD, however, is relatively rare in companion animals, developing as a result of a significant life-threatening event or predatory trauma.

If your dog has undergone a traumatic event, there are warning signs of PTSD, which include hiding, loss of house training, barking, loss of appetite and diminished interest in interacting with his human companions. It can also include out-of-character aggression. If your dog ever does go through a life-threatening or catastrophic event, veterinarians recommend providing a safe, secure area such as a crate, bathroom or laundry room, where your dog can get away from noise, people and other pets. Put familiar, comforting objects in the space, such as their own bed, favorite toys and/or an article of your clothing. Try and maintain a consistent routine, especially with regards to feedings, walks and play times. Like the traumatized pets in Australia, any pet that undergoes life-threatening trauma needs safety, a dependable routine, behavioral (and perhaps medical) intervention as soon as possible.

What about fear and aggression in non-traumatized dogs? We already know that true PTSD in dogs is rare, but too many shelter animals have been rescued from abusive or neglectful situations, so it’s not unusual for them to have fear or aggression issues.

Believe it or not, some dogs are genetically predisposed to experience heightened fear. Just as people can be shy or outgoing, dogs show similar personality inclinations. Other dogs will experience fear due to a specific trauma, such a frightening thunderstorm. While some argue that abuse, especially for young dogs, leads to PTSD, what is more likely is that rescue animals are simply poorly socialized during the critical developmental period between 3-16 weeks of age. At this age, puppies undergo a rapid learning process, making it the ideal window of opportunity for socialization. When puppies fail to encounter appropriate socialization during this critical period, they can develop fear or aggression later in life.

Even though they present challenges, negative experiences or insufficient socialization don’t have to define your dog’s long-term personality. Fortunately, there are ways to work through emotional issues. In this episode of Pet Talk, Dr. Sarah talks about how to recognize the symptoms of fear and aggression, and how to deal with some of these issues.

What challenges have you experienced in parenting a companion animal with emotional or social problems? What helped you work through these issues? Share your story with us in the comment section below.

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March 24. 2011 19:22

Dorly Wick

Is it common or was it a coincidence that when our Fox Terrier's companion dog died, his health declined rapidly even though they didn't seem to be very close? His personality didn't really change except he suddenly was much more interested in food but that was probably from the sudden onset of low blood sugars secondary to a pancreatic tumor.

Dorly Wick

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