One day, one moment or one traumatising event. This is all it can take for the wellbeing or self-esteem of your pet to suffer. However, there are ways to work through any trauma and get your best furry friend confident again.
It is important to remember that dogs are like humans and will adapt to lots of different situations. Some dogs may be traumatised and appear to be fine. Others may experience trauma and appear fine until something small, seemingly unrelated to the initial trauma ‘triggers’ them. There’s no way we can generalise and say every dog is going to respond in the same way. Some dogs suffer greatly from trauma while others are less impacted – or not affected at all.
“The animal can’t tell us what happened to him earlier in life and whether his fears now come from a traumatic experience or something else,” says Dr Frank McMillan
Symptoms of Trauma in Dogs
Here are some general symptoms that a dog who has suffered trauma may show:
- Fear urination
- Fear induced aggression
- Increased alertness
- Tail down or between legs
- Changes in temperament
How to ease their trauma-induced anxiety
If your dog is displaying any of these symptoms below. There are some simple steps you can follow to help ease your dog’s anxiety.
1. Learn their body language
Firstly, think about what is your dog trying to tell you? Learning your dog’s body language will help you understand what behaviours are ‘normal’ for them. By knowing what’s ‘normal’ you will then be able to notice when they may be fearful or anxious through their body language.
For example, did you know that a panting dog can mean different things – a dog could be either tired, excited or stressed? So, if your dog is panting and hasn’t done excessive exercise, it could be a sign of stress. For more information on your dog’s body language, I recommend checking this article out.
2. Never use force
Never try to push a traumatised dog to face their fears or force your dog to do things, dogs should always feel completely safe. If you’re not sure how to help your dog, seek the assistance of a qualified dog trainer. Slowly and surely, your dog can be trained to be desensitised to its fears. However, this process requires you to be patient and understand that trying to overcome your dog’s anxieties in one or two sessions is not realistic.
Also, avoid any situation that causes your dog to panic. Although your dog may be desensitised to the situation that causes the anxiety, it’s crucial to remember that until you go through the desensitising process, actively preventing the potentially anxious situation is best. Every time your dog is subjected to a possibly stressful situation, the fear is reinforced, and their response may become stronger.
3. Set up a safe spot
If your dog runs away when confronted with new people, creating a safe environment where your dog can retreat to undisturbed is a good idea. Be sure your dog always has access to this safe spot. If you have space in your house, try to set up this space somewhere that is “action free” such as a bathroom or laundry room. Then create a comfortable safe space for your dog with blankets and an enclosed bed such as a crate and other toys that may give them a sense of security.
4. Use food to bond
The bond and trust that hand-feeding your dog develops can be key to helping a traumatised dog or even a dog that is just under socialised. Keep in mind it could take a fair bit of work from your end to have a frightened dog gain enough trust in you to eat comfortably from your hands. However, after you’ve gained that trust, you can introduce other family members or friends by asking them to offer food as well. This should also improve your dog’s trust when it comes to interacting with strangers as well.
Start by hand feeding your dog so they start to associate you with the good things (food!). If you or the dog aren’t comfortable with this practice quite yet, try sitting quietly in the same room as they eat and eventually try hand feeding again. Try to stay patient and always let them set the pace.
5. Try Pheromones
Adaptil is a synthetic chemical that is designed to simulate the natural chemical (pheromones) a nursing female releases. Adaptil works on around 60% of dogs and comes in many forms such as plug-in diffusers, collars and wipes. Pheromones and the product Adaptil may relieve stress and create a feeling of comfort in your dog. Keep in mind that pheromones are not a magic solution to helping your dog through trauma, although it is worth a try and may work well at the same time as the other suggested approaches.
Finally, don’t be scared to ask for help
If your dog’s symptoms become progressively worse, it could be a sign that your dog may be suffering something more serious. If this is the case, you should take your dog to the vet to explain their behaviour and symptoms and get a proper diagnosis.
Also remember just because you’re a dog owner doesn’t mean you are automatically an expert in animal behaviour. If you are worried about your dog and see no improvement with some of these suggested approaches, there is no harm in calling in the experts and contacting a dog behavioural therapist. In some cases, the road to recovery and having a happy anxious free dog may be faster with a professional on board.
Delilah Wolf Pack (a dog rescue group) is constantly caring for traumatised and abandoned dogs and they believe that every dog is worth that extra mile, even if it’s going to cost you your time. Always stay patient, understanding and never give up hope.