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Traumatized Dog: What are the Signs and What To Do

Like people, dogs are emotional creatures and can be affected by traumatic events, especially rescue dogs. The difference is that a traumatized dog can’t speak about their sadness, so they show their trauma in other ways. This is not always easy for people to understand.

Dogs could come from abusive homes or places where they suffered from neglect. This trauma impacts the dog for years after and sometimes even lasts their entire lifetime. If you’re adopting a rescue dog, it’s important to know the signs of trauma and how to help your dog feel safe again if they have been traumatized and even suffer from PTSD.

What is PTSD?

The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as an anxiety disorder potentially caused by being exposed to a terrifying event in which horrifying harm was threatened or happened.

Army veterans and law enforcement officials usually experience this after witnessing violence in the field, but people and animals who have suffered abuse can also succumb to it. Sometimes the symptoms will only last a few weeks. Sadly, when the trauma was incredibly stressful, symptoms can last for several years. 

Can dogs have PTSD?

Dog trauma can take many forms. From being mildly anxious to having full-blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dogs experience a range of emotional responses to things they’ve experienced, just like people do. Even the signs of stress in dogs can be similar to that of humans, for example:

  • A change in temperament
  • Increased irritability
  • Increased fearfulness
  • Hypervigilance
  • Trembling
  • Avoidance of triggers

A scared dog could also urinate in fear or become aggressive. The easiest way to diagnose PTSD in a dog is to notice a sudden change in the animal’s behavior.

When a dog has chronic PTSD, it can inhibit its ability to live a normal life. If you don’t help them in some way, their quality of life will be seriously affected.

To understand your furry friend’s trauma, it could help if you knew what happened. Here are some common causes of PTSD in dogs:

Abandonment 

Most rescue dogs have lost their homes, were in unsafe homes, or were utterly homeless - any similar experience could cause trauma.

An abandoned dog will feel confused, scared, stressed, and disoriented. 

As a result, an abandoned dog may suffer from separation anxiety, even after finding a loving new home. They may act out if you leave them alone and chew up furniture or cry or bark until you’re back. 

Fireworks

Although many people enjoy fireworks shows, it is incredibly stressful for animals who have hypersensitive ears.

A dog traumatized after fireworks may be afraid of any other sudden and loud noises, for example, thunder, a car that backfires, a pot dropped on the floor, or something falling over.  

Physical abuse 

Just as it does for humans, physical abuse has an emotional effect on a dog. They are not only hurt physically; the abuse will also damage their spirit.

The sad thing is that dogs are so loyal that some will keep coming back to the human for affection, even if that person hurts them repeatedly. 

Physical abuse could cause a dog to be timid and fearful of all people who share traits with their abuser.

They could also fear objects similar to which they were abused. For example, a dog that was beaten with a stick could end up being afraid of brooms and mops.

Verbal abuse 

Verbally abused dogs will likely be terrified when anybody raises their voice, even if they’re not shouting at the dog. Even other loud noises could trigger an emotional response in the dog and make them act out of character. 

Attacked by another dog 

If your dog was attacked and hurt by another dog, they could become fearful of dogs or even aggressive towards other animals. This is because the attack caused trauma, which triggered a fight or flight response when reminded of the situation. 

When this happens, the dog will get out of the situation as fast as possible by running away, or they’ll go into attack mode.

Isolation

In nature, dogs are pack animals and have needs based on this. They need to move around outdoors, exercise, play, socialize, and experience affection.

Dogs need to have a life that is balanced emotionally, physically, and mentally. 

When a dog is kept in solitude or confined to one area over long periods, it damages them psychologically. Even if they are eventually released, the trauma of leaving a dog alone can have long-term effects on the dog’s development. 

Can dogs have nightmares?

Whether it’s a human or a dog, nightmares are a common side-effect of trauma. Like people who have experienced terrifying events, traumatized dogs deal with the events in their subconscious minds while sleeping. 

If your dog is twitching, growling, panting, or crying in their sleep, it may mean that they are having nightmares. Even if you’re tempted to wake them, it’s best not to - if you wake your furry friend from a nightmare, they’re more likely to growl or even bite out of fear. 

Here are some tips to make their sleep as comfortable as possible: 

  • Give them a supportive, cozy bed. Memory foam is an excellent choice.
  • Use a crate to make them feel secure.
  • Use a pressure wrap before they go to sleep. This is also useful for dogs sensitive to noise.
  • Give them tons of reassurance and affection.

If your dog is having nightmares, it is probably still suffering from the trauma and will need time to begin healing. Luckily, you can help them get better. 

How to help a traumatized dog to heal

Here are some methods to help your canine companion deal with their trauma:

Give them a routine and watch them flourish

A dog that’s been traumatized is suspicious of everything and everyone. They no longer trust that the bad thing won’t happen to them. Dealing with this as their new reality makes them question everything around them. This distrust is unsettling and creates more anxiety. 

By creating a routine, your furry friend will know exactly what to expect every day. A routine eliminates surprise and gives them an ordered world instead of the chaos they became used to. They should be fed, walked, and played with at the same time and in the same way every day.

Gradually and gently introduce new activities or routine changes. 

Help them to desensitize

Dogs react to outside stimuli in specific ways. By counter-conditioning them through desensitization, you will help them become more comfortable around whatever is causing the anxiety. 

If your dog is fearful of cars because they were in an accident, you can use positive reinforcement to desensitize them to it slowly. Begin by letting them look at the car from a distance. When they’re okay with that, gradually move them closer. Eventually, they’ll be calmer, and you can get them to sit inside.

As you slowly help your furry friend become less sensitive to things that trigger them, they will begin to regain confidence and eventually heal from the trauma caused by whatever they are sensitive to. 

Try play therapy

Research has revealed that play therapy can help dogs cope with the after-effects of trauma: extended playtime can even help build confidence and combat anxiety.

Sessions should be vigorous; the more energy your furry friend expends, the more influential the therapy is. 

Even regular playtime allows your dog to forget about stress and enjoy the feel-good hormones that are released. These hormones also fight depression, and it’s good for the pet parent as well!

Give them a safe space

When things are overwhelming, dogs need a safe and quiet space away from everything that could add to their anxiety. Most people could also benefit from this!

  • Create a quiet and peaceful space for them in the corner of a room or even in a closet.
  • Make sure only good things happen in this area.
  • Give your dog cuddles and affection in this area.
  • The idea is to show them that the world is not always as scary as they’ve experienced. 

Show them how to be happy

Dogs are susceptible to their humans’ emotions. They know when you’re happy, sad, anxious, stressed, or angry.

Even if you see your furry friend is stressed, keep your own emotions in check as they overcome their trauma. 

Be positive around your dog, and they will begin to reflect this back to you. With any dog, emotions run high, whether they are positive or negative.

The happier you are around your pet, and the more you play around and have fun, the more they will begin to feel the same. Remember, joy is contagious!

Healing takes time

If you are in the process of helping your best friend rebuild their confidence after they were traumatized - patience and understanding are essential.

Emotional scars are usually more challenging to treat than physical ones, so healing will take time. 

Whether you’ve adopted a rescue dog who came from an abusive home, your dog is traumatized after new year’s eve fireworks, or they were involved in a dog attack - love and support are all they need now. 

Of course, there is a chance that they will never wholly recover; there isn’t always a solution for PTSD. The important thing is that you don’t give up on giving them the best quality of life possible. Over time, and with a lot of love and care, they will improve. 

Help your traumatized dog heal

Dogs that were rescued may have PTSD or emotional issues from suffering trauma like abandonment, abuse, isolation, or cruelty.

You can help ease their anxiety and resolve behavioral problems that stem from their trauma. 

By taking the necessary steps to create a secure environment, pet parents can show their furry friends that they can relax in their new, loving homes, where they’ll be cared for and never be abused or abandoned again.

Dogs are the sweetest, most loyal, and loving creatures you can imagine; they deserve to be cared for and loved.

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