The final part of this series on causes of reactivity, is the issue of trauma.
This is the area of the conversation relating to ‘reactivity’ that invokes the most emotion, and this is an issue that requires both sensitivity and an open mind.
The question of trauma relates to two aspects of the relationship.
The dog and the owner. And what constitutes trauma can differ from one individual to another.
Dogs are amazing at moving forward and often the trauma they are subjected to can be resolved quicker then the impact it has on the owner. Trauma can be long lasting, and go far deeper then the physical impact. The mental impact of trauma can be much harder to resolve.
Even when the damages of physical trauma have gone, the injuries may still be present. It is a wise measure to have your dog checked over by a chiropractor or osteopath post an incident.
Here is a story that that really articulates trauma, and the ability to overcome it.
My friend and student Lou Holmes, had that once in a lifetime dog who was an amazing search and rescue dog… and when she had the opportunity to have a puppy from the repeat litter, she jumped at the chance.
‘Chip’ was different from his brother, on the day he was collected… when Lou let him in the garden, it took 3hrs to get him to come out from hiding… he was incredibly nervous and frightened. He was scared of everything, people and dogs. This was partly genetic, as years later, 3 of his siblings were put to sleep due to temperament issues and medical issues…
At 10wks old, ‘Chip’ was attacked and mauled by another dog. He had 32stitches…. He had half his face literally torn off. The sight of her precious puppy in blood, and only just being able to save him from being totally massacred etched in her mind.
For the next 10 months, Chip’s traumatic experience hindered him even getting out of the car. He literally wouldn’t get out of the vehicle unless Lou was on her own.
At this point, Lou questioned his future… was her puppy ever going to be a ‘happy’ dog….was he even going to lead a ‘normal’ life?
Lou had to re-build Chips confidence from the ground up. Any flicker of it that he had, was in tatters. Literally. This was a dog that was destined to be ‘reactive’.
You couldn’t get a more traumatic series of events. How would you even begin to contemplate rebuilding your dogs confidence and your confidence after something so horrendous? Whats best for the dog? Do you make an effort to avoid any people or dogs, so that he never has to be in that state of fear? Do you only go out early hours of the morning or late at night? Do you even take the dog out at all? Do you even try? Would it be better to have the dog put to sleep? Is life just TOO scary? Are they likely to be so reactive we can never lead a ‘normal’ life?’
These are questions that people ask themselves when faced with the issues of having a reactive dog that has been born out of trauma. And this isn’t even the trauma the owner has undergone.
Well lucky Lou didn’t read this blog…..
For 10months, Lou took Chip with her when she went search and rescue training with Brock. And for 10months, Chip didn’t want to leave the vehicle.
However at 10months, for the first time… Chip manage to get out of the vehicle. Lou never forced him, never ‘made’ him deal with life until he was ready. After 10months, he said he was ready. He ventured out of the vehicle enough to just stand there…not to engage with anyone or anything, but just be.
Lou had the sense to allow him the time and space to let her know when he was ready to progress. He made slow and steady progress, and with patience, kindness and love Chip slowly began to regain the flicker of confidence he had had and lost.
Then one day, Lou decided he was ready to see if the confidence he managed to muster up, was enough to channel into a vocation.
She tentatively gave a colleague his food bowl, and asked them to venture across the car park. Watching Chip go over that car park to the person with the food bowl, was a moment that will resonate with Lou forever. It was like a parent watching a child take their first steps. Chip took the giant leap forward in rebuilding his confidence, he took the food from the bowl. They weren’t allowed to touch him or look at him, but it was a start.
Each session built from this one. Having people feed Chip, allowing him to progress at his own rate, and using reinforcement slowly but surely started to change the ‘picture’ for Chip.
Within four months, Chip had gone from tentatively going across a car park to a bowl with food… to a fully qualified search and rescue dog. At the grand old age of 12yrs old, Chip is still a serving search and rescue dog with a history of successful searches. He is an amazing family pet and helps other dogs with their confidence issues. He is an ambassador for those who overcome struggles, showing what can be achieved with dedication, patience and belief. Refusing to accept the labels and stigma attached to trauma and adversity, rising like a Phoenix from the flames.
Lou refused to accept that Chip would be a reactive dog, this was his story. Lou refused to listen.
Being traumatised may be the outcome of an event, and justifiably so. But through counter conditioning, reinforcement, and ‘listening’ to the dog…. Chip has shown what can be achieved. And Lou has shown what can be done, when you don’t hold onto a story.
Reactivity isn’t a permanent state of being, you can change the ‘label’.