Dealing With the Traumatized Dog, Part 1

Sometimes people will adopt a dog, and despite all of their best efforts, they end up with a dog who has some serious personality problems. If you are in that position, here are some tips to wrap your head around when considering how to help your dog.

Why Are They That Way?

It’s important to try to understand what made your dog that way. Here are a few of the key types of trauma (from a dog’s perspective) and what you might see as a result.

  • The consistently undernourished dog — Dogs who have been underfed their entire lives are likely to have the following problems: guarding food, guarding treats, eating non-food items, desperation around food, and an inability to stop eating, even if it makes them violently ill.
  • The starved dog — Some dogs had food for most of their lives, and due to tragic circumstances, suddenly stopped being fed. Those dogs are going to have the same problem as the undernourished dog, but you will need to be extra careful about the way this dog consumes food since starving dogs sometimes eat so quickly that they take in a lot of air and bloat. There is also a psychological component to this: dogs that have been fed and then were suddenly not fed have been introduced to food insecurity, and it sometimes makes them question everything they used to take for granted. This dog is likely to have major trust issues, and to cling.
  • The abused dog — Dogs who have been abused are very dangerous to themselves and to others because they have had to develop coping mechanisms to survive their circumstances. Most of these mechanisms are the same ones humans have, specifically fight, flight, or freeze. Dogs ruled by the fight instinct might growl, bare their teeth, snap, or bite. Dogs ruled by flight will make a break for it, no matter where they are. Dogs who freeze will sometimes withdraw mentally from a situation and stop interacting with you.
  • The abandoned dog — Dogs who were abandoned, especially ones who were left in a house alone, can have profound separation anxiety. They can also be extremely needy and vocal to the point where they are nuisance barkers.
  • The dog who has been shot by a hunter (i.e., not at close range) — You’d think that this falls into the abused dog category, but in reality, it’s very different from the dogs’ perspective. In their minds, they heard a loud crack and suddenly were in great pain. They don’t always associate the experience with humans, but they definitely don’t like loud noises. We’ve had many dogs who were shot at when they were strays (we normally found it out when an x-ray revealed buckshot), and they often had problems with fireworks and cars that backfire. They also didn’t do well during clicker training.

If you don’t know your dog’s history, you’ll need to look at the behaviors and address them without context, which can require more trial and error. While I don’t recommend getting overly fanciful, study your dog’s behavior and see if you can identify trigger behaviors and draw conclusions. This was always a really fascinating part of working with my foster dogs — you might enjoy it, too.

Now What?

If you’ve realized your dog is traumatized, you need to make your dog’s life SAFE, PREDICTABLE, and BORING.

  • Safe — Dogs that could hurt themselves or others need to be placed in environments where it is hard for them to do that. Techniques like crating and using baby gates help a lot. You also need to consider things like when the best time is to walk your dog (for example, maybe at night if your dog is overstimulated by the sight of other people or dogs).
  • Predictable — Your dog should be walked and fed at the same time every day. Your dog should know exactly what to expect at any given moment of the day.
  • Boring — You are going to feel alternately really sorry for, and irritated by, your dog, and you are going to need to hide it. Traumatized dogs are hypersensitive to humans’ emotions but don’t necessarily know how to read them correctly, so your frustration could be incorrectly interpreted as anger. To avoid that, you need to keep your voice calm and low, and avoid playfulness.

Next Steps

Now that you’ve got your dog comfortable and you have an idea of the cause of troubling behaviors, you are going to need to come up with a plan. We’ll cover this in an upcoming article.

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Moretta is a caring nurturer, a member of several 12-step programs, but not a licensed therapist. Her Twitter is

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