Indeed, it can! Well of course, there is physical trauma but in this case we are talking about psychological trauma. Just like humans, dogs can experience traumatic events and be left scarred for life. Generally, the event is a stressful situation during which the animal is so scared it thinks it will “die”. In that type of case, the animal is likely to remember the event all its life.
In my previous blog posts, I discussed calming signals, stress signs and defense reflexes. All these behaviors are indicators that your dog is feeling uncomfortable and inform you that it’s time to handle the situation. If you are not careful, your dog may fall in an immersion situation, which means he’s in a situation where whatever scares him doesn’t go away even if he do all the signals and even tries to fight it.
One example: People get closer to caress a puppy. If the puppy gets scared of these people, it will fall in an immersion situation since nobody thinks the experience will be traumatizing for the puppy: “Why would it be scared, we just want to caress it!”, but for a puppy, it can be really scary to have a bunch of people closing in on it and touching it.
When an animal is in a situation of immersion and its owner does nothing, it has two choices: it gets used to it or it suffers trauma! If we had to measure the intensity of fear on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being extreme fear and 1 being a low level of fear, and the animal would be between 1 to 5, well it would be scared but the situation can be managed. However, if the animal’s fear is between 5 and 10, it means it’s very afraid and shaken and doing nothing about it will lead the animal to be traumatized because it won’t be able to get used to the feeling.
You also have to know that fear varies from one dog to another. One dog can suffer trauma when another, living the same situation, will get used to it. How can we know? You have to keep an eye on your dog and watch for signs of stress and defense reflexes. Some dogs are more sensitive than others and certain dogs produce a smaller amount of appeasing pheromones than other dogs; therefore it’s more difficult for them to calm themselves in a stressful situation.
When trauma occurs, the animal’s brain records everything: smells, objects, colors, sounds, etc. Subsequently, every time the dog will notice one the elements present during the traumatic event, the dog might relive the same fear even though what it witnesses, smells or hears has nothing to do with the original traumatic situation. It’s what we can call an aversive situation. The brain associates elements to the negative emotion felt during the traumatic event. For example: If children were present at that time, each time the dog will see children, it will fall back into that fear and will automatically exhibit defense reflexes. The dog might even develop an aggressive behavior towards children because it’s scared and wants to defend itself. This reaction is due to the fact that the brain associated children to the emotion of fear.
So, what do we do when a dog has a traumatic experience? It’s important to work on positive reinforcement and do a step-by-step desensitization. You have to detect the point where the dog will be able to eat (a dog can’t eat and exhibit defense reflexes at the same time) and to slowly reducing the distance while keeping the dog in a positive emotion. It is important not to force the animal and also work at its pace. Patience will be your best friend!
Catherine Gouillard, BSc Biology
Certified Animal Behaviour specialist