Working with dogs offers a unique insight into the process of recovery from abuse. For humans, it is understood and respected that abuse profoundly affects how a person feels, how a person thinks, how a person behaves and how a person responds to triggers, not only while they are experiencing the abuse or in the days following an assault, but long after the abuse has ended.
Each and every person has an individual reaction and response, regardless of whether the same descriptive label is given to their experience. However, many of the emotional responses are similar. The range of emotions is as diverse as the people experiencing them and every single one is valid and necessary.
In a human context, there is an understanding that the process of recovery takes time. There isn’t a ‘tried and tested’ journey that will work for everyone and there will be bumps in the road, possibly for the rest of that person’s life, with memories being triggered by sounds, smells, news headlines or any number of ways that again, will be individualised. Sometimes, the person won’t know what the trigger is, and that’s ok too.
When we’re working with dogs who have experienced trauma and abuse, the same approach has to be adopted. There isn’t a ‘tried and tested’ process of recovery, every dog will respond differently and some dogs will have challenges throughout their lives that we can’t always explain.
Science is beginning to explore the nature of dog’s emotions and the power of their senses. Science hasn’t completely explained the complexity of human emotions and senses, so we’re constantly on a learning curve and it’s naive to think that we have all of the answers. What we do have, in a human context is a widely-accepted approach (in our culture, not worldwide), that kindness, patience and incremental steps to recovery is the way to support someone and the way that individuals are invited to support themselves. The methods vary, the list of different support mechanisms grow exponentially which is brilliant as the more support there is available, the more likely someone is to find the method, or methods, that work for them. In a canine context, we are light years behind as while ‘animal abuse’ is rife in the form of puppy farming, greyhound racing, breeding practices; the list goes on, we are also seeing more and more abuse in family homes with humans using outdated and cruel training methods, which can only be described as abuse.
With humans, the approach is to support people to leave abusive environments, not to desensitise or counter-condition to the person or persons who have abused them. With dogs, while a change in approach from the humans concerned can begin to rebuild a broken relationship, we should not underestimate the effect of the cruel methods on the dog and how these could manifest in the future with a triggering smell, sound or change in environment.
I see this contrast on a daily basis, this social enterprise is designed to offer training and behaviour support to dog guardians and the profit from any income-generating activity goes to fund our social projects. Our flagship programme is Canine Hope, designed to work with rescue dogs and survivors of rape and sexual violence to understand the physiology of their responses, methods to explore ways of changing their responses and methods of making positive incremental changes, with direct parallels being drawn from the story of the canine co-tutor.
The rescue dogs we work with have experienced trauma and abuse, have been taken away from that environment and are on the road to finding a forever home. Being a part of Canine Hope offers an additional form of training and assessment as at the heart of our philosophy is that the dog has to benefit too.
There have been a number of dogs that I have met through training and behaviour work who have been abused at the hands of their guardians and there is an expectation that training will ‘solve the problem.’ I use that phrase as it is one I hear often.
The dog is not the problem. The dog is coping in the only way they know how and I do not accept that ignorance is a defence for abuse. Using dominance theories, physical force, shouting or painful and frightening tools for perceived behaviour management is abuse. We understand this with humans and have laws in this country that seek to protect people not only against physical abuse in all guises, but also to protect them if they experience emotional abuse. That means that using threats of violence or restricting freedom can result in a prison sentence.
With dogs, these methods are still promoted. In this country, abuse of dogs through the use of these methods is promoted on television, in readily available written form from trusted sources and they make their way into homes every single day. Dogs are being systematically abused, physically and emotionally, every single day.
This week alone, I have experienced two examples. Both families chose to buy a puppy and both families have abused their puppy to the point where I believe there are real ethical questions about whether a behaviour support package should be in place, or whether the dog should be removed from the home. However, both dogs have a bite history as a direct result of the abuse and have already been turned down by rescue centres (there are conversations ongoing and I know that there will be options).
In both cases, from eight weeks old, the puppies were pinned to the floor, ‘alpha rolled’, hit with newspapers, shouted out, pushed away and in one case, repeatedly tormented to a point where a growl quickly turned to a bite and the fear of humans has transferred to anyone who steps foot in the house.
Is it fair to try and teach these dogs that they are now safe in the same home that has been a place of profound fear and abuse? The people in these homes claim to love their dogs, say that they thought they were doing the right thing and they had seen these methods being used by people who are endorsed on the TV.
Just as with humans who have experienced abuse, the reactions are natural safety mechanisms. There is a physiological response to a dangerous situation and learning that takes place alongside it. These mechanisms can, and often will, still be used long after the immediate danger has passed. The experience of a painful, unexpected or traumatic incident can, and often does, lead to deep physical shock and stress. These are normal reactions and are experienced in an individualised way.
In humans and in dogs, there can be a combination of physical, emotional and behavioural reactions. We know that the human brain is rational and intuitive. We have learnt from the scientific study of dogs, that their brains are rational and intuitive too. When danger presents itself, the intuitive aspects of the brain take over.
In each of us, human and canine, our senses are constantly sending signals to our amygdala. This is a part of the brain that can search through those signals for any threats. At this juncture, it is important to remember the heightened senses that a dog has in comparison to a human and the volume of signals that the dog’s brain will be processing from a human world that makes little sense to them. If the amygdala finds a signal that shows there is a threat, it tells the hypothalamus, another part of the brain, to release defence hormones.
These defence hormones initiate a response, usually defined as ‘fight, flight or freeze’ although there are additional responses that have been explored in both humans and canines. Essentially, the brain establishes what needs to happen for the best chance of survival in that moment and only in that moment. In the case of physical restraint by the abuser, flight is not an option. In some cases, fight is not an option as the brain deems it too dangerous. In any situation, there is no choice. This isn’t a rational and thought through decision, this is an instantaneous reaction based purely on a chemical evaluation and an inherent desire to stay alive.
All of this happens in a timeframe that human and canine brains are unable to comprehend and is based purely on the immediate danger.
From this position, the amygdala then begins to send a signal to the rational part of the brain, the cortex or hippocampus, and it is only then that an element of rational thought can begin about the threat. In humans and canines, the instinct for immediate survival overrides anything else.
If the outcome is that the human or canine is still alive, which sounds dramatic, but that part of the brain is simply focusing on survival, the brain learns to use that reaction again. This reaction can then begin to be used in less risky situations as the pathway in the brain has been created due to the success of the initial response. This can lead to a heightened state of awareness of risk, or to a feeling of numbness.
Dogs who are forced to react in such a way don’t have a choice of therapeutic approaches, people to turn to or people to learn from, other than those in the home, those who are abusing them. The repeated physiological response creates a pattern of behaviour. Even if a person turns to a force-free method of training, certain smells, sounds and behavioural or environmental triggers can be affected by the heightened awareness of risk that will not simply go away due to a change in approach.
Many survivors who have attended our Canine Hope programme have long escaped the abusive situations they experienced. They are often in loving relationships with families they adore, they have jobs that they enjoy and on a day to day basis, they are functioning fabulously (as defined by them), worrying about the things everyone else worries about, the bills, the to-do list and the dreaded trip to the supermarket on a Saturday. However, each and every person can describe relatively recent occasions where a trigger has left them paralysed with fear, responding in anger or turning and racing in the opposite direction. When asked about what happened, once they are in a calm and rational state of mind, they speak of the scent of aftershave, the sound of a specific radio station jingle or walking past someone with similar features to their abuser. In that moment, due to their past experience and their heightened awareness of risk, they have no control over their reaction and instinctively follow a pattern of behaviour that enables them to stay safe.
While dogs do not have the same mechanisms for memory as humans do, it does not mean that their instinctive response to a perceived threat will be any different to what they learned during the period of abuse.
Months and years later, it is understood that humans still need to be treated with kindness, respect and understanding when they have a response to a trigger that they cannot control. It is understood that there is a reason for that response and it absolutely does not define them. They are encouraged to take some time out, to allow the chemical response to dissipate and then to carry on, as everyone has a bad day. With dogs, it is often considered that are not ‘fixed’ after all, that they can’t be trusted and that they pose a threat. With such heightened senses, I am in awe that dogs have such a phenomenal level of self-control on a daily basis and that their brains have evolved within the human world to decipher threats in such an incredible way. Physical and emotional abuse is still a threat, whether it is dressed up as ‘outdated training’ or ignorance, and dogs can only respond in a way that physiology allows; to enable survival and reduce the risk of harm to themselves.
As Kevin Behan says in his book, Your Dog Is Your Mirror, ‘a dog cannot remember, yet he never forgets.’