Saturday, January 7, 2012

The War Torn Dog

I work with a lot of families who live with dogs who have suffered some sort of severe trauma.  The journey to helping these dogs is a long and difficult one and often the families I work with don’t understand the world their dog lives within.  

I try and explain the dog's world to my clients thus;  Imagine there was a child who was born into a war torn city; say Kabbul.  At two, his parents disappear and his teen aged sibs take over.  Not knowing how to meet the needs of an active engaged toddler, they tie the kid to the central post in the home so that they can get their own stuff done.  In the course of the following three years, the child learns to toilet on the outer edge of his tether, he learns to grab whatever food he can, he learns that water comes and goes and isn't reliable.  He learns that older kids may taunt him and tease, and he learns that yelling and screaming is a 50/50 bet on getting a kick to the ribs or a sweet from the neighbour who comes in from time to time and tries her best to help this kid.  One day, the neighbour steals the child and hands him over to the Red Cross who send the kid the North America.  He is in a refugee camp for forty eight hours.  He is on several transport vehicles.  The adults in his life change again and again.  And now the kid ends up in your house.  He doesn't speak English.  He has no frame of reference for the society within which he finds himself.  He doesn’t know anything about the customs or rules that make up the culture he has come too; in fact he didn’t understand the culture he was born into either, but he did understand the room his siblings had tied him in.  

Would you expect this child to arrive one fine August day, go shopping for school clothes and enjoy his first day of kindergarten?  Would you expect him to understand Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving and the hurly burly of the winter holiday season we have here in North America, embracing Christmas, Hannakah, Kwanza, and the Winter Solstace?  Would we be surprised if this kid had nightmares?  Panic attacks?  Unexplained illnesses?  Social dysfunction?  Attachment issues?   Separation anxiety?  Aggression?  Violent mood swings?  Inability to focus or learn?

Most of us would allow that this child would need a lot of support and not for just a little while.  He would need support for a long, long time.  I read a lot of dog training lists and recently I have been reading about a number of service and therapy dogs who have been “rescued”.  These are dogs who came from horrendous situations.  One dog who had been confined to a basement for three years.  A dog who spent his first year on an eight foot chain.  A dog who was largely ignored unless he barked, in which case he was beaten with a cable.  A dog who was confined to a crate from the age of six months to fourteen months, with an electric shock collar on, and the children in the home were allowed to shock him at will.

For some reason, there is an attraction to try and train these dogs to work in therapy and service capacities.  I train service dogs and I have worked with some dogs who came from rescues or shelters.  It is hard to find the right dog for the job.  I look at dogs and reject a lot of dogs for very minor faults; they are bouncier than they ought to be.  They don’t want to hook up with me...or they glom onto me and won’t leave me alone.  They startle easily.  They look normal but come from a war zone.  For the most part, I like to start a young carefully bred dog and control the variables so that he isn’t traumatized if I want him to do work.  I want to make sure that he doesn’t go through the equivalent of a war zone, because I want the dogs who are working in the most difficult of situations, the situations where they will have to act autonomously some of the time and tolerate all kinds of crazy behaviour from the public almost all of the time, to have the best upbringing possible.  I want them to learn that the world is a safe place and the crazy things they see are just that; crazy, but not necessarily dangerous.  I want my service dogs to experience public access on my terms when we start doing that; in short controlled situations where they are not going to have anything startling or surprising happen. Service work is amongst the most difficult work for dogs because the environment they work in changes continuously.  The people change.  The expectations of perfection are very high.  They cannot touch anything on the floor, on a sales rack or on a shelf.  They cannot look into the bags of the people they encounter.  They cannot chase a squirrel, they cannot startle if a truck backfires, they cannot greet the other dogs they meet, and they can rarely greet the people they meet.  The behavioural expectations for dogs in service work and therapy work is very, very high.

We also expect a lot from the dogs who have been traumatized.  We expect them to be normal, and they mostly are not.  We expect them to fit into our homes and our lives, often when it isn’t in them to do so.  When a dog has been traumatized, he is suffering, just as a child would.  Asking a child who was raised in the sort of situation that I described above to behave the way that a child who was raised in a safe, enriched environment would be ludicrous.  Asking a dog who was raised with the sort of trauma that I read about and that my clients bring to me is equally ludicrous. 

It is somewhat fashionable amongst trainers to say “work with the dog in front of you” and I agree to a point.  The point that I break away from agreement is when the dog has been traumatized and we ask the dog to rise above and beyond and do work that is difficult, unstructured and beyond what many of the dogs who have been raised to do so might be able to do.  We need to remember that when we take on a dog like this, he is going to live with his history, day in and day out, all day, every day.  He may overcome.  He may seem better many years later, but be triggered by something we would consider ordinary.  He may wake up at night, afraid.  We need to make sure that the dogs we ask to do the hardest work are suited to that work and are able to cope.  And sadly, that doesn’t usually mean a dog who has been badly traumatized to begin with.


  1. Patricia McConnell just posted a blog on a similar topic, though it was worth linking to here...

  2. Are there exceptions? Could a reactive adolescent dog with a few issues still become a service dog with extensive behavioural work if he has a keen drive to help his human?

  3. Maybe. But you have to ask if it would be fair to ask that dog to do that. I have certainly worked with dogs who have overcome, but the majority of the dogs I see who have been forced into this sort of work don't have the joy in the work that they need because too many of the environments they are in are incredibly stressful for them. I would say that while there are always exceptions, it is very rarely a good idea.