Trust and Trauma Affecting the Dog/Human Relationship
Updated: Oct 30, 2022
By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
A little over a month ago, we had a huge scare with our youngest dog Gilgamesh that snowballed into a host of other issues. Nothing is ever simple! When it rains it pours. One Saturday morning, my 3 year old active Kooikerhondje boy – Gilgamesh – was snuggling with me in bed after everyone else was awake. As he relaxed with his head on my shoulder he reached his hind paw forward to scratch his ear. Suddenly, he leaped into the air and I heard our normally stoic dog shriek in pain. He quickly buried his head into my chest and curled into a tight ball as I felt his whole body trembling and his back spasming. His eyes were wide and dilated, rapidly blinking, his ears pinned back. He looked terrified. Eventually, he stood up with some coaxing, and his head was low and his back was hunched. His back legs were straight and stiff, his movement was not normal. We were afraid of the worst -- that it could be a slipped disc like our late Beowulf suffered. For those who do not know, Beowulf had recurring slipped disc and Cushing’s disease. The slipped discs caused extreme, worsening pain that brought us to make the tough decision to set him free at the tender age of 4 years old.
We rushed Gilgamesh to the first vet clinic that we could get him into, as time is of the essence with potential spinal injuries. We were lucky to be paired with a young, passionate veterinarian whom we had never met. She was empathetic with him and with our tearful emotions as we told her about how this felt like a flashback to the nightmare we experience with Beowulf. We could not have had a better veterinarian or a better experience during what was inevitably a tough and emotional time. Gilgamesh was wonderful for the painful examination during which the vet was pressing his back muscles as they spasmed. We had worked for a long time teaching him to relax in a conformation (show dog) type stance while looking forward and taking occasional treats during examinations. We considered the possibility of the show ring for him, but knew that he would benefit from this training his whole life. Dogs will need grooming, vet care, and handling their whole lives, so why not teach them to do this cooperatively without fear? Despite the pain, he stood still for the examination, and his relaxed stance was helpful for the vet in conducting an effective evaluation. He was nervous but cooperative as the vet technicians took him to the back of the clinic for radiographs. For several days afterward, we had the difficult task for keeping him calm and inactive for days until we received word that it appeared to be a painful injury to his mid-lower back muscles and not a slipped disc. She recommended laser treatments and complete rest. I was thrilled to access laser treatments for him since laser treatments helped our eldest dog years ago both with pain management and increased speed of healing when she suffered a muscle injury.
Then the unexpected happened. I took him into the vet the next day and handed him off to a technician to go walk into what feels like a black hole… the back of the clinic. I prefer having as much done in the exam room where I am present because my dog is more comfortable and I can use these moments to continue his training for those moments where I am not able to be present. There are definitely some places where I would feel less comfortable doing that, as I have occasionally witnessed misunderstandings of dog body language and perhaps a priority placed on expediency with particular professionals instead of prioritizing the comfort and cooperation of the animal. However, I had a long history with this clinic and knew that they utilize low stress handling techniques. I assumed it would be a safe, positive experience for him and never questioned this for a minute. Gilgamesh was a bit reluctant to leave me to go in the back, but he went with the technician for his laser treatment. When he was brought back a half hour later, he looked terrified instead of happy, and his gait looked off. His hind legs were stiff, he was not picking up his feet, and his back legs were swinging out to the sides as he walked. I asked the technician how he did back there, as I always do so I know what to work on with training and how to better set my dogs up for successful, low stress visits. She said that there was a lot going on in the back of the clinic that day and he tried to get away during the treatment so they had to restrain him. She made it seem like it was not a big deal, but I was not so sure about that. I hoped that he would relax once we left. However, the rest of the day he was listless, he would not try to play or chew on bully sticks.
Worst of all, he actively avoided me. In fact, when I came near him he showed stress signs and would get up and move away, as if I had abused or hurt him. He licked his lips, had whale eye (looking at me with side eye showing the whites of the eyes), and he would turn away. This is not the boy I knew, and not my normal glued-to-me blood sugar alert dog. He and I are so closely bonded, so how could this be? I was devastated and wanted to know what happened.
I left to go to my behavior client appointments for the afternoon and my husband came home from work as usual. He reported that Gilgamesh was affectionate with him and a bit tired but behaving pretty normally other than his gait that still did not seem quite right. When I came home, Gilgamesh did not seem happy to see me at the door and again was showing fear. When I reached toward him or touched him he would tremble and cower. I feared what for me was the worst thing: that the experience was traumatizing and/or painful and that despite our wonderful relationship he associated me with that scary experience.
We can never know what, where or whom a dog may associate with a traumatic experience. The individual experiencing the trauma is the one who decides if it was “traumatic”. The owner, the leash, a harness, a location, smells, or other details may be associated with trauma, even if they were not actively involved in the experience.
I was terribly upset and called the vet clinic on the phone demanding to know what happened. The vet tech I spoke with was not present during the treatment. I only received denials that anything had happened, which contrasted with what I was told earlier upon picking up Gilgamesh from the treatment. The wonderful veterinarian who we met when Gilgamesh came to the clinic with the back injury was not present during his laser treatment, but the person on the phone said that we could come in to see her that evening to re-evaluate him. He also promised me a phone call and written report of what happened once he talked with everyone involved Gilgamesh tried to avoid entering the clinic when we arrived, and he cowered when she came near. This was completely unlike the previous visit where he was a little nervous but still happy and seeking out interactions with her and the staff. She agreed that he was showing a new injury to his iliopsoas that was present on both sides but worse on the right, although she did not know what happened.
This may surprise people to hear: I honestly 100% believe that whatever happened was a complete and misfortunate accident. It was busy in the back of the clinic and I know that he was already more nervous that day than usual to go back there, for unknown reasons. I am guessing that he was spooked by something and probably slid on the floor as he tried to bolt away but was restrained. A few years ago, Beowulf slid on the floors in our own home when a loud noise spooked him. He tried to run and instead ran in place and slid, resulting in a strained iliopsoas. These things unfortunately happen. One thing that I know without any doubt is that bad things happen in the blink of an eye. Despite our best efforts, humans cannot control dogs or the environment 100% of the time, nor
should they be expected to do so. We can only do the best we can. This includes our veterinarian staff. They are also human and cannot know the right answers 100% of the time, or completely manage all factors in the environment. As I tell my clients in aggression cases, management always fails at some point because we are human. These things happen, as unfortunate as they are. Fall and possibly winter agility trials are off the table for Gilgamesh, which is extremely disappointing. We cancelled a trip because he was not well enough to travel, and we may be cancelling our trip to California for his first conformation trial in two weeks if he is not well enough. Even worse is dealing with his sadness at not being able to go on walks, to play in his own yard, and to play fetch while he rests and heals.
This is why we call them “accidents”. I was told that the injury just “suddenly” appeared and they do not know why. I was promised a written and phone call accounting of the incident once they talked to everyone involved – I was never called or emailed. Since I never heard anything I followed up a month later when I sent the bill for his rehabilitation. I received a call from the corporate office manager who said that nothing happened and that I probably injured my own dog by failing to restrain him at home when he should be resting. Yes, he said those words. Perhaps it is because of the litigious nature of our society nowadays that someone would actually say that, but it was a pretty awful response to a concerned owner. This dog has been restrained in our house and only allowed in his backyard on leash to use the bathroom for over a month now, and he had the audacity to accuse us of the injury and trauma. His own staff had evaluated our dog the day before and the night of the incident and noted the difference in injuries. It was shocking and disappointing.
Yet, I do think he knows something happened because he quickly agreed to reimbursed us hundreds of dollars for the professional rehabilitation. I trust the veterinarians and staff, but I have a difficult time with that gaslighting from the corporate management. This is sad because I felt that I had that with the staff before, and that I would have that if management had approached things differently. Sometimes they have to go in the back depending on what tests need to be done, and no matter what, accidents will happen sometimes. I do not like feeling that I must have a GoPro camera recording everything in case of an accident, which can happen even when everyone is well-trained and doing their best. It should not be that way. There should be trust and mutual respect, and acknowledgment when things go wrong, despite our best efforts. The heart of the issue is that if I did not have education in canine gait analysis and signs of muscle injuries for my work with agility dogs and behavior issues, then I might have believed the front desk and the corporate manager when they said that “nothing happened”. My dog could have suffered a chronic lifelong ailment if I believed them.
Always trust your dog and trust your observations.
Gilgamesh is still recovering from this injury – it has been 5 weeks so far – and he has tight restrictions on normal everyday physical activities. We cannot enjoy things together like fetch, normal walks on leash, hiking, agility, etc. We have added in a once per week 10 minute “sniff walk” off property to help him psychologically, but that is the extent of his outdoor fun. It is really sad and extremely difficult for a high-drive working dog. We have supplemented with scent work activities and other games. Luckily he is a blood sugar alert dog. With my intense stress from all of this, I have had plenty of high sugars for him to alert about, instead of the low sugars that used to be more concerning before all of this stress. That is not a good thing for me, healthwise. He probably has a couple more months of these restrictions. What matters the most for Gilgamesh though is what happened next. At least from a body handling and owner-trust perspective, things did go right. There are five things that it took for this positive outcome:
· Positive training of body handling
· Owner Empathy (stepping back the pressure)
· History of Trust with the Owner
· Cooperation of the Vet Staff
· Creating a Plan Forward that Keeps the Dog Feeling Comfortable and Safe while rebuilding trust and predictability
Luckily, Gilgamesh and I had fun games, solid training, and a healthy relationship to fall back on. This is everything! He had tons of positive experiences with body handling by me and others where he knew the expected cooperative behaviors and he was rewarded in all sorts of fun sequences and manners. This made this otherwise traumatizing experience easier to overcome. I had seen many clients experience traumas from unfortunate harsh training, accidents during grooming, and also veterinary experiences that were unusual scary or painful for the dog and caused trauma. The instinct of people is often to become firm with the dog, demanding obedience and cooperation. Dogs only behave this way after trauma because of fear for their safety. Taking a firm attitude only makes things worse, as the dog is not “disobeying” but is truly terrified and focused on survival. Unfortunately, I have seen this create long-lasting damage to dogs’ relationships with the people they should trust most of all: their human family.
I went back to the basics, making interactions with me fun and rewarding any attempts he made to interact with me. We played his favorite games, although he was initially reluctant. We play the conformation stand game – this truly is a game to him that mixes in teaching expectations and consent with handling. We went back to the basics, like he was as a puppy when he did not like standing still or having his body touched. Within a few hours of making things fun and low pressure he was behaving as if he felt safe around me again. This could not have happened so quickly without a positive relationship AND a positive training history with handling.
Another crucial aspect was that of other key players: the veterinarian and her staff. While the vet said she did not know what happened during the laser treatment, she confirmed that this injury was not present at our appointment the day prior and that we needed to address it. They were amazing in their commitment to helping him feel safe and comfortable again with being handled at the vet. They took part in my handling games during that evening appointment. They kept everything low stress and positive with the examination and evaluation. Furthermore, they came up with a plan to make special accommodations for his comfort and safety, and to procure rapid care for the unfortunate injury. By the end of this appointment, he was seeking out interaction with this vet and the other staff member present. I will admit that I was not comfortable with him going back there for laser treatments just yet knowing that he was still recovering from the traumatic experience. I knew he would not yet be ready to do this without me. The vet understood. Instead, they wheeled the laser machine into an exam room so I could apply his training to the laser treatments and help him feel safe again. I wish I had known this was an option beforehand and all of this could have been avoided. The vet also talked with a physical therapist to get him started quickly, provided him with pain medication, and followed up with me over email between appointments. The physical therapist quickly worked him into her schedule. We had some great advocates in our corner.
Unfortunately, while I trust our vets and their staff completely to do their best to ensure my animals' comfort and safety, I feel a little less comfortable after the behavior of the corporate office manager who denied, deflected and then blamed us. He later walked back that blame, but he still said it. At least we could not have had better advocates after-the-fact for his healing – both physically and psychologically -- than this veterinarian, her staff, and the physical therapist who quickly worked him into her schedule. The angles at which way we approach trauma responses in our dogs – both physical and psychological – is crucial to positive long-term outcomes.
For Gilgamesh and me, that trust has not eroded despite everything and he is coming out of this stronger. If your dog is fearful and acting like something is wrong…believe them. Talk with your veterinary staff to see what workable solutions there are to help your dog feel more comfortable and to be a cooperative partner during vet visits. We were surprised at what accommodations were possible for Gilgamesh, and they made all the difference. He is fantastic and confident again with body handling thanks to their special efforts.
As a note, we can never know what, where or whom a dog may associate with a traumatic experience. Furthermore, the individual experiencing the trauma is the one who decides if it was “traumatic”. The owner, the leash, a harness, a location, smells, or other details may be associate with trauma. This is something I see every day with dogs who endure harsh training techniques like shock/e-collars and associate the trauma with the owner, particular parks, harnesses, or other details. I also see this with situational trauma, such as loud fireworks/noises going off while strolling at a park with a dog. They may associate the trauma with the owner, even if the owner was not an active part of the experience. This can erode trust and feelings of safety. Try to look at situations from the perspective of your dog to avoid exposing him to something that may be traumatic. If trauma does occur, make sure that you have the five points covered above. Most importantly, believe your dog when he indicates that he is afraid. It may not make sense to the human, but emotions do not always come packaged nicely with clearly defined reasons and parameters. We feel what we feel. This is also true for your animal. Have empathy, trusting his feelings and his experience, and work together -- you, your dog, your vet and other professionals – to find positive solutions.
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