Healing from PTSD
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can affect any kind of animal
By Ruby R. Benjamin, Ed.D.
Dr. Ruby Benjamin with Gizelle
I met Gizelle, a standard poodle, in 2009 soon after she was rescued from a puppy mill and brought to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Southern Utah, where I had been on a volunteer vacation for two weeks.
She was a pitiful sight, curled in a canine fetal position protecting the most vulnerable part of herself – her underbelly. It seemed that she was taking up as little room as she could as if hoping she’d be overlooked. I understood this considering she had spent all of her five years of life in a wire cage breeding puppies during every cycle she was in heat. When first rescued, after months of neglect, her hair had been chopped off in clumps in order to remove the massive mats on her body.
Gizelle was closed down and depressed suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from living in a puppy mill whose only interest in her was how often she could produce puppies to be sold for profit to pet shops near and far.
As she lay huddled and immobile, I petted her gently, trying to reassure her that she was safe now and never had to be pregnant again. She didn’t move, so I just kept speaking softly to her for over an hour, promising I would visit her several times a day. She opened up a little to expose her underbelly, and I saw her nursing teats hanging and stretched, the result of feeding multiple litters of pups. I continued to pet that sensitive area tenderly.
At first, Gizelle was unable to eat by herself, so I hand fed her. This was the beginning of the healing process – a process that takes place not in leaps, but in tiny steps depending on the strength of the trauma.
What is PTSD
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychological syndrome originally associated with servicemen and women who have experienced the atrocities of war. Most recently, it has come to be defined as a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma.
Humans develop crippling symptoms on return from the front lines – flashbacks, anger, depression, hyper-vigilance, and disruptive family and social lives. These symptoms show up in other traumatic situations such as natural disasters, 911, and serious accidents where threat of death or serious personal injury to self or others causes intense helplessness or horror.
Some people are treated with medication and psychotherapy, but others are helped by the healing powers of therapy dogs. These dogs provide psychological support and comfort. For war veterans, they help them live in the here and now and not the past of the war. New programs such as America’s Vet Dogs and Paws for Purple Hearts are just two organizations recently formed to provide this service.
But humans are not the only ones who experience threatening and traumatic events. Animals of all species do, too. Their symptoms differ from humans, but they are traumatized nonetheless and can be diagnosed with PTSD.
Gina, a bomb-sniffing German shepherd was diagnosed with PTSD by a military veterinarian at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, after she returned from Iraq. Before her deployment, Gina was a playful 2-year-old, but after months of door-to-door searches and continuous explosions she returned cowering and fearful, not wanting anything to do with people. It took her a year to heal from the wounds of war and to trust again in humans.
Puppy mills are also traumatic breeding places for developing PTSD in dogs of all breeds.
Every day when I visited Gizelle I saw small changes. She progressed slowly but steadily. She would lift her snout at the sound of my voice, wag her tail as I approached the kennel, get off the bed to greet me, eat from her bowl and roll over for a tummy rub.
When we first went for a walk at the sanctuary, she was timid. Soon, she began to prance along the road, giving honor to her name. Everything was new and exciting to her and she filled her nose and head with smells of which she never dreamed. One day when I was leaving the kennel she jumped up on me and held onto my knees and then ran outside to her play area. She was learning how to be a dog and to trust humans again.
Gizelle had made such extraordinary progress that I was given the OK to take her for a sleepover at my hotel. It was a milestone for both of us. She was hesitant about getting into the backseat of the car but once inside, she climbed immediately onto the passenger seat and curled up beside me. At the hotel she climbed the stairs to the second floor with grace, but I had to carry her down when it was time to go outside. We sat on the hotel grass under a huge shade tree. She rolled onto her back and, with her four legs in the air, wiggled in joy. Back in the hotel room, she jumped on the bed, luxuriated in its softness, and slept on my pillow. She must have dreamt she was in doggie heaven.
As my two-weeks at the sanctuary was nearing an end and I had to return home to New York, I learned that Gizelle was doing so well, she was going to be moving in with other dogs who were ready for adoption.
Saying good-bye to Gizelle was two pronged: I was sad that I might not see her again, but grateful to have had the opportunity to help her as she blossomed into a healthy and happy dog through the kindness of her many caregivers – and her new doggie friends, too.
A few weeks later, I heard from her caregivers at the sanctuary that Gizelle had been adopted. She is living and thriving in Upstate New York.
Dr. Ruby Benjamin is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City with individuals and couples. She specializes in relationship issues with self, others and, sometimes with canines. She is on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health, the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and is a consultant to Doctors without Borders, Peer Support Network.