Understanding PTSD in Your Dog and What to Do

Dog lovers know dogs by heart. Most of us have had dogs our entire lives, and some things are second nature when it comes to caring for them. We may already know the best toys, the best ways to train them, and even obscure information like managing barking habits or the best diet to keep them healthy. Dogs are like humans (but better!) in many ways, we already know that they can suffer from arthritis, just like humans. Another reason is that they may also suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) when they have experienced something frightening, shocking or had to endure dangerous circumstances.

What we may not know is how to manage service dogs or dogs with PTSD to help them improve their quality of life after traumatic experiences. Maybe you’re rescuing a dog with an unfortunate history or maybe your dog recently suffered a traumatic experience. Read on for more information you need to know.

Signs of PTSD in Dogs

We may not be aware of why the dog is exhibiting PTSD symptoms. After all, they can’t tell us about it in words. As conscientious owners, we can look for the following symptoms to determine if our dogs are suffering from PTSD:

  • Aggressive behavior or reactions
  • Anxiety or anxious behaviors
  • Adherence to the owner
  • Depression
  • Fear
  • Hypervigilance
  • Lethargy
  • Panic
  • Panting
  • Tremor
  • Sudden increase in aggression
  • Shy behaviors

If your dog is exhibiting these behaviors and you are unsure why, it is always best to consult your veterinarian to rule out any underlying physical conditions, including injury or illness. Remember that some of these symptoms, like lethargy and tremors, are also related to arthritis pain in dogs. However, If the veterinarian’s diagnosis does not reveal a medical explanation, it may indicate PTSD.

A dog’s body language can also provide us with clues about what triggers PTSD. Watch out for a tucked tail, ears pinned back, or crouching low to the ground. These nonverbal cues can alert us to the PTSD trigger.

PTSD in Dogs

How to Overcome Your Dog’s PTSD

In order to provide the best quality of life for your dog, you will need to be aware of when PTSD is triggered and take steps to manage your dog’s resulting response. Over time, we can lessen the symptoms of PTSD and eventually overcome the trauma. Some dogs will never fully overcome PTSD, and that’s okay, but we can do our part to make things more manageable with a thoughtful approach, attention, and patience.

Identify the trigger

If you adopt a dog with a history, the shelter might have insight into what happened to the dog. Common reasons for trauma include:

  • Abandonment
  • Abuse
  • Military or police dog work
  • Natural disasters
  • Victim of an animal attack
  • Victim of dog fighting

Identifying the PTSD trigger will give us an idea of ​​what preceded the trauma, and therefore what will precede a PTSD reaction from our dog. For victims of natural disasters, thunderstorms may cause symptoms, while victims of an animal attack may exhibit symptoms in the presence of other animals.

Knowing when and why PTSD presents will be an integral part of managing the physical response.

Eliminate Triggers

Dogs are associative animals. They don’t always know what words or actions mean, but they can recognize patterns. They might learn that taking off their leash or hearing “go for a walk” means they will soon be outside exploring the neighborhood. Likewise, they may also know that when they hear screaming, abuse may follow if that is what they have become accustomed to.

Some triggers can be eliminated completely, such as yelling or displaying anger in the presence of a sensitive dog. Dogs who are anxious and fearful at dog parks do not need to be taken to dog parks. If we can identify the causes of PTSD and the trigger can be completely removed, we can do this for our dogs to alleviate the stress associated with PTSD.

Systemic desensitization

Some triggers cannot be avoided. Dogs who are afraid of cars may need to be in a car for regular trips to the vet. Those who fear loud noises like fireworks on the 4th of July or thunderstorms may still be subject to these noises occasionally, and we will have no controls to prevent this from happening.

In these scenarios, behaviorists suggest “systemic desensitization” that combines light exposure therapy with standard dog training principles. Systemic desensitization involves taking small steps to overcome fear and create a positive association with the trigger.

Let’s take the example of the car as a trigger. Some dogs will be very averse to the point that they won’t even be able to approach a car. Start by placing treats a few feet from the car. The dog will be encouraged to approach and retrieve the treat. Don’t drag them to the car by the leash. Allow them to approach and retreat as they please.

As they gain confidence, you can move the treats closer to the car. You can place treats inside the car on the floor, but keep the car stationary. You can optionally move the treats further inside the car, but leave the car turned off and stationary while the dog enters and exits at his discretion. As their confidence improves, you may even be able to turn the car on and eventually drive it short distances with them inside.

This process may take weeks, months, or years depending on the severity of the response, and it will not be successful in all cases. Pay close attention to your dog’s signals and never force him if he is not ready.


In severe cases, dogs may not have the ability to overcome the trauma and become completely debilitated during episodes. Consult your veterinarian if your dog is in severe distress during episodes. Sometimes veterinarians prescribe sedatives or anti-anxiety medications to help manage symptoms.

Always consult your veterinarian before administering medication of any kind to your dog.

What to do when your dog has PTSD

As you work to manage and eventually overcome PTSD, there will be episodes where your dog’s fear fully manifests itself. We love our canine companions and our protective instincts will likely take over when they show signs of fear and distress.

Don’t let him.

Unlike the approach we use with children, dogs should not be comforted when they are showing symptoms. Even though we think this means everything will be fine, they read our reaction as confirmation that they should indeed react with fear and panic. This reinforces the fear.

Instead, do your best to act like everything is okay. Go about your business and behave as you usually do. This signals to your dog that there is no reason to be afraid because you, the alpha dog in his eyes, are not afraid or cowering. If everything suits you, why shouldn’t they be too?

Acquire help

When PTSD regularly affects a person’s quality of life, it is time to seek professional help to manage the condition and reduce its impact on daily life. The same goes for our dogs.

If we are trying our best to help our dogs overcome the trauma but are unable to do so, it may be time to seek help from professional dog trainers. Try interviewing top local trainers to see if they have any experience with PTSD in dogs. Online dog training is also an option.

Final Thoughts

Caring for a dog with PTSD can be challenging, but it is a selfless act that yields great rewards for both owner and dog. Do your best to understand their PTSD and you will help them live their best life.

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Special thanks to our contributor, Brad Clarke, who wrote this article. He is also the content manager for dognerdz.com, and we are delighted that he has helped us disseminate this important information. Thanks, Brad!


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