Trauma informed behavior consulting – a case study

Today I have a very special client story, it reads almost like a fairy tale. My client, after losing her previous dog, slowly started looking for a new companion. She said she had the time and the patience, and also she lives in a house with a garden, so she decided to give a dog a chance who would be difficult to adopt.

The lucky dog turned out to be Szörp, a foxi mix about 2 years old, who was abused as a puppy and then spent 1.5 years in a shelter. Many dogs who people believe come from an abusive background were not actually, but Szörp showed the trauma. He was afraid of hands (hhe liked petting at his own pace, but would back down at the empty hands that you would show as “no more treats here”) and was terrified of leashes.

His owner wrote to me:

“leash is the biggest problem, he could barely be leashed in the shelter, but ever since he got here, he is terrified of it, pees in at sight, gets tense and has even snapped at me. He’s scared after every attempt, even of me.”

The first time we counter-conditioned him to a lead – I wanted to get a baseline – after about 2 minutes, when he didn’t show many signs of stress other than backing up and basically being cautious, he started shaking. This strong, bodily reaction also suggested that he was not “just” fearful and insecure, but had re-experienced trauma.

We needed to come up with a treatment following the general principles of trauma informed therapy:
  • Take care of any existing health issues (treat/manage symptoms).
  • Have knowledge, understanding and empathy for the traumatic experience.
  • Have low expectations and be prepared to lower them.
  • Have patience and focus on your animal’s feelings, not actions. Trauma treatment is not training.
  • Create a safe environment, one that is consistent and predictable. Be a companion, not a captor.
  • Prevent re-traumatization. Build trust and resilience by providing choice and control.
The most important part of the therapy was that Anna was infinitely patient with Szörp, not forcing him to step out of his comfort zone too quickly, and most importatnly not aiming for taking him out for walks as soon as possible.

During our work together we focused on just a few things:

  • environmental enrichment
  • over time play in the garden became possible
  • positive social interactions with people (only as much as Szörp wanted)
  •  “consent test” for petting, every time (petting for 3-5 seconds, then pause and see if he asks for more)
  • very gentle counter-conditioning to the leash, in the garden where there is more space
  • conditioning a safe space
  • since Szörp seemed to like dogs, Anna arranged for her to meet a calm, older dog in the garden with whom he was happy to spend time

In Szörp’s case, the box training turned out to be incredibly useful as it allowed Anna to travel to Pécs with Szörp at Christmas, even though it was still impossible to put him on a lead. He was brought in the car in a box and in Pécs they were also in a house with a garden, where he had a great time.

I didn’t hear from them for a while after Christmas, but in February I got the fantastic news: Szörp was not only doing well in general, but also going for walks. Despite the fact that we didn’t put much emphasis on counter-conditioning, as he got more confident and overall, Anna bought a leash from a different material (which doesn’t rustle or rattle), and they were able to use it

Anna wrote to me:

And then the big word, the leash!

We have been going for a walk every day for a week! I changed the leash in Pécs to an organza leash, so it doesn’t rattle when hhe pulls (he doesn’t pull, he walks really well, he sniffs, makes friends, we are learning eye contact, we are going slowly, but I have no doubt he will get it quickly, as was the case with almost everything so far).

The point is that he has become an incredibly cute, cuddly, social dog, I am touched by his development every day. Oh, and of course he also has started to test the limits: he’s stolen socks, he’s gotten into our food and he’s also stolen his greyhound friend’s food (he lifted the top off a bucket), it was hard to keep a straight face 😀

Congratulations to Anna and Szörp and I look forward to working with them again!

Read more:

trauma in animals

fear/anxiety/phobia in dogs