Healing vs Heeling
If you're navigating the delicate path of supporting a dog living with the effects of trauma, you know firsthand how difficult and tiring it can be to help them live well.
Traditional dog training, which treats behavioral problems as obedience issues, fail to address the complexities that we know trauma brings. Over the last several decades science has had a lot to say about both trauma and canine cognition - it's time for dog training to catch up.
Today, we delve into why Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) is ideal for dogs with trauma-informed behavior issues.
If you want to catch up on the basics of BAT check out the first two articles in my series on the topic:
Why is BAT Ideal for Dogs Living With Trauma?
At its core, BAT takes the science that typically feeds into dog training (learning theory, canine ethology, etc.) and then leverages the intricate web of similarities between human and dog cognition.
Here are some of my favorite points:
Studies have illuminated the similarities in neural activity that govern emotions, fear, and social behavior in both species (Berns et al., 2012; Miklosi, 2007). Just as humans process emotions, dogs too experience a range of complex feelings that affect behavior.
Attachment theory, a cornerstone in human psychology, has found resonance in the dog research world as well (Topál et al., 1998). The bond between a dog and its owner, akin to the parent-child attachment dynamic, influences the dog's perception of safety and security.
Much like in humans researchers have noted the long-term impacts that trauma has on stress in dogs. A famous study (Nagasawa, et al. 2012) on dogs displaced by the Fukushima disaster showed cortisol (a stress hormone) levels 5-10 times higher than in other shelter dogs over a year after the incident.
In many dogs with serious stress issues it can take up to three days after an incident for their cortisol levels to return to their day-to-day level (Hallgren 2012). This means that to a certain extent spikes in stress level can compound and create chronic stress states.
In a powerful essay, David John Roland, a psychologist who studies the similarities between animal and human trauma, had this to say:
"To rehabilitate from trauma, humans and animals need to feel safe and away from cues that trigger the individual’s threat response, deactivating the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-flight response). They also need a means of self-soothing, or to gain soothing from another, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest, digest and calm response)."
Putting it Into Action
Imagine a BAT program as a tailored suit for your furry friend, custom fit to their individuality, experiences, and needs. This applies not just to the content of the training but also to its pacing and rhythm - it is the progress of the dog's emotional wellbeing that drives it all.
This personalized approach fosters an environment of understanding, trust, and collaboration, aligning seamlessly with the cognitive and emotional intricacies of dogs. The humans in the equation are constantly ensuring that the dog is opting in to the training and given the opportunity to make free choices.
You might be intrigued but skeptical about giving your dog freedom of choice during training.
This concern is natural especially since you have probably heard from "experts" before that depriving your dog of choices is necessary to keep them safe. BAT respects your dog's autonomy while still maintaining a structured environment—a delicate balance that aligns with principles of learning theory and behavioral psychology. This not only ensures your dog's emotional safety but also empowers them to actively engage in their healing process.
Freedom of choice, natural behaviors & movements, and functional rewards combine in BAT for a special sort of magic that first replaces undesired behaviors with pro-exploration ones and then (if desired) by pro-social ones. Leash handling skills and a suite of basic skills for your dog ensure boundary and safety.
Life can be overwhelming, and implementing complex training plans may feel like a tall order. BAT helps with this by operating as a process and not just a product.
It starts with a "cortisol vacation" to lower stress levels while focusing training on the relationship and building bond, confidence, emotional resilience, and trust. Secure attachment is the goal.
The dog-human team then learn the technical skills they need - the moves that they will both employ in the training to come.
Then - when both dog and human are ready - the team employs the BAT protocols on structured training walks. In some cases specialized training "setups" where the dog is allowed deliberate exposure to preplanned triggers in enriched learning environments are done as well.
BAT is about the partnership. Dog and human are taught to communicate with, rely on, and trust each other. One step at a time.
Obviously the need for trauma-informed care backed by science cannot be overstated for dogs living with trauma.
Behavior Adjustment Training is not merely a training method; it's a scientifically backed school of thought rooted in empathy, cognition, and the shared emotions between humans and dogs.
BAT offers more than a training solution; it's a transformative path to healing. As you venture forth, embracing the intricacies of your dog's journey, BAT stands as a reliable companion, fostering trust, building positive relationships, and bringing about lasting behavioral change in your beloved pet.
Dogs living with the effects of trauma deserve nothing less.
Berns, G. S., Brooks, A. M., & Spivak, M. (2012). Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors.
Miklosi, A. (2007). Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition. Oxford Biology.
Topál, J., Miklósi, Á., Csányi, V., & Dóka, A. (1998). Attachment behavior in dogs (Canis familiaris): A new application of Ainsworth’s (1969) Strange Situation Test. Journal of Comparative Psychology
Nagasawa, Mogi, & Kikusui (2012). “Continued Distress among Abandoned Dogs in Fukushima”
Hallgren, A. (2012). "Stress, Anxiety, & Aggression in Dogs"