The human brain is a marvel. Despite technological advances and scientific research into the human psyche, even the world’s leading Psychologists haven’t fully cracked every function of the human brain; especially when it comes to physical and emotional trauma. It is known however, that trauma of any kind can kickstart mental illness such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and in some cases, can even rewire the brain.
The brain learns to compartmentalize to protect itself from emotional pain, but its best efforts can seep into daily function in the form of reactivity, anger, sadness, emotional outbursts, reclusivity, etc. This kind of display of emotion is considered normal in response to trauma and when someone carries on “business as usual,” society tends to question if the trauma was truly as distressing as the original claim. The way people deal with trauma is not only accepted, it is expected. Now why, when trauma occurs to a dog, they’re immediately dismissed as dominant, aggressive and dangerous?
Of course a human brain is different from a dog’s. But just like people, dogs feel pain, have emotions and comprehend the world around them. And humanity, being the advanced species on this planet, should have the cognizance to appreciate that a dog’s reactivity is perhaps an effect of trauma.
Imagine being a child and abandoned on the side of the road, left to die or to figure out how to survive. What would that do to the human brain in its most vulnerable, developmental stage? What would it do to a dog's?
Rocket is a self-proclaimed Wonder Mutt! He is 65% American Staffordshire Terrier, 20% German Shepherd and has a little bit of Labrador and Great Pyranees mixed in for extra flavor! He is a serious boy, but don’t let that fool you because he’s as goofy, playful and funny as they come, especially when he thinks no one is watching. He loves going on pack walks with his training besties and his mom. He loves snuggling under the blankets, and will run through every trick and command he knows for a healthy slice of apple. He’s the goodest boy, and he’s also reactive.
In 2016 he was found on the side of a road in Arkansas with two of his siblings and their mom. The puppies were only about 10 weeks old. They were babies and they were abandoned with a healing momma, left to die in their most helpless stage in life. What chance did they truly have at surviving? Through some miracle, they did. Rocket made his way to New England after being pulled from a high-kill shelter; his life spared. And at roughly 7 months old, Rocket found his forever home.
Some might say the story ends here; a happy ending. Surely, he would never remember the trauma of being homeless; abandoned and left to die. Except that just like humans, dogs have the capacity to recall their pasts. And shortly after making his way into his forever home, his reactivity began to surface.
Despite being a happy, well-adjusted and playful dog from day to day, he’s also fearful and anxious. And when he feels scared, unsure, or uncomfortable his method of coping translates to reactivity in the form of lunging at whatever is making him feel unsafe. His triggers can be anything from a quick movement he wasn’t expecting, someone he doesn’t know invading his personal space, or another dog charging at him.
The takeaway however is that none of this makes him a “bad dog.” And society shouldn’t put that on him or any other dog like him. Not only has he experienced trauma in his life, he is also an American Staffordshire Terrier. He’s expected to work twice as hard to be the perfect dog, and even then it is not enough because people still blame him when he reacts to a stressor that was completely out of his control.
There are no bad dogs rather, dogs of circumstance. And the responsibility falls on people to learn their language; to understand their needs, to give them the best chance at a successful and peaceful life in a forever home. The way Rocket’s family has done for him.
Rocket and his mom spend their days training vigorously because he thrives on structure, stability and learning. He loves conquering every new task that comes his way, and his family loves to see his confidence reach new heights and to show off his progress to the world around them. He spends his days in a structured daycare setting, working on controlled socialization with professional trainers and 10 to 20 additional dogs. And when he’s not there he goes to Boston For The Dogs to work on his manners, recall, and real-life situations and distractions. His family is fully dedicated to his success in this world and he’s thriving because of it. Sure he is still reactive; maybe that will fully disappear one day, and maybe it won’t. But just like people, he’s allowed bad days too. He’s a happy dog who suffered something no one should ever have to suffer. Yet despite that, he’s living his very best life.
Trauma is the cause… Reactivity is the effect… Remember that the next time you stumble upon a frightened, anxious or nervous dog. And give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re as loving as your own.
We’ll leave you with a few final words that I tried my best to work into his story, but felt it would be most powerful as is… a note from his mom.
“The first few days after Rocket came home to us, he wouldn’t come near me. He cowered in the back of his crate and simply shook. He had accidents within the house and would then run back into his crate and hide; he wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. He was so shut down and it was so hard to watch. After a few days (which felt like forever), of him hiding in his crate and me sitting on the couch silently begging him to trust me, he very cautiously came over to me and jumped on the couch. He curled up into the tiniest ball with his head on my lap. I sobbed silently to myself, leaned down and kissed his little forehead. I whispered to him that he was home and that I loved him so much. Then we both fell asleep. It was in that moment we both knew, we rescued each other and I would make sure no human ever failed him again.
He has 2 small scars on his face that are perfectly round, cigarette-sized holes and the thought of anyone hurting him fuels me everyday to make sure I always set him up for success, to live his best life. I kiss those 2 scars every night and I whisper in his ear, “I’ll keep you safe, you keep me wild.” I even have those same words tattooed on my arm in honor of him and that promise that I made him.”