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Special Needs Dog: Caring for a Rescued Pet With a Traumatic Past

Image: Special Needs Dog: Caring for a Rescued Pet With a Traumatic Past
A disabled woman in a wheelchair takes part in a training session with a guide dog. (Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

By    |   Wednesday, 07 Jan 2015 11:41 AM

Rescued and special-needs dogs often come from environments where they have suffered terrible conditions of abuse or traumatic neglect.

Some have simply been abandoned and left to fend for themselves, while others have suffered physical and psychological abuse. Caring for a special-needs dog requires a careful, loving approach to rehabilitation as well as an understanding of how to rebuild trust in an environment that is both safe for the dog and handler.

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety condition that results from exposure to traumatic conditions that present the threat of death or major injury.

Many of America's veterans suffer from PTSD but with national attention drawn to the issue, treatment and support options are improving. Many dog rehabilitators and veterinarians believe special-needs dogs also suffer from some form of PTSD, whether from abuse, neglect or environmental trauma such as Hurricane Katrina.

"I would be very surprised if the number of dogs who’ve experienced some type of trauma wasn’t at least 70 percent. And I’d also be surprised if the number of dogs who’ve developed symptoms of PTSD as a result of such wasn’t very close to the figure of 8 percent found in human beings," writes author and dog trainer Lee Charles Kelley.

Special-needs dogs that come from a traumatic environment of abuse, neglect, or both may display different behaviors than a dog that has been normally socialized and cared for.

Here are three challenging dog behaviors and recommended trainer responses for rescued dogs with a traumatic past:

Trust: An abused or neglected dog has very different expectations of humans than a cared-for dog. The dog may have been tricked, beaten, starved, teased, and taunted by a previous owner. Loud sounds, raising an object, and quick movements can easily startle the dog into a fear response of either aggression or abject submission.

Trainer Nicole Wilde uses a technique called "desensitization" to help reduce anxiety by exposing the dog to its fear source in a gradual way.

For example, "if your dog were afraid of the sound of the vacuum cleaner, you could start by turning the vacuum on when your dog was in the next room. Once he was comfortable at that distance, you could turn it on when he was just outside the room."

Wilde further advises never to use "flooding," the term used to force the dog to face its fears all at once. This will push a dog over its fear threshold, cause further anxiety, and reinforce the dog's mistrust of humans.

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Aggression: In a special-needs dog, aggression is generally motivated by fear. If the dog acts like a bully toward other dogs, it may be that the dog was kept tied up and defenseless and developed postures to keep other dogs away.

Aggression toward humans is also a defense mechanism likely developed after being antagonized or in an attempt to ward off abuse. According to animal behavior consultant Sherry Woodard, "Fear-motivated aggression can often be greatly reduced through training and socialization."

Accepting affection: Rehabilitating a special-needs dog takes patience, understanding, and above all, time.

New owners may think the dog will be so grateful to have a safe home that displays of love and affection will be readily accepted. It is important to remember that the dog may not have a positive expectation of humans and will react negatively to being touched.

Desensitization is the key to gaining touch and affection acceptance. The ASPCA recommends "patient training several times a day, progressing in small, carefully planned increments. It usually takes several months before results are seen."

In addition, "treatment must progress and change according to the pet’s reactions." The other training component is called "counterconditioning," which means to reteach the pet to have a "pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked."

This is done by "associating the feared thing with something good so that it predicts good things for the animal," the ASPCA says.

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Rescued and special-needs dogs often come from environments where they have suffered terrible conditions of abuse or traumatic neglect. Some have simply been abandoned and left to fend for themselves, while others have suffered physical and psychological abuse.
special needs dog, pets, caring, rescued, traumatic, past
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Wednesday, 07 Jan 2015 11:41 AM
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