Reflections on Dogs and Trauma
This post is taken from a longer Keynote Address delivered at the Through the Eyes of a Child Conference XXI for dependency court judges, on August 5, 2018.
This is my dog Sydney. We got him from a rescue shelter five years ago. After Sydney had been with us for three days, he bit me in the face. I went to the ER for stitches. My children refer to him affectionately as “Dad’s little trauma survivor.” Lately, with my clinical supervision groups, we’ve been reading the new book, Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory, eds. Porges and Dana (Norton, 2018) and I’ve been thinking about dogs and trauma, and how their experience yields insight into humans, their brilliant nervous systems, and healing from adversity.
When we adopted Sydney from the rescue shelter–he’s the first dog I’ve adopted as an adult–I imagined I’d meet other dog owners. They seemed like such a social bunch. But again and again I’d be out walking with Sydney and notice that other dog walkers would walk across the street or turn in another direction. It happened so many times, I was sure it had to be something to do with me.
The few times we did encounter a passerby face to face, I understood better. When seeing any man or larger dog, Sydney would, without warning, go ballistic, snarling and barking and lunging as if confronting a life-threatening danger. It made every stranger jump. It was frightening and unprovoked. Soon we were like those other dog walkers, avoiding everyone on the street. And, of course, Oregon, where I live, has one of the highest adoption rates for rescue dogs in the country. In my neighborhood traumatized rescue dogs are everywhere.
We don’t know what happened to Sydney before he came to us other than he had two other owners and one (a man) had been physically abusive. As a dog owner who happens to be a trauma therapist, I know that Sydney’s healing from his past is possible but constrained, largely because of the limits of the dog brain. As his family we help with his healing though forming trusting relationships. We protect him from his triggers (men, other dogs, squirrels, all surprises really). We take him to a weekly dog group therapy walk with an animal behaviorist. He has a steady and boring routine and over time he seems to have calmed down.
This brings me to my first point about our amazing human nervous system, informed by this new volume on polyvagal theory.
All creatures are equipped to deal with life in a dangerous and violent world. In a strange way, trauma is normal. It’s ubiquitous. Not in a moral sense, like we should seek out trauma or allow it to occur. But more in the sense that we should not be surprised when it happens. The fact that our nervous systems respond when we are threatened in a way that gives us a chance to survive is wonderful.
What is most troubling really are the effects of trauma, after the danger has passed, the way trauma imprints us, a filter on all later experience. One of the reasons I love being a psychotherapist is I bear continual witness to human beings healing from the effects. We transform lived experience through revisions of the story we tell ourselves; in short, we become wise. And we accomplish this transformation through the marvels of our advanced nervous system and its linkages to the human brain, with its sophisticated capacity for language.
As our species evolved, our neurobiological menu for dealing with danger got more sophisticated, layered with vestiges of our evolutionary heritage. We evolved from fish who resorted to a freeze response (giving up, shutting down) to amphibians and bony fish who had fight or flight responses, to mammals who bonded together in tribes (the ventral vagal or social engagement system). Humans have the most evolved brains and nervous systems, drawing on this whole repertoire of possible responses, especially when we grow up within healthy secure relationships. Most crucially we have a sophisticated system of language. This gives us the ability to abstract on our lives, our brains and our bodies, to metabolize the effects of trauma through story, a language where it is both shared and transformed.
The body may keep the score, but the human brain, with its extraordinary capacity for integration and meaning-making, wins the game.
Sydney’s capacity to heal from trauma is limited by his mammalian brain. He has a smaller cortex, so no ability to use language that would enable him to metabolize the effects of trauma, to transform scary experiences encoded in his limbic system into a different story, to mature beyond its impacts.
But he’s still really cute.