3 min read

Dottie found her tail. #DogPTSD

Dottie running full speed at Cherry Creek State Off leash park

Dottie found her tail

Last weekend, out of the blue, Dottie discovered that something was following her. She had no idea what it was. She'd probably never seen it before.

Every time she turned around, this thing was following her. She tried to outrun it. She tried to shake it off. She tried to bite it. But somehow, some way, it was still there.

You're probably wondering why this is significant. Every puppy discovers their tail at some point.

Dottie is, at least, close to a year old. She also has post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Because she's been so traumatized, she's missed most of the usual developmental stages.

PTSD causes her to simply check out. She is physically present but mentally, she's a million miles away. If she was human, we might say she has a dissociative disorder.

When she feels threatened, she simply checks out. Sometimes, she has no idea where she is or who we are. Her body is there, but her mind is gone.

She hasn't been present enough to experience normal, natural development.

So, she discovered her tail. She recently discovered that she could bark. She was shocked that the noise was coming out of her own mouth. Now, she barks with the sheer thrill of being able to make the noise.

PTSD is the same for human beings.

One minute, you're there and the next minute, you're gone.

We have a stereotype of the Vietnam Vet who takes cover when a car backfires. For Dottie, and a lot of people, her triggers are more subtle. For example, if Dottie's gets too hungry, she will check out. If we give her food when she's checked out, she won't recognize it as food. She will leave even her favorite treat alone. Sometimes, her sister, Cassie, has to show her that the food is available.

If you're in a relationship with someone with PTSD,  you can have an entire conversation before you realize that they are not present. If your child has PTSD, he or she can spend an entire day in school and not learn a thing. Children who live in difficult areas go entire years without gaining knowledge. They simply weren't mentally there to receive the lesson.

Anger or loud noises will bring someone to the present. Often, it's a shorthand way to get someone's attention. And it certainly works, at least at first.

With Dottie, it doesn't work for long. Pretty soon, your reaction only sends her mind deeper into space.

How do you teach your dog basic dog manners when they aren't there?

You don't. Period.

It's the same with people. If your friend or partner has PTSD and is checked out, you have to wait to have an important conversation. You can't teach a traumatized kid how to read until their mind is present.

Getting present is a lifelong project. It requires consistency, quality rest, good food, plenty of water, and lots exercise. These are the exact same things a person needs to overcome their PTSD. The more structured, consistent, and predictable their life is, the more time they will spend in it.

Unfortunately, the space out can be fairly addictive -- for humans and dogs. The emotions create a biochemical cascade that, while potentially unpleasant, it is addictive. Reality will always lack the heightened excitement of these states.

Love bridges the difference, of course. If your loved one or dog has PTSD, you must practice the patient part of love. With time and consistency, they will return to you. Hopefully, you won't wear yourself out while they're not there.


I'm not an expert in dogs. I don't have an advanced veterinary degree or specialized training. I am, however, an expert on PTSD with a Master's in Clinical Psychology and more than 15 years of working with severely traumatized individuals. I've decided to write about my experiences with dogs because this information doesn't seem to exist anywhere. ~~Claudia