When trauma happens: Dogs, Kids and PTSD

(R. Brockman, Thompson, ND, 2/2011)

When trauma happens, we react.  Usually right away, and often on instinct.  Then – as the acute event subsides –  comes the aftermath.

This is the time period when Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD  and its lesser known “sister” Acute Stress Disorder or ASD may rear their head.

But what do these names really mean and what does this have to do with kids and dogs?

It’s not news that trauma can have a long term impact on functioning.  Back before there was a label,  soldiers returning from war with symptoms consistent with what we now know as PTSD were told they had “battle fatigue” or “shell shock“; ignorance of the symptoms as a viable and treatable entity led to poor treatment and judgmental attitudes among many, even in the medical community.  Returning soldiers from Vietnam were told they had post-Vietnam syndrome; it was the soldiers persistence in clarifying a diagnosis and understanding treatment options that gave birth to modern day understanding and description of PTSD and related syndromes.

(I’m getting to the dogs and kids – promise!)

As the military and medical communities researched and treated PTSD it became clear that anyone who experiences potentially life- threatening catastrophic events can develop these disorders. Turns out that kids – and dogs – are no exception.

I see kids with PTSD in my office.  They come with a range of symptoms, but all have anxiety and a history of trauma. The kids express their anxiety in different ways – some  actively avoid potential conflict and develop headaches and stomach problems before school or activities , some provoke fights, some have panic episodes, some harm themselves, most have problems with impulse control and anger. Most have a difficult time regulating moods and emotion when presented with a situation or setting that triggers a memory of the trauma.  Many have been emotionally, physically or sexually abused or witnessed such abuse.  Others have been involved in disasters or severe accidents.

Treatment works best when the trauma is recognized and then addressed.  But with many children and teens the causative event or events are murky and buried in a history that reads something like…”child was removed from home at age 3 due to neglect.”  It’s not a stretch to assume trauma, but the specifics may never be obtained.

Research and clinical experience show that the severity of the symptoms are related to the severity of the trauma (symptoms are worse when trauma is worse) , how close the children are to the traumatic event and how the adults around them (usually parents) handle the event.

And yes, dogs also can develop symptoms consistent with PTSD.  A story in this past weeks New York Times discusses the reaction of dogs to combat trauma and some treatment options.

There are  medications that can be useful in addressing some of the symptoms displayed by these children (and apparently with the dogs as well.)  Therapy is essential and there are some specific techniques that are especially promising. But when a child (or dog, or soldier, or anyone for that matter) has spent time protecting themselves from remembering an horrific event it is almost counter intuitive to address that event directly or indirectly – even in the safest of settings.  Many resist, making treatment that much more difficult.

The best answer, of course, is to prevent the trauma in the first place. I know: easier said than done!

What is the take away- message?  Trauma can impact a child for years to come – but  an adult’s ability to handle and process the event with the child can directly impact the severity and longevity of a child’s symptoms.  Traumatized kids do better if a reliable adult can show them the way.






One Comments to “When trauma happens: Dogs, Kids and PTSD”

  1. Kgranieri says:

    Hi Ellen,

    I love your blog! It’s super informative and the insight from your perspective is appreciated. I am a special educator and can relate in many ways. Keep up the powerful stuff. Best of luck!

    Krista :)