In the fall of 2018, one of the many rescue shelters I follow on Instagram posted an urgent request to save Lady Gaga, a tan and white seventy-pound pitt mix. Gaga’s downturned mouth and sad brown eyes conveyed her pain and confusion after being abandoned. Having lost my mother at age seven, I felt an immediate kinship between us. The day I walked her home from the kill shelter, I crouched ear-level with her and whispered, “Nobody will ever leave or hurt you again.” She licked my face. She knew I meant it.
Her first night in my cozy Manhattan studio, she pressed up against me, her snout tucked between my shoulder and the pillow, and let out a long, deep sigh. Finally, she could exhale. She was safe.
As we entered the lobby of my building one day several months later, we were greeted by a dog walker holding the leashes of three pups. Already in the elevator, he held open the sliding door so we could squeeze in.
Luca froze. I gave her leash a light tug. She wouldn’t move. With a wave, I gave the walker the go ahead to let the doors close. Kneeling by her, I patted her head, eyeing her still-distended nipples from when she was over-bred by her previous owner. It didn’t take much analysis to understand why Luca was resistant to entering a small enclosed space with multiple dogs. As a sexual abuse survivor, I was once again keenly attuned to Luca’s unease. With that pledge I made to her the day we meet fresh in my head, I rubbed her back and told her, over and over, that she mattered.
PTSD is rampant among rescue dogs. Loud noises, strangers, and physical touch without consent can set off a chain reaction of emotions. The sound of clinking metal can remind a dog of its time in a puppy mill cage. A raised hand to pat them on the head can flood their brain with memories of being hit by an angry owner. Like with human trauma survivors, triggers lead to hyper-arousal (a rapid and extreme emotional response) and agitation in dogs. Proper grounding techniques to help redirect the animal’s mind need to be implemented before fight, flight or freeze kicks in. One dog that I walk, Seamus, was attacked by another dog in the elevator of the building where he lives.He sometimes needs to be coaxed into the car. If there's another dog already in there, we wait until we can get into a car that's dog-free or empty. I do this to let him know I understand his fear and am looking out for him. When we're out on the street, if he sees another dog, I immediately distract him with a treat. These techniques are similar to what I use with clients if I believe they've been triggered during our session.
Before a pet parent hands off an anxious or easily-spooked dog to a walker, it's important to keep these things in mind:
1. Consistency is crucial - Having a steady stream of new faces appear to take Fido for a walk is going to intensify their anxiety, especially if they're rescue dogs. Having one or two regular walkers or sitters will put your dog at ease. Seeing a different person every day will make them wonder if they're being taken away from their home again. It will also help to walk them at the same time every day. Having a routine will help your dog anticipate your walker's arrival, another way to counteract their triggers.
2. Knowing your dog's triggers could save their life - A car horn, the bark of another dog, even certain smells could ignite your dog's fight or flight. That flight response might cause them to bolt across a street or lunge at another dog, inciting a brawl. A walker is only as knowledgeable as the person that owns the dog. That's why you must pay attention to how your dog reacts to certain stimuli and be able to relay it to your walker. Armed with such information, your walker can anticipate possible issues and formulate a course-correct beforehand.
3. How you present your dog to a walker matters - If a walker gleans from conversations or previous walker notes that a dog is aggressive or unmanageable in some way, they'll be on edge the minute they're greeted by your pet. If your walker is nervous, your dog will be nervous and more easily triggered.
Sensing danger is what is most likely to set your dog off. In those moments where your pet has an extreme reaction, the most productive (and kind) thing to do is to simply let them know you're okay and so are they.