What I learned about trauma from my dog

Bo in my office. His tail is blurry because he is wagging it.

My husband and I adopted a five-year-old rescue dog, Bo, in July of 2016. I wrote about him when we brought him home, which you can read here:

My new dog offers a lesson in letting go, on

Bo has been living us for over a year now, and he is an absolute joy. When I’m working, Bo usually spends the day snoozing on his cushion on the floor beside me. His internal clock tells him when it’s time for his walk, and he gets all excited — he loves going out. Who is he going to meet this time? Bo wants to approach every human, dog and even an occasional cat that happens to be along his route.

Bo likes to hang around in the kitchen when Terry and I are making dinner. This, however, can be a problem, as our kitchen is small, and he ends up underfoot. So after we had Bo for a few months, we taught him to sit on the small rug in the corner of the kitchen. He was rewarded with dog treats, so he caught on quickly. In fact, anytime we went into the kitchen, he went directly to the rug.

A bad day

On a walk last winter, Bo was a bit rambunctious and needed to be corrected. When we got back to the house, he was still excited and was told to sit on the rug in the kitchen. Terry, who is over six feet tall, stood in front of Bo.

All of a sudden our dog was afraid. He escaped from the corner, ran downstairs into his crate in the basement, and wouldn’t come out.

Right in front of me, Bo had become traumatized.

For weeks, Bo was afraid to be in the kitchen with us. Eventually, he overcame his fear enough to be in the room while we made dinner, but he would not go anywhere near the rug. He also would not eat the dog treats — even if I offered them to him in another room of the house.

Residual effects

It’s now about eight months later, and the effects of our dog’s moment of fear are still lingering. Bo will stay in the kitchen with us when we’re making dinner — sprawled out in the middle of the floor, so we have to step over him. He will occasionally sit on the rug of his own accord, especially when a chicken comes out of the oven.

But Bo will not sit on the rug if I ask him to. He associates the scent of a particular dog treat with that incident, and still will not eat them. Other brands of dog treats he will hesitantly take, then carry them downstairs to eat in his crate.

Locked in the body

So why am I telling you all this? To illustrate how trauma gets locked in the body. It can happen in an instant, and once it’s there, it can stay deep inside, even after whatever originally caused the fear and anxiety is long gone.

Last year, I reviewed the book, The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. It provides an excellent explanation of the causes, effects and treatment of trauma. Essentially, when we feel in jeopardy and without any means of escape, our body goes into fight, flight or freeze mode. If this happens too often, or the experience is too severe, we can get stuck there.

Understanding trauma, the brain on PTSD, and real options for recovery, on

Our minds are very good at talking ourselves out of our experiences. In order to move past fearful or upsetting experiences, we explain, intellectualize, rationalize, or sometimes we just forget.

But when we experience trauma, our bodies remember. So if you ever feel panicked or fearful, and you don’t know why, maybe your body has been triggered by a long-ago trauma that you mind tried to bury.

Van der Kolk offers many suggestions for dealing with trauma in his book.

Another approach for recovery is Emotional Freedom Techniques “Tapping.” More and more research is finding that tapping is effective in breaking the connection between a memory and a fight, flight or freeze reaction.

Yes it looks silly, but scientific research shows EFT Tapping relieves anxiety, depression and PTSD, on

Working with Bo

My dog Bo, of course, does not intellectualize about his fear of the kitchen rug. He just feels the fear, and stays away from it. I can see it in his behavior.

So I’m trying to desensitize him. If Bo sits on the rug himself, I immediately reward him. Sometimes I sit on the rug, and when he comes near me, I pet and praise him.

Our dog is getting better. Luckily, this is not a critical issue, and we can all get along just fine, even if Bo doesn’t sit on the rug. But I feel bad that he’s fearful, so I’ll keep trying to help him to overcome it.

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