[Trigger warnings: abuse, hostage-taking, kidnapping, threats of violence]
I recently met a gentleman who, upon learning I worked with animals, stated “I don’t know how you feel about this, but I demand my dog do whatever I ask him to do, immediately when I ask, and I have no problem hitting my dog.” He also was quick to tell me his dog loved him and they had a great relationship.
I later learned his dog is 14 years old. Well, no dog should be treated that way, but older dogs deserve additional patience and understanding as dementia and arthritic pain set in. Older dogs don’t have the ability to respond as quickly due to age, and punishment is never the answer.
When he mentioned the dog loved him, the first thought I had was about a boy who was abducted from a nearby town. His abductor routinely beat this boy, assaulted him and even tied him up, locked in a room when he went to work. Thankfully many years later the boy, now a young man, was rescued. During the police interview some interesting facts surfaced. A few months after the boy was abducted, he was allowed to walk to the local convenience store to buy snacks and visit with friends. Here is the interesting part. The boy could have asked for help, called the police or even told people his real name, and he would have been rescued immediately. But instead, he always returned back to the abuser’s apartment. This young man was experiencing Stockholm syndrome.
What does this young man have to do with the dog mentioned above? Dogs can and do experience Stockholm syndrome, and the dog I mentioned above could be experiencing it as well.
First, we should understand what Stockholm syndrome is. Stockholm syndrome refers to a situation in which hostages develop a psychological bond with their captors. It is a result of a rather specific set of circumstances, namely the power imbalances contained in hostage-taking, kidnapping, and abusive relationships. In dogs we often see this response in abusive relationships and/or cases of neglect.
This ‘bond’ is a response to fearing for your life. You do not need to experience constant abuse in order to give up trying to fight or flee. The random threats of violence are enough to keep victims from escaping; it draws on survival instincts. There is an emotional response leaving the victims to feel that they cannot escape, even when given the opportunity.
Dogs subjected to repeated acts of abuse by their humans can also be affected. Dogs are hypervigilant and extra sensitive to anything they perceive as a threat to their safety. They are also not able to defend themselves in most cases and are unable to leave the abusive relationship (our pets are captive animals).
Preventing Emotional Trauma in Pets
Pet parents should at all costs avoid putting their dogs in situations where their dogs could be subjected to treatment that may result in developing Stockholm syndrome or any other emotional trauma. This attentiveness includes being aware of interactions your dog is experiencing while with you and when you are not present, including when others are caring for your dog. Extra vetting of dog sitters, dog walkers, daycares, groomers, and anyone else who cares for your dog, is essential.
Trainers, please take some time to learn about emotional trauma and how it can affect the pets you work with. This knowledge will allow you a better understanding of behavior issues and how to help these pets.
Rebuilding the Relationship
If you live with, or work with a dog who has emotional trauma, ALL force-based interactions, and training tools, must be stopped immediately. I also recommend a vacation from all training, even force-free training, while the dog heals.
Instead focus on rebuilding the relationship. Play is very healing, so I recommend increasing play sessions and enrichment. Walks and other outings to enjoyable locations are also beneficial. Kindness and compassion towards dogs go a long way in helping them become comfortable and happy. Of course, this all takes time. We cannot determine how much time this mending will take since each individual situation is different and every animal needs to heal at their own pace.
You may be wondering how the conversation ended with the man. After much discussion I helped him understand our relationships with our dogs are very special and can be fragile.
The only thing our dogs have is us, and we should do our best to give them the best lives possible.
I received a note from the man a couple days later, thanking me and assuring me he is putting my suggestions into practice.
About the Author
Judy Luther is a behavior consultant based in Branson, Missouri providing virtual training and behavior consultations with an international client based. She also teaches online training courses for pet professionals and pet parents. Her courses can be found at www.UnderstandingDogs.us .