Are you one of them? Is your dog?
Until recently, I didn't fully realize that our challenges, conflicts, and life troubles are often connected to trauma and our response to it.
The evolutionary purpose of our body’s response to trauma was to help protect us from danger. So we needed to remember that tigers are dangerous and that falling off a cliff would have fatal consequences.
But as time progressed and our lives changed, these neurobiological responses and pathways have not caught up with our rapidly changing lives, and we are in serious need of an adjustment. We are overdue for a shift that will make our lives and the lives of our canine friends much better.
If life were a highway, it would have three lanes
The centre lane would be just the right speed, everything is under control, and life is good.
The left lane would be the fast lane; everything is scary, dangerous, and unpredictable. Life in the left lane feels unsafe, and unless drivers react quickly, they could get into an accident and die within a split second.
And then there is the right lane which is nice and slow, seemingly without any problems, but it is occupied mainly by large semi-trucks, the giants who can cause the most damage to your car if you get hit by them, or there is a pile-up.
We all wish our lives were lived only in the centre lane, the lane of comfort, but that's not realistic. Unfortunately, when life becomes stressful and traumatic, some people's bodies react with a fight or flight response, which causes them to fly off the handle, lose their temper, experience road rage, or argue with those they care about.
Many people are unaware that such a reaction results from the fight or flight response bypassing the brain's frontal lobe, the rational part, and triggering the more primitive reptilian brain, which generates an impulsive reaction. This reaction is challenging and sometimes impossible to control.
Experts call this a state of hyper-arousal. It is the state responsible for reactions like slamming a door or saying and doing something regretful when you’re arguing with someone.
This response is also quite typical in dogs. The fight or flight response is the body's first line of defence when faced with danger.
Living in a state of hyper-arousal, “the fast lane,” is a stressful state of being, and eventually, the mind and body can no longer sustain it.
This is when an individual can fall into a state of hypo-arousal, where depression, loneliness, addictions, and even suicidal tendencies can manifest. This is the equivalent of being in the slower right lane, full of semi-trucks.
In some cases, when the trauma has been particularly severe, a trauma victim can bypass the hyper-arousal state. The consequences of such trauma are potentially more dangerous because they can be hidden and go unnoticed for a long time.
A simple example of the hypo-arousal state is a beetle playing dead when there is nowhere to escape. I have observed this behaviour in geckos when I’ve tried to catch them. At first, they attempt to run away, but they stop and remain frozen once they realize there is no escape.
A person in a state of hypo-arousal is often uninterested in being around others. In the case of dogs, they would be timid, hide, and show signs of fear.
They behave this way because they are under the spell of neuropathways created by trauma.
Instead of giving you some imaginary theoretical examples, I would like to share some real examples from my own life and Pax's life.
When I was 11 years old, I began riding horses, and one day my mother decided that she also wanted to learn how to ride. It was a beautiful sunny spring day, and we were in a big grassy field where the horse trainer was giving my mother her first lesson.
I am unsure whether the horse got spooked or just wanted to buck my mother off, but I can vividly recall seeing my mother fly up in the air and land on her back. She was lying there, not moving, and her blue-green eyes were wide open as if she were dead.
I can't remember the ambulance or the doctors, but I remember walking home alone carrying my mom's clothes and her pink high-heeled shoes. I have no idea why the trainer sent me home alone; perhaps he was also in shock?
My mother had suffered a severe skull fracture and brain trauma, and it took three days for her to wake up from her coma. When she regained consciousness, she had symptoms of double vision, severe vertigo, and she needed to touch walls with her fingers to walk straight.
She went through severe trauma, and our whole family was also traumatized.
I didn't understand that experiencing this trauma at a young age had created a neurological pathway in my brain that made me repeatedly upset. I only realised what was happening during a recent video call with my partner, who was lying on his back with his eyes open. I would always feel agitated when he did this, but I didn't really think about why. I now realise that it triggered the old trauma of witnessing my mother's injury and seeing her lying on her back with her eyes open, not moving.
A more trivial but also uncomfortable trigger I have is about losing things.
When I was young, I used to misplace my keys, and my father thought it was very funny. He would often crack jokes when I could not find my keys or my wallet, and as time progressed, it became a family joke.
My brother and sister would often chime in, and the more they laughed, the more upset I got about losing things.
I used to get very anxious when I couldn't find my keys, wallet, or phone, but now that I understand and have more awareness about the source of my peculiar reactions, I can take it lightly when I misplace things and even laugh instead of getting upset.
Dogs and Trauma
When it comes to trauma response, dogs are similar to people. Here is one example of how trauma can manifest in the lives of dogs.
When we adopted Pax, he was a happy, self-assured puppy. He was loved and frequently cuddled by his "original mom," Nella, and always in the company of his siblings, mom, and uncle — whose name is also Pax. (We chose Pax's name before we knew.)
After we brought our puppy Pax home, things went quite smoothly. He was happy in his crate, which he spent time in even when it was open.
He was also fine when we started leaving him home alone for short periods, but things changed after one occasion when we were travelling and we went out to the theatre. We left Pax alone in the crate for a couple of hours at an AirBnB apartment we were staying in, and it did not go well for Pax.
When we got back, the soft shell crate had been all ripped up, and from that time, Pax didn't want to have anything to do with it. It took a year and a half to reset his experience of trauma and separation anxiety.
His fight or flight neuropathway was connected to being alone, and it took patience and understanding for him to feel comfortable enough to be left behind.
Thoughts on dog aggression
One of the most significant problems in the canine world is dog anxiety and aggression. I have witnessed countless situations where dogs react while they are on a leash, but they are fine when they are off-leash.
In nature, dogs would be free to sniff each other and say a proper "Hello," but the current bylaws of leashing dogs most of the time have removed their ability to do what they would naturally do.
After spending more than three decades working with dogs, I am convinced that most dogs that act up while on leash would be completely fine if they simply dropped the leash and allowed their dogs to sniff and greet other dogs.
Instead, they are restricted, which causes them to act up and triggers a stress response in their guardians. I have seen many people yelling and screaming out of fear, which signals danger to their dogs, who react even more.
Over time, the trauma loop becomes very ingrained and it’s hard to break this vicious circle that no one deserves to be blamed for.
Unfortunately, this is how we are wired, but it doesn't mean that there is no solution.
We can now be more aware of our responses and fears; we can also allow safe socializing from an early age to prevent aggression and anxiety.
This is the main reason why I am so vehemently opposed to keeping young puppies away from other dogs. So, if you would like to learn how to socialize your puppy from an early age safely, click here.
Breaking the spell of trauma
Understanding how the brain responds to trauma allows us to bring awareness to the process. We can learn to catch ourselves before we move into the lanes of discomfort where we wind up getting upset or falling into feeling low.
I find it rather hard to write about trauma in 2022, as we all have been traumatized by the pandemic and now the terrible situation in Ukraine, but I believe this is also the right time to open this discussion.
Knowing how trauma works is essential, especially during these difficult times. While I tried to provide clear examples, some people go through much more severe and indescribable suffering, and we must be prepared to help.
The first step is to start with ourselves — to take notice of instances where we react and determine why because when we get better, we can help our dogs and others more effectively.
People often judge others for their behaviour because on the outside it appears illogical or even “crazy.” They are unaware that emotional reactions, outbursts, social withdrawal, and depression often originate in trauma.
Understanding the effects of trauma helps us learn to be kinder to ourselves, our dogs, and other people. It allows us to understand that reactions and emotions are often rooted in trauma and that they are not "our essence."
It gives us hope for a better future.❤️