Unit Eight: Resilience & Rehabilitation of Traumatized Animals
Animals have natural resilience -- the ability to adjust, to be adaptable, and to bounce back from adversity. But that natural resilience can be interrupted by trauma. Just like in humans, some animals can experience the ongoing effects of significant trauma and can get "locked-down" or shut down into the trauma cycle where even the smallest triggers, such as noise or motion can trigger the full "freeze, fight or flee" trauma response. It is like having an alarm bell going off in the brain that can't reset easily to a sense of normal safety. Being able to reset easily is what allows the body and brain to recover.
Often animals in a shelter or rescue environment have experienced varying degrees of trauma. Perhaps they came from adverse circumstances, or even from the trauma of owner surrender, which leaves them shaking, avoiding human contact, or the appearance of aggressive attempts to keep people or other dogs away.
In my experience with working with thousands of dogs in shelters with varying degrees of trauma, about 80% can make a full recovery, and 95% can make a significant recovery that would allow them to be adopted and have a high-quality of life.
But it takes time. And finesse in terms of how you interact with these animals. Some just need time to decompress and adjust, and they begin to do their own journey of letting go of the past and finding some peace in the present.
Others need specific interventions. In an ideal world, a traumatized animal would be able to leave the shelter environment, which can be very stressful, and go to a loving foster or forever home. It can be hard to help traumatized animals "reset" if they are being constantly triggered by urgent barking, interruptions, and having their will overpowered by the routines of shelter life.
In situations where leaving the shelter, or the main kennel environment is not possible, much can be done to help traumatized dogs and cats regain a sense of confidence, safety, and trust in the human race. This involves helping them to "down-shift" their nervous systems so that they can adjust to their present situation. If an animal can re-learn how to lower their "trigger response" they can begin to heal themselves over time.
As humans, we can help them do this. There are many ways to help them soothe and build a storehouse of resilience. I call it refilling their resilience tank, which for a traumatized animal is often near empty, so they have very few internal resources to draw from.
I personally use a variety of methods; soothing touch, Reiki, but by far my favorite, and I consider most effective is called The Trust Technique. I am a Certified Trust Technique Practitioner, and I use it every day with my work with animals.
This is a method of meeting an animal where they are. Of not trying to impose new behavior on them or trying to move them any faster than they are ready to go. We start by building a connection. Without a connection, nothing is possible. A connection is a relationship based on safety. This connection is like a lifeline that helps the animal to reduce fear, and helps them to regain and restore an invaluable sense of Trust. This takes time, of course, but The Trust Technique allows this to happen fairly quickly.
Once we can help an animal to relax into a deeper state, they can start to let go of the memories and perceptions they are carrying that are causing them to feel anxious and afraid. We will see them start to yawn, get sleepy, and twitch as literally their "muscle memory" begins to unravel.
Once we can build up their "relaxation response" it begins to counteract the automatic trauma response. The animal starts to refill their natural resilience tank with "good" energy. Now they have a foundation to support themselves and the noises and other events around them are noticed, but are not instant triggers sending them backward. When their resilience tank begins to fill, their natural healing instincts and impulses begin to surface. They start to look at a human as a source of comfort and support, instead of a threat, because a human has shown them they can let go.
I have several blogs on this site (see links below) that outline in step-by-step detail how I approached dogs that were severely frightened, too frightened to be candidates for adoption. Ninety-percent of these dogs that I had the privilege of working with, in this method, were adopted and went on to live happy, healthy lives and enriched the family that they joined.
In a shelter environment, it takes a village to help a severely shy dog to heal and I am grateful to the devoted volunteers, Behavior Team, and staff at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona for all that they do every day.
These dogs who heal mentally and emotionally, change before our eyes. They go from cowering or barking incessantly to being cuddly and seeking human connection. They inspire me. They remind me that we are not at the mercy of our past, of our pain, of our trauma. Trauma can be unwound in people as well as in animals with the right methods. I have worked with over 4,000 Service Members, Veterans, and Health Care Providers using a method that I created called The Act Resilient Method. My book is available on Amazon. For this work, I was given President Obama's Volunteer Service Award.
In the Human-Animal Connection we use these principles to help humans and animals heal each other. Animals can be role models of restoring resilience because they don't have "stories in their heads" that make it more challenging to let go. They can teach us so much about the power of love and being present in the moment to help us heal.
I wish you the very best in your personal healing journey and the journey of helping other animals to have a life filled with simple joy and enthusiasm for life!
Bolt had bitten several people at the shelter because he was so frightened. Read his story in our Blog, "A Bolt of Inspiration."
Bo had very little chance of being adopted because of his history. Read his story "Bo's Second Chance at Love."
Read "Smitty The Pitty Overcomes Fear." Pit Bulls are some of the most resilient animals and always amaze me in their ability to transform.
At first, you couldn't get near Louie, and he wouldn't make eye contact. One of the first things I teach is eye-contact because it increases a dog's chances of connecting to the heart of a potential adopter.
It was a joyous day for staff and volunteers would this cuddly, FeLV positive cat named Cricket got adopted by a loving lady.
Scout, an owner surrender couldn't stop shaking when he first arrived. But he quickly became a cuddle master and everyone loved him.
Available on Amazon. Click the book to connect.
Sometimes the personality that the dog shows in the shelter is very different from their true personality. This can often mean that great dogs are overlooked. This was the case with Big Red who was considered to have energy levels that were too high for most adopters. But when he was with people who bonded with him, he was a typical one-year-old, and very calm. Read the blog about Big Red. Watch this video to see how well he did at a visit to a mall.
The Human-Animal Connection BLOG Lectures for Unit Eight:
The Trust Technique
If you are enrolled in this class here are your
1. Read this Unit Overview
2. Read Two (or more) Unit Blog Posts
3. Answer the JOURNAL Questions Assignment
4. Take the Quiz (if you are doing for credit)
5. Then Proceed to the next unit:
THE UNIT NINE LECTURE
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Human-Animal Connection website