How Traumatic Is it for a Dog to Change Owners?

If you’ve ever owned a pet dog, then there are some things you probably remember about them. Your own personal experience with your dog may have been brief and relatively uneventful maybe they were just the best companion in the world, or perhaps you took them everywhere because they made you feel safe.


However, even if those experiences seem like nothing more than pleasant memories now, chances are good that one day you might look back on them fondly as well. After all, dogs are pretty remarkable creatures, and we humans aren’t always so amazing either.


Dogs can recognize their families by smell, and they can anticipate our needs and actions without being told specifically how to do so. They’re loyal and loving, and they give unconditional love back.


But what happens when your dog grows up? What happens when your new family goes through changes such as getting married, having children or moving across country? How does your furry pal respond when he realizes that he no longer has his original family around him to care for him?


And what would happen if something catastrophic happened to your old family, leaving your beloved dog alone while everyone else moved on? In short, what kind of trauma could this kind of situation cause in a dog?


First off, let’s talk about what actually causes psychological trauma in animals. There isn’t really any hard evidence that animals can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many vets believe that some dogs deal with similar feelings after experiencing certain types of events. For example, some experts say that the loss of a loved one or animal friend can lead to PTSD in dogs, especially young ones who haven’t yet experienced life.


Losses can also be caused by natural disasters, such as floods, fires and earthquakes, which usually affect entire neighborhoods rather than individual pets. If a large fire occurs nearby, some pets may not escape unscathed, but the fact that the event itself wasn’t targeted directly toward them could make them less likely to develop PTSD than other animals.


The same holds true for a car accident or other type of injury, where the damage was done to someone else. While these sorts of losses don’t necessarily equate to actual trauma, they can still cause serious problems for a pet.

Of course, not every problem can be tied directly to a traumatic event, either. Even seemingly minor situations in life can cause anxiety and fear in dogs. Some common examples include:


The Experience of Being Trapped


Some dogs get trapped accidentally, whether by fences or gates or doors left open. This can be particularly frightening for small breeds, who often need help escaping. Getting stuck inside a house can also be scary, and depending upon the circumstances, it could mean death.


A frightened or injured dog can become trapped behind heavy furniture, or even under water during a flood. Any time a dog becomes separated from its owner and finds itself in unfamiliar territory, it could be considered trapped.


A sudden separation from the family unit can create a lot of confusion. Most dogs are used to living within a familiar environment and routine, and once that routine is interrupted, they can be scared witless. Dogs tend to avoid contact with strangers whenever possible, and a stranger suddenly appearing out of the blue can cause significant anxiety. Separation from family members is stressful enough for most dogs, but the combination of both factors can be deadly.


A dog doesn’t immediately know why it’s afraid of something, but sometimes it takes repeated exposure to something unpleasant over several days until the dog begins to associate that thing with danger. Once this happens, the dog will begin to show signs of stress, including pacing, trembling, yawning, salivating, lip licking, urinating and defecating excessively, avoiding eye contact and hiding. These symptoms usually start to subside eventually, although some dogs never fully recover from the experience.


Dealing With Change at an Age When It’s Hardest


For some dogs, losing their families or homes can be devastating. As much as we may want to protect our pets, they’re still individuals with their own personalities and histories. Just like us, they want stability and familiarity. We want to keep them happy, healthy and safe. Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to shield them from harm, they’re going to encounter lots of different things throughout their lives.


It’s important to teach your dog coping skills early on so that it learns to handle changes better. One way to accomplish this is to practice positive reinforcement methods, which means rewarding desirable behavior instead of punishing undesirable behavior.


By doing this, you should soon see your dog making progress. You might also try using distraction techniques to calm your dog down during potentially stressful times, such as walking into a strange neighborhood.


Other ways to prepare your dog for the inevitable changes that come along with owning a pet include learning about your local laws regarding animal control, spaying and neutering, microchipping, vaccination and licensing requirements. Make sure you understand your county’s leash law, and learn how to properly use leashes.


Also, take your pet to obedience classes to improve your command of basic obedience training. Finally, spend quality time with your dog. Many studies have shown that frequent interaction with your pet reduces aggressive behaviors.


In addition to preparing your dog mentally for upcoming challenges, consider taking it to a professional trainer to help ensure that it adapts well to the changes. Ideally, this person will work with your whole family, and help you figure out how to interact with your pet in ways that promote harmony and happiness. He or she can also provide support for you if your dog develops behavioral issues related to trauma.


Final Thought


Whether your dog suffers from PTSD or simply struggles with adapting to changes, it’s important to note that most domestic animals are resilient. Although they can’t speak for themselves, the majority of them manage to overcome the hurdles that life throws at them, and they go on to live long happy lives.


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