Dogs of Disaster

Swiss rescue workers (human and dog) wait for flight to Japan, where they’ll help find trapped people, bodies and perhaps other animals. Telegraph UK.

Thinking of the unfurling devastation in Japan, I came across a blog post on PTSD* in canine survivors of environmental catastrophe and war. The author, James Crosby is a retired Police Lieutenant, former Animal Control Division Manager and professional dog trainer in Jacksonville, Florida. I think he sums up many of the challenges quite well. He writes:

Although the literature is less definitive about the presence of PTSD in companion animals, the dogs that I observed on the streets after Hurricane Katrina exhibited symptoms that seemed to be a canine analog of human PTSD. These animals were depressed, lacking in normal affect, startled easily, agitated, and shy of human contact. More importantly, some of these animals exhibited generalized aggression.

An aggressive response in such stressed animals is not surprising, nor unobserved outside disaster situations. Many dogs, especially those who are under- or un-socialized, default to an aggressive display when frightened or exposed to a novel situation. The destruction of homes and evacuation, even death, of the human population of New Orleans was certainly frightening and novel, even to the best socialized of pets.

What did this mean for the dogs of Katrina? In my case, I set up a quiet treatment area, apart from the hustle of the rescue operations. The dogs got personal attention, most often after I built a working relationship through the use of non-verbal communication signals (body language is the basis for about 95% of inter-canine communication – NOT “whispering”, ESP, or other nonsense!) and let the dogs know they were once again safe. They were then introduced to other friendly, non-threatening humans and gradually returned to a ‘normal’ environment.

Did this ‘cure’ the dogs? Absolutely not. Many of these animals have had lasting effects, physical and behavioral. Some, such as Winnie (my Katrina Pit Bull rescue), still show fear during storms. Some have shown varying degrees of suspicion and aggression towards humans. Some have recovered exceptionally well.

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*Just a note: While the diagnosis of PTSD is an act of human categorization (and a product of very particular socio-historical context that made conceiving of PTSD as an ailment possible), I believe strongly (along with many behaviorists, psychologists and others) that dogs who suffer traumas can develop lasting effects that interfere with their abilities to lead normal, doggish lives. Such a thing is a working definition of mental illness–not simply an anthropomorphic projection onto nonhumans.

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