Apr 9 / Kerry Herbert MA

Trauma-informed care for damaged life; shifting paradigms in rescued dogs.

In this blog I will be considering a particular methodological approach to caring for damaged life that can bring about new levels of insight and care for vulnerable populations of dogs.

As an applied Anthrozoologist, my frontline and academic work sits within the context of scholarly activism. As such, I’ve entitled this blog ‘shifting paradigms in dog rescue’, and this is something that I very much advocate for. My research as an Anthrozoologist has always been focused on what happens when humans and dogs come together, and it has taken me to spaces where I can look at these transspecies encounters and comment on what I’ve found.
I have been looking at the case for why trauma can be a useful lens through which to care for dogs who have undergone emotional, physical, or ancestral trauma. I have been asking questions through this lens; considering why trauma, what is trauma and why does trauma matter?
I will also explore how taking a ‘whole-dog approach’ is better than thinking mechanistically about only medical needs or behaviour traits. And also, how these dovetail with literature on the importance of considering the individual animal and their subjective needs, in opposition to homogenous understandings about groups of animals based on a limited set of taxonomic characteristics (e.g. breed).
The whole-dog approach explicitly recognises that each animal is, first and foremost, an individual. In this blog, the whole-dog approach is juxta positioned with some of the attempts by industrial animal production systems to homogenise and therefore erase the idea that animals are individuals. The conflict between foregrounding individuals and acknowledging the oppressive systems from which they have emerged is a theme that requires regular critical thought and contemplation.
I will finish by thinking about a new paradigm for helping rescue dogs – ‘trauma-informed care’.
Like many, I started my own journey by volunteering for an adoption group and caring for dogs as they arrived at rescue centres. And like many, a chance meeting with a few individuals moved me to dedicate my work and my research to better serving them.
I discovered that many people who worked tirelessly to save, rehabilitate and re-home these dogs had very little real-life experiential knowledge about the environments that had birthed and then rejected them. And so, a big piece of the picture was missing.
I have had lots to say about rescuing dogs over the years and tried to highlight some of the challenges faced by both adopters and dogs. And I have also started to speak critically about normalizing the transition that these dogs are assumed to make when they are rescued.

I have used Snow and Benford’s ‘Collective action framing’ (Snow and Benford, 2000) to ask questions such as, ‘Is this a fair social life for these dogs?’ and ‘is it fair to expect greyhounds for example, to transition from a race dog to a companion dog?’

Through my research I have sought to reveal more of who dogs are, as opposed to what humans have made them become. 

Specifically, in trying to better understand the lives and experience of contemporary dogs I have been trying to make sense of:  

1. What I was seeing (oddly passive, generally quiet shutdown dogs)
2. What I was hearing (gentle sweet dogs, good with children, ideal therapy dogs)
3. What I could never know (the full embodied history of each dog)
4. What I wanted to know (more about the experiences of dogs who came to rescue)  

As I started to put these pieces together what has emerged is the intention to craft a more care-ful knowledge, in which each piece can be informed by the other, to reveal a fuller picture – or even a blueprint- of how to help these dogs.

Carol Adams (2018) describes traumatic knowledge or experience as:
 “...a painful knowledge—knowledge about everyday practices and everyday sufferings. Traumatic knowledge makes us feel the suffering of animals acutely. It feels relentless. It does not provide relief but intensifies our emotional connections to animals”.  

I’m sure many of us can relate to that.   So, thinking more about trauma as a concept; it can be useful to describe it in three ways.  

Examples of physical and emotional trauma are well documented, whereas ancestral trauma may be a new concept to some.

Physical traumas
may include injuries resulting from impact or collisions like RTAs, which may cause internal bleeding as well as external limb or tissue damage.  

Work to understand emotional trauma has derived from unethical and cruel laboratory experiments on animals such as the Harlow maternal deprivation experiments with monkeys which started in the 1950s, and Seligman’s in famous Shuttle Box experiments with dogs to understand how control of one’s environment impacts our actions.   In what can only be considered a cruel irony, both sets of experiments have laid the foundations for understanding than non-human animals are emotional beings and can experience emotional trauma.  

Ancestral trauma
is perhaps a new concept in relation to the experiences of dogs. It suggests that the past can influence the present in both physical and psychological ways. We know from research with humans who experience PTSD that the past can pervade the present in dark and frightening ways. Though curiously, PTSD remains a contested term for dogs, despite a growing body of research which suggests otherwise.    

Research from fields as diverse as neuroscience, cognitive ethology and anthropology have attested to the internal emotional lives of animals. And so, we must start from the premise that dogs are emotional beings. That they can feel sadness, joy, happiness, grief, anger, despair.  

Mark Bekoff writes prolifically on the lives of dogs and reminds us that canine emotional states are subjectively experienced by them. And that rather than look for human-centric ‘tick lists’ of internal states, we must measure other animals using their own yardsticks.   This perhaps points to some of the trouble we have in identifying emotional trauma – we can’t help but look at it through anthropocentric eyes.

Anthropologist Barbara King speaks about this in her work examining grief in other animals. She writes:

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of making universality a criterion for the existence of a phenomenon – by which I mean, we shouldn’t require every dog to grieve in order to believe that some dogs do.” King (2013; 29).

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp also believes that the cognitive consequences of the internal emotional states of animals vary from animal to animal.

So therefore, it’s not a case of asking if they feel, but more a case of thinking more thoroughly about what they may feel and crucially, how might they express this, and how we can better recognise what they are telling us.  

Emotional trauma may be so often missed in other species because we don’t understand how it is being expressed.  

Seligman’s pain-inducing shock experiments with dogs in the 1970s uncovered the significance of what he termed “uncontrollable traumatic events”.
This describes how dogs operantly learn that responding to external stimuli controls rewards and punishments. However, the same dog may cease responding if they have experience of inescapable and uncontrollable trauma. In his experiments, two thirds of dogs who have previously experienced uncontrollable shocks, did not try to escape the shocks, even when exit routes were offered, but instead gave up whining and howling and sat or lay down quietly.   Seligman termed this interference with adaptive responding to aversive events, ‘Learned helplessness’, as the dogs in his experiment seemed to give up and passively accept the shocks they were receiving.
In his 1972 chapter entitled ‘Learned Helplessness’, he wrote:|   “Not only do we face events that we can control by our actions, but we also face many events about which we can do nothing at all. Such uncontrollable events can sig­nificantly debilitate organisms: they produce passivity in the face of trauma, inability to learn that responding is effective, and emotional stress in ani­mals…” (p140).   

He suggested that there were 3 basic effects of uncontrollable trauma:  

Passivity in the face of trauma.
I am reminded here of haunting images I’ve seen of oddly calm looking, even catatonic, dogs in the meat trucks on the way to slaughterhouses in China.

Being slow to learn that their responses control trauma
. Here I am thinking of the propensity for former battery hens to ‘plant’ in their cages when offered the freedom of a grassy expanse.

Experiencing high levels of stress
. This is a more ambiguous measure and more challenging to detect. Though I guess it goes without saying that being unable to escape something which causes you pain or fear, would be an incredibly stressful experience.  

Traumatised dogs would adopt a passive position if presented with any attempts to engage them.   The case for ancestral trauma asks the question: Could trauma be stored in the genetics of the dogs alive today? Moreover, HOW is this trauma of ancestors stored genetically in the bodies and minds of living dogs?  

These are fledgling questions when it comes to understanding non-human animal experience. Yet they are inspired by Rachel Yehuda’s neurobiological work on human PTSD patients at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. She discovered that the children of Holocaust survivors who had PTSD were born with low cortisol levels like their parents, predisposing them to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation.

Mark Wolynn of the Family Constellation Institute has further explored what he terms ‘inherited family trauma’ or ‘transgenerational trauma’ which describes the fragments of trauma ‘sleeping inside’ individuals and that are too great to be resolved in one generation.

These are prickly issues, but if we consider this together with Seligman’s disturbing findings, we begin to ask ourselves; do we have a whole population of companion dogs who are ancestrally as well as, in some cases, physically and emotionally traumatized?  

Taking a whole-dog approach to helping dogs who have experienced trauma involves stepping outside of the mechanistic understandings of behaviour and criteria that often preoccupy trainers and behaviourists and thinking more globally about the forces which have acted on the lives of our companion dogs.  

It reminds us that we must really step back to see both the embodied experience and long-term consequences of trauma. And that we must couple this conscious knowledge of the systemic oppressive practices which have contributed to the life of the individual we have in front of us.

This is far from a simple process. It requires accepting that helping these dogs requires care packages, ways of thinking and speaking about these dogs, which fully reflect this.  

One practical way in which we can achieve a whole dog approach to helping traumatized dogs is to frame our support as ‘trauma-informed care’. Again, this is an established approach to working with humans who have experienced acute or complex traumas and is inspired by trauma theory, of which much is written.
For a helpful overview of trauma in humans, I would recommend ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bassel van del Kolk, which is on the reading list for this blog.  

Trauma-informed care places value on non-therapeutic environments as being spaces of potential healing and resilience. The three pillars model is derived from work with children who have experienced complex trauma (see for example, Bath, 2008; 18). 
It is also reminiscent of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which reflects the diversity of humans needs.  

Back to dogs now, one of the greatest challenges that many dogs face in companion homes is managing their arousal to stimuli. Therefore, in companion homes, rescue dogs are often hypervigilant and deeply sensitive to environmental stimuli. They may constantly scan the horizon for signs of danger and their reactions to these things may be on a hair trigger. Or they may suppress behaviours relating to their emotional states to passively cope with the things they find overwhelming.

Suppressed or inhibited dogs can be of great concern, since they may not give overt signs of their distress, pain or anxiety and thus, important clues to their inner emotional states may be missed.  

Utilising the three pillars approach would involve a fusion of cognitive knowledge and embodied empathy approaches, to care for traumatized rescue dogs with conscious attention to what they may need in addition to what they have been through.

I have adapted the language here to reflect that which may resonate with caregivers of dogs.  

The first pillar will be safety. This can be as simple as removal from a potentially life-threatening situation (e.g., serious injury after a RTA) or may refer to the holistic assessment of a traumatized dog to understand what they need in order to be safe.

The second pillar relates to the relationships and connections that traumatized dogs can build with others; this may be with humans, conspecifics, or other animals. We must remember that, like humans, dogs are a social species, with highly complex and nuanced relationships with others. We must satiate this need for traumatized dogs to build relationships with others, without forcing them to ‘be social’ in a home too quickly.  

And the third pillar, relates more to the efforts to support recovery and resilience-building, as it pays attention to the support a dog would need to process and work through their current and former traumas.

In language that most dog trainers and behaviourists understand, this may include a programme of gradual desensitization and counter conditioning to environmental stimuli. It can also mean taking positive action around the emotional setpoint of any dog at any current time.  

I would like to come back full circle and propose a new paradigm for supporting rescue dogs. I would also like to end by posing some questions that I would like you to contemplate, since the design of trauma-informed care packages involves what we say as much as what we do.   Namely, I’d like to ask:  

  • How can we practically craft more comfortable narratives to help traumatized dogs?
  • How can we communicate the needs of traumatized dogs to an adoptive public who are heavily emotionally invested in saving dogs’ lives?
  • How can we create care regimes which pay conscious attention to keeping traumatized populations of dogs safe and connected so that they can begin to heal and ask new questions of the world?  

So, I’ll leave these with you and look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas around how trauma-informed care can work for the dogs whom you support.


Adams, C. (2018). Traumatic Knowledge and Animal Exploitation Part 1: What is it? Available from: https://caroljadams.com/carol-adams-blog/traumatic-knowledge Accessed 08 August 2020 Accessed 15 August 2020


Bath, H. (2008). The Three Pillars of Trauma-Informed Care. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17 (3), pp 17-21


Benford, R. D. and Snow, D. A. (2000). ‘Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment’. Annual Review Sociology Vol 26, pp 611 – 639.


King, B. J. (2013). How Animals Grieve. US: University of Chicago Press.


Seligman, M. (1972). Learned Helplessness. Ann. Rev. Med, 23, pp 407-412.



Suggested reading


Bath, H. (2008). The Three Pillars of Trauma-Informed Care. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17 (3), pp 17-21 Available from: https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/cxl/backup/prod/cxl/gklugiewicz/media/507188fa-30b7-8fd4-aa5f-ca6bb629a442.pdf


Bath, H. (2015). The Three Pillars of TraumaWise care: Healing in the Other 23 Hours. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 23 (4), pp 5-11 Available from: https://www.traumebevisst.no/kompetanseutvikling/filer/23_4_Bath3pillars.pdf


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