Anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder knows in both an intellectually abstract and a very tangible real-world way what its effects are. We know their fancy clinical names and, more intimately, the way they affect us personally, our bodies, our sense of self-worth and well-being, and the lives of those closest to us. Cool your boots, I’m not going to be quoting the DSM V, but let’s go over a few of the most easily recognisable highlights from the point of view of an outside observer:
- To constantly be on the lookout for danger, and it’s exhausting.
- Exaggerated Startle Response
- I had a shrink do an evaluation of me once for worker’s compensation, and he banged the flat of his hand on his desk to see what I would do. Fucking prick.
- Avoidance Behaviour
- Generally, this is avoidance of places, people, or really anything that reminds someone of the traumas they experienced, and can be an entirely subconscious thing or a mix. For me, that meant pretty much the entire planet outside of the 500sq feet of my apartment for many years.
For the purposes of this particular tome-of-wisdom, I’m sticking to these, because most of the other physical, emotional, and intellectual effects, and those used as diagnostic criteria, require a back and forth with the patient. Though we can often extrapolate from observation, to know for sure if they exist you need to be able to ask questions and interpret the answers. This is hard to do when your patient is a dog.
Back in June of 2016, a small band of caring rescuers stopped a truck on its way to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China. In the back were small chicken cages stuffed with dogs of all shapes and sizes, the cages narrow, low, and stacked to maximise the number of animals the truck could carry. They were to be slaughtered and cooked, under the most extreme and stressful conditions possible because ostensibly that made the meat taste better. Dog meat is good for the libido, dontchaknow, like bear gallbladder or horse dick (seriously, there are restaurants in Beijing that serve horse penis). Negotiations were made after some harsh words shared, and the dogs were removed.
Of course, not all of them survived. Some had untreatable injuries, canine distemper and parvovirus were rampant as were parasites and festering wounds, and, I tend to think though nobody has ever suggested this to me, some just didn’t want to live anymore. In one of these cages was a little black dog with a bright white flash on his chest and the deepest cafe au lait amber-brown eyes you’ve ever seen. His hind legs had been wrapped with wire so tightly that the left one had been crushed and the right hip joint damaged.
He melted hearts.
The rescue organisation that took this little guy in, really just a few foreigners with caring hearts that were living and working in China, called him Eleven. I believe that was because giving them numbers instead of names would be easier for the humans. It wasn’t, and that policy has since changed. After a good deal of time in hospital, then with foster parents and unsuccessful attempts to adopt him out over there, Eleven found himself with a small group of others on a plane headed for Canada, where a wonderful place called Carter’s Forever Rescue in Bracebridge, Ontario had agreed to take them. His last foster dad, who had delivered him to the airport in Shanghai, wept openly in the terminal when he was wheeled away.
He arrived here on the 26th of May, 2017, and came home with me on the 10th of June, just two weeks later. I’d seen a post on Facebook detailing a bit of his story and exclaimed, “He’s just like me only better looking!” And then, “We need each other.” A good friend saw this and stepped up to offer me a deal: If I took him in and cared for him, she would cover any costs, initial and ongoing. I agreed, but not without some serious soul-searching first. Most of the time I could barely take care of myself, so the thought of another being to care for was a bit scary.
His one back leg was now useless, sort of stuck in a very awkward bent-up pose and often getting in the way. He would tuck it up into the crack of his bum when running to keep it from bouncing around, and it made him unable to lay down in the way dogs most often like to. There must’ve been lots of chronic pain as well, but because he never complained I only realised this after we’d had the leg removed, a bit over a month later, and once healed up he was free to be a dog again without it.
A dog with post-traumatic stress disorder.
I didn’t catch onto this right away, but it didn’t really take long to see it. I suspect many wouldn’t at all, would pass off his odd behaviour as just his unique doggo personality, but I’ve got a bit of an inside scoop on this stuff so it did click eventually.
- On walks, he has this often annoying habit of constantly looking around and stopping to stare intently at people or passing cars, close by or in the distance, and sometimes at things I can’t even see. His head is almost constantly on a swivel, and anyone with this injury knows what that’s like.
- Exaggerated Startle Response
- Car doors seem to really get him, but any loud noise can do it. The other day, snow falling from the top of a water tower down the end of our street made him jump. His eyes get wide, his tail droops, he looks around; A few times I saw him shaking. There’s a drastic difference between a regular startle and this, and I can see it in him.
- Avoidance Behaviour
- His foster dad in Shanghai told me that getting him into a car was a struggle and that he’d always get sick when he was on a ride. It’s easy to assume this was simply motion sickness, but on those rides he was always in the foot-well, a cramped, tight little spot (cages?). Though he doesn’t get sick so much when he can sit up and look around, it is still a struggle to get him into a car. Also, he seems deathly afraid of dark stairwells, wheelchairs/walkers/mobility scooters, squeaky toys, tennis balls, senior citizens, and, sometimes, rain.
Now, before you begin picturing this cartoon-like, shaky-shivery, wide-eyed neurotic little dog, or worse, one with fear-inspired aggression problems, think about one of the people you know who have post-traumatic stress disorder. I am almost certain you know at least one even if you don’t think you do, and this should pose the question that if a person’s basic personality and character don’t change because of this injury, enough so that you may not have realised there was anything wrong with them, why should a dog’s? This little guy is calm, almost zen-like most of the time when he feels safe, and people in our old neighbourhood began calling him “the happiest dog in the world.” There’s not an alpha or aggressive bone in his body, and if there was it was in his left hind leg. He’s curious about people and other dogs, loves to play and snuggle, and is smart enough to occasionally be subtly obstinate in ways that have nothing to do with PTSD.
In effect he really is just like me, only better looking.
Of course, in all the history of dogs, and PTSD, I was positive I was the first person to ever even consider the potential possibility that they could develop this disorder from a traumatic episode, because, you know, I’m smart and stuff. Google, not for the first time, put me in my place:
Someone once told me they didn’t believe dogs could miss their humans when they were apart. Whether she said this to assuage any guilt she had over considering giving her dog away (which she did a few weeks later) or she actually believed that steaming pile of crap, I don’t know, but I’m leaning toward the latter. There’s a stigma in our society around anthropomorphising animals in general, and dogs in particular. I’ve never understood why. They are self-aware mammals just like we are, and though they can’t speak the way we do, and haven’t developed the complex, often convoluted and confusing methods of expression that we have (because, apparently, we’re smart and stuff), doesn’t mean their emotions are any different from ours. When your pup lays down next to you, sets their head in your lap and looks into your eyes, you know it’s love.
Cognitive behaviour therapy probably would be tough to do with a dog. Peer support, surprisingly, maybe not so much. The rescue in Bracebridge takes in dogs from China regularly for adoption here in Canada, dogs with similar experiences, and since we now live a few hours closer than we did when Rix came home with me, a visit is not out of the question. In the meantime, understanding and adapting to some of his behaviours is helping me make his life happier and more fulfilling, as he is with mine. I feed him and protect him and skritch him between the ears so his stump starts twitching and his eyes half close, and he makes sure I go out into the world at least three times a day.
His name now is Rix Rocket. Rix for a man who died as a result of injuries he received while working as a paramedic because both he and this little dog inspire me, and Rocket, which came later, because of how he took off like one once he’d healed from the amputation surgery.
I suspect we’ll have great adventures, me and my little black three-legged dog. Though, for two injured souls like us, that could mean nothing more than a walk to the park at the edge of the bay to watch the sun come up.
And that’s okay.
Though the veterinary surgeon offered a very hefty discount, the procedure was still expensive. I reached out to my friends around the world to help by donating to Carter’s Forever Rescue to cover this cost, and they really stepped up. But the work doesn’t ever end, so if this moved you at least a little, consider helping these folks continue the work they do so other dogs can be saved and given happy forever homes like Rix.
- Denise Velati, the young woman who, while working as a teacher in China, saves dogs like a superhero in her spare time. There are always vet and shelter fees to pay.
- Carter’s Forever Rescue & Sanctuary, who continue to bring in rescued dogs from China and other places as well as those right here in need of new loving homes.