Many people have heard the term bunkering as it relates to people with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Going to the bunker” is often associated with PTSD related to the military or other high-stress service jobs.
Dogs can feel the same stress levels that we experience as humans. Rescue dogs are more prone to experiencing PTSD due to the chaotic nature of their lives.
This “going to the bunker” behaviour and seeking protective isolation is extremely common. Particularly with dogs that have suffered a trauma or have had little to no contact with humans.
Fortunately, rehabilitation is possible for your rescue dogs with PTSD. With some time, patience and lots of love, you can help bring out your dog’s true personality and help them discover their true potential!
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a severe anxiety disorder developed after experiencing an extremely traumatic event. PTSD is common among dogs who an owner has abused, have lived in dog shelters, or even been hurt by another dog.
Many other events can trigger PTSD in dogs. Lack of exposure to certain people, sounds or smells can also cause a dog to become very fearful.
Working with many Greyhound rescues while living in Calgary, I witness this time and time again. After varying lengths of time spent racing, greyhounds, coming off the track, had never lived in a home. Everything was foreign to them. Foreign was frightening.
Many greyhounds had never seen a flight of stairs, a sliding glass door or heard a toilet flush. The sights, sounds and smells of family life were overwhelming for them, and the first thing they did was try to find a way to block all these stimuli.
What are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?
The symptoms of canine PTSD are pretty similar to those that humans experience. They consist of: chronic anxiety; hypervigilance; avoidance of certain people, places, or situations; sleep disturbances; fear of being alone; decreased interest in a favourite activity, or aggression.
You might not see any of these symptoms in your dog until they come across a particular trigger. This trigger essentially reminds them of the adverse event, thus stirring up PTSD symptoms. Triggers are something to be aware of if you have a rescue dog and are unsure about its history.
Rescue dogs with PTSD who join foster homes or adoptive families may try to take up safe residence in a closet, small room and maybe even a bathtub. While a degree of protective isolation is somewhat necessary to begin a new and often very frightening chapter, it can close them off and limit their ability to move forward. This bunkering behaviour can become habitual very quickly and can create other, quite serious challenges. It is not uncommon for the “bunker” to become a place to protect and guard against perceived threats and intrusions. Some dogs become so dependent on this safe space that they refuse to leave it. A ‘fight or flight” struggle may ensue over something as simple as a potty break or even a mealtime.
Bunkering can be limited to one location or area, but it can also float to other areas should they determine a need to select a new safe spot. Many dogs will automatically choose a kennel to Bunker in. If the kennel is unavailable, the next option might be a closet or under a bed.
How To Help Rescue Dogs With PTSD
Good intentions are often the catalyst for a dog to choose protective isolation. In their attempt to help the dog feel secure, owners or foster homes will often provide a spot to bunker & don’t realize that it may only perpetuate a dog’s need to bunker. Once the safe place has been chosen, it can be more challenging for the dog to bond and build confidence in their new life.
Being proactive is always a better choice than having to be reactive.
Before bringing a new dog into the environment, ensure that bedroom doors are closed, access to basements, crawl spaces and spaces behind furniture are limited. Provide soft places to lay off to the side but still in an environment where the dog can begin to experience new people, sounds, smells, activities and routines. Kitchen tables can become problematic. Pulling the chairs away from the center will make this space less attractive to the dog feeling the need to Bunker.
Ensure that furniture is against the walls and that there are fewer options for the dog to wedge himself behind things. Soft places that you provide should be far enough away from the activity so that the dog can maintain calm while they watch their new world open up for them.
Allow the dog space. Hiding places are unnecessary if respect is given to the dogs’ need for slow, below threshold exposure.