How a Little Jack Russell Helped Me Understand
Trauma & Comfort
by Susie E. Caron © 5/31/15
Duke is our ‘Grand-Dog’. He lives with us full time now, but he really is our grown up daughter’s Jack Russell Terrier. We got Duke several years ago, and again on separate occasions, whenever our daughter’s career wouldn’t allow her to have a dog. He’s cute, and difficult, and living with Duke has taught me a lot about trauma.
Our daughter called us one day in November to tell us she bought a Jack Russell puppy from a pet shop. She was really sorry but she needed him to live with us soon. She was in the army and the family she had trusted him with had severely abused him. She was grief stricken, so it was too late for me to say “No.”
Kim handed Duke to me just before Christmas. I took one look at him and smitten, I said, “Let me hold my Grand-Dog.’ At 4 months he weighed 6 pounds and was definitely not house broken. He also didn’t bark at that age. That was a brief respite for what was to come because the abuse he’d suffered had over-sensitized him to a variety of human behaviors. He barked loudly, and continuously, and would not stop, at everyone, even us, when anyone
walked into our house.
left the house.
Hugged or kissed
came too close (in Dukes mind) to another human being
when Smoke alarms or any noise erupted
when Bacon cooked or something burned.
It was so awful, we’d often just catch him and put him in a bedroom until he stopped.
As a psychologist I realized that Duke suffered from situational, emotional, and sensory triggers of Post Traumatic Sensory Disorder. He had symptoms that correspond to the three major categories of PTSD.
1. He appeared to ‘re-live’ his trauma in flash backs and dreams. (He cried in his sleep.)
2. He avoided people places or things that reminded him of the original trauma. (What he couldn’t avoid he showed intense fear of).
3. He was easily frightened, often hyper-aroused and ready to ‘go off’ barking at the slightest ‘difference’ in sound or movement.
Disorganized and agitated behavior are also symptoms in children with PTSD. Duke was almost always disorganized and easily agitated. For example: the rake, shovel, lawn mower, snow blower, tractor and snowmobile became his to attack. We had to be constantly watchful because he usually tried to bite the front wheels of any vehicle as soon as it was turned on or moving.
Although we hated the constant eruptions in barking, we became more or less used to him. Then my 93 year old father-in-law came to live with us. He liked dogs okay, but Duke’s sudden fits of barking upset him. It didn’t take me long to realize I had to do something about Duke.
I had just announced my retirement date, so after my last client’s therapy session, I began taking little Duke to the office with me to finish my paperwork. Duke became my ‘sidekick’ and I began to teach him to ‘not bark.’ I did this with gradual exposure to the things he feared and added treats for not barking.
I carried little bits of dog cookies in my pockets wherever I went with Duke. I taught him that if something startled him to find me & get a cookie. It worked! Duke began to run to me every time anything happened that ‘made him nervous’. After a few days, I began adding commands like, ‘sit’ and ‘down’ and sometimes I’d ask him to ‘spin’ before I gave him his treat. He became devoted to me, and barked much less. My father in law even noticed, but something was still unresolved.
Dogs and children have a sense when someone doesn’t like them or approve. My father in law didn’t like Duke’s barking. However, Dad also appeared saddened by the fact that Duke ‘didn’t seem to like him.’ One day last week that changed.
My father in law had just finished his morning coffee in his favorite recliner. Without prompting and for no reason I could see, Duke walked over to the foot of his chair and looked up at him. Dad patted his leg as if to invite Duke up on his lap. Duke hesitated a moment, but jumped up, smelled his hand and instantly got back off. To my surprise, Dad tried again. This time, Duke hopped up, sat down between his outstretched legs and let Dad scratch him, pet his back, head and neck. I held my breath. A long minute or two passed and Duke lay down and sighed then rested his chin on Dad’s knee. Dad smiled.
Duke taught me something about helping him. For nearly 12 years, all the original trauma triggers scared him, and he did the only thing he could do with his fear– he barked loud and without ceasing. When I began to work with him I distracted him to give him a cookie. He’d come to me in a nervous state, but when I gave him the treat, he felt rewarded for coming to me.Those actions helped him to grow less nervous because it changed the result of his behavior. Instead of putting him in the bedroom when he was afraid and barked, which must made him even more nervous, I called him and gave him a treat, so he felt comforted. At first I had to give him a cookie because he would not let anyone reach down to pet him. Eventually I was able to just say ‘good boy’ and pat his head or say ‘I’ll get you a cookie.,” and that seemed to serve as enough reward.
I don’t know how the relationship between Duke and Dad will go from here, but I do know that Duke is a lot less fearful. I had paid attention to him and taught him how to receive comfort. Perhaps that’s why he got up on Dad’s lap. Maybe Duke wanted to offer Dad comfort in the same way he has received comfort – He showed up and offered himself.
Thanks for reading. I treasure you and I hope you find something good in my articles. Remember to share with your friends on social. Thank you!
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Susie E. Caron
Susie E. Caron MA,
Author, Blogger, Podcaster,
Christian, Wife, & Mother, helps build parent-child relationships, 1 blog, book & podcast at a time.
Welcome! I recently retired from combined careers in teaching, psychotherapy, and parent coaching to spend more time writing.
When I'm not busy creating books or articles, you might find me looking for dark chocolate or riding my beautiful horse Apple in the woods and fields of Vermont.
These articles are for educational and self-help purposes only and are not intended as psychotherapy.
If you experience unusual symptoms or discomfort please see your medical or mental health practitioner.
No patent liability is assumed for use of the information contained. The author disclaims any responsibility for loss or risk for use or application of this material.
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Blog Reviews & Thank You!
July 13 at 7:17pm ·
Just wanted to say that I love your posts about the different ways to connect/relate/understand your child. It has given me a new approach towards understanding my daughter and allowing HER to tell me how she feels instead of me suggesting to her how she should feel. Thanks Susie!