Dogs Who Witness Trauma

Written by Dr. Teresa Tyler PhD

Peer reviewed

Summary: Experiencing trauma is known to be a cause of stress and associate behavior problems in dogs, but what about witnessing the trauma of others? This article reviews what we know about behavioral responses to witnessing trauma in other animals, and discusses observational research into the potential effects of witnessing conspecific trauma in dogs. 


There is always heated debate about how dogs are treated by humans. There is conflict about the training methods people use, including balanced, positive punishment, versus force-free and positive reinforcement for example. The ways in which the dogs are used other than for companionship, such as working, sport, hunting and more, are scrutinised, and often for good reason. We even disagree about the environments in which they live: Do dogs belong indoors or outdoors, and are they captive or should they be free to roam? Wherever dogs and humans co-exist, there is debate.

When we think about these complex issues, we often reflect on how it must feel for that particular dog, and this empathy can create feelings of discomfort in ourselves, which is why we feel compelled to respond to these situations and immerse ourselves in discussions. What we often miss in circumstances where more than one dog is present is the impact it has on the other dogs who are observing what is happening.

Through my anthrozoology doctoral research at the University of Exeter, I considered dogs as witnesses to trauma and spent much time observing groups of caged dogs, who were used periodically for hunting in Cyprus. I wanted to see if empathy in dogs was observable and to consider if so, how witnessing another dog’s trauma might impact them. I compared these observations to my own group of dogs who live as companion animals in a fairly liberal home environment.

The observations I made told two particular stories: First was one of chronic stress behaviours and second, one of stranger-directed fear and general fear and anxiety. Both sets of behaviours were indicators of distress and isolation that demonstrated the detrimental impact this type of caged housing had on the psychological well-being and quality of life of these dogs.

The caged dogs demonstrated that they spent significantly less time sleeping or relaxed during observation periods compared to my dogs.1,2,3 They were alert and at times hypervigilant: pacing, sniffing the air, circling, or barking. In the caged dog group, substantial periods were spent standing rather than sitting or lying down. This may be due in part to the flooring type, which was often dirt or stone and soiled by urine and faeces. In some cases, boxes were provided, but these appeared to be places that they used to hide rather than relax or sleep. Some dogs preferred to stand on the boxes, granting them a better view of their environment and a sense of safety.

Occasionally dogs were seen persistently licking the same area of their body (allopathic grooming). Behaviours such as those observed are indicative of chronic stress.4,5,6

Long-term stress leads to the production of stress hormones such as cortisol, and immobilisation for excessive periods can lead to oxidative stress and tissue damage, the precursor to antioxidant imbalances.6 I wondered if the pacing and circling (stereotypies) was an adaptive behaviour to counteract these effects or a psychological coping mechanism.1,2

Mills et al. (2014) explain that stress affects the physical, mental, and social health of animals, with all these altered dimensions contributing to the well-being of the animal.7 They argue that the amelioration of background stress, as well as specific stressors, should be focussed on when treating stress-related behaviours in pet dogs. As caged hunting dogs are unable to escape specific stressors and background stress, their conditions become chronic and difficult for them to manage, resulting in decreased health and well-being.

An example of some traumatic incidents I was involved in was this: In October 2017 some tourists were walking in the countryside near the village of Koilli, Paphos District. They happened across two cages that contained dogs in sick and emaciated conditions, alongside the decomposing bodies of several dogs lying on the floor amongst them. The dogs had rotten raw food, stagnant black water, and the floors of the cages were covered in faeces and urine. The existing dogs were witness to the conspecifics starvation and death in addition to coping with their own personal trauma.

Another example was a dog deemed no longer useful for hunting, shot dead in front of his fellow cage mates. This was a common occurrence as it was seen as being better than abandoning the dog into the countryside and cheaper than veterinary euthanasia.

A further case was reported in the Cyprus Mail in 2017.8 Twelve hunting dogs were living in a cage located on a plot of land in Zakaki, Limassol District. A fire was set outside the cage deliberately, killing nine of the dogs. A neighbour noticed the fire at 6 AM on a Saturday and rushed to try and open the cage, whereby three dogs managed to escape, but for the others it was too late. The fire service was called to put out the fire. Two brothers owned the dogs, and it was said anecdotally that the dogs disturbed locals with their barking. We can only begin to imagine what these experiences must have been like for the survivors witnessing the deaths of their less fortunate canine companions.

What might it mean for a dog to witness trauma?

Definitions of compassion fatigue and types of traumas vary. Charles Figley, who has published widely on the subject, provides a description that applies to both secondary trauma and vicarious trauma. He explains it as: “the natural, consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowledge about a traumatising event experienced by a significant other, which includes symptoms similar to those found in people directly exposed to trauma, such as intrusive imagery, hyperarousal, and avoidance”9 This definition suggests it is a normal reaction to seeing events that humans find appalling.

Witnessing trauma could have a negative effect on dogs if they can experience empathy. So, to understand the effects of witnessing trauma on the dogs I was studying, I first had to survey the literature on non-human animal empathy.

The study of empathy in animals has recently become a popular area of interest, despite previous accusations of anthropomorphism.10,11 With so many scientists offering many different paradigms and concepts of the phenomenon, it can become challenging to find a method of recording it. Ana Pérez-Manrique and Antoni Gomila usefully reviewed much of the literature on two complex forms of empathy in non-human animals: sympathetic concern and empathic perspective-taking.12 In doing so, they created a criterion that helped me to decide what the impact and response of witnessing trauma were on the dogs.

Figure. 1 shows the definitions and components of their criteria. I did observe self-distress and what may have been a sympathetic concern, but both these components were more obviously observed in my group of companion dogs. For example, if one of my dogs yelped when stepping on a sharp object, the others would run over to investigate, and offer a nudge or face lick, eliciting a tail wag and alleviation of the immediate distress in the dog who yelped.

 

Components

1.     Reaction 2.     Response 3.     Outcome
Consolation (sympathetic concern) Other-oriented reaction in response to other’s distress/situation/needs:

Moderate level of arousal; non-emotional match

Some level of emotional control regulation needed

Other-oriented response: attempts to ameliorate the other’s state (approach responses) Alleviation of the distressed party
Personal distress Self-focused reaction in response to other’s distress/situation/needs:

Over-arousal; emotional state-matching

Emotional control regulation not needed

Self-focused response: attempts to ameliorate one’s own distress (escape responses) Alleviation of the individual’s own distress
Empathic targeted helping (empathic perspective-taking) Other-oriented reaction in response to other’s distress and after a cognitive appreciation of the situation:

Moderate level of arousal

Emotional control regulation needed

Flexible other-oriented response: fine-tuned help or care appropriate to the situation of the distressed party Improvement of the situation of the distressed party

Figure 1. Definition and principal components of consolation (sympathetic concern), personal distress and empathic targeted helping (empathic perspective-taking) (Pérez‐Manrique & Gomila, 2018. p.250).

This may have been for a variety of reasons. Firstly, my companion dogs were not confined or restrained in the same way as caged or kennelled dogs and were physically freer to respond to another’s distress. Secondly, being a large group, if occasional disagreements occurred, say over a favourite toy, post-conflict sympathetic, affiliative behaviours such as averting eyes, low tail carriage, lowered ears, lip-licking, tail-wagging and crouching were seen, allowing for resolution of the conflict. In comparison, the caged dogs demonstrated over-arousal and hypervigilance, leading to hiding or escape attempts, or self-soothing behaviour such as stereotypies or obsessive grooming and licking of one spot on their bodies.

Whether sympathetic concern was due to empathy towards an individual or rather a means to re-establish homeostasis to the group was unclear. I may have inadvertently positively reinforced sympathetic behaviours by rewarding behaviours I anthropomorphized as compassionate. In doing so, I may have made them more likely to repeat these behaviours. My dog group has formed a bond to me, and it could be argued that this relationship has enhanced their socio-cognitive abilities to maintain an affectionate bond. I spent more time observing my own as they share my home, whereas observation time with the caged dogs was limited.

We cannot dismiss the possibility that dogs have empathy for other dogs. Evidence that species are sensitive to the distress of others has been presented for decades in species such as rats, mice, and monkeys.13,14,15 There is also evidence of post-conflict reconciliatory or affiliative behaviour in dogs.16 Still, according to Sonja Koski, there is little stress relief from this form of consolation. Her work was with captive chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, so to use this in the context of canids may not be relevant. Much of the literature that seeks to find evidence of empathic responses in dogs focuses on the interactions between dogs and humans, rather than conspecifics.17,18,19

Mylene Querval-Chaumette et al. (2016) did present their research into the pet dog’s empathic responses to conspecifics distress.20 They explain that dogs who live in social groups coordinate the defence of their territories using a vocal and visual communication system within their groups. They argue that this points to “the potential need for synchronised action and hence a direct benefit from an ability to recognise and react to their conspecifics’ expression of emotion, or even share their inner state.” I agreed as the caged hunting dogs were very vocal when they first saw me, communicating not just with each other but to any other dogs within hearing distance.

Chaumette’s research also demonstrated that the dogs’ behaviours were not only an automatic response driven by emotional contagion – mimicking of facial, vocal and postural expressions, as opposed to empathy – but an indication of the ability to share another’s feelings.

After being exposed to whines, dogs chose to comfort their familiar partner without any solicitation or distress signal emitted by the other dog, instead of going to their owner for comfort. They seemed to be affected by others’ distressing situations and responded to them by providing spontaneous interactions to conspecifics or even to members of other species like humans.

I did not observe empathic behaviour in the caged dogs, yet as previously mentioned, being kept individually or paired did not necessarily allow the behaviour to be demonstrated. It is an area that requires further research, as Quervel-Chaumette et al.’s (2016) work used pet dogs as their subjects.20 Pérez-Manrique and Gomila point out, ‘Future studies should examine the effect of unsolicited affiliation in canids and features such as the existence of a familiarity bias in those contacts.’12

What was evident through my observations and witnessing were attempts to self-soothe among many of the dogs. Self-soothing behaviour was an indicator of distress and anxiety. They showed behaviours such as paw licking and pacing to relieve their suffering rather than a conspecific’s. Whether their distress was a reaction to another’s, though, could not be discounted.

Humans who witness other-than-human trauma

Alleviation of stress for human witnesses was a factor to which I should have paid more attention during my research with the group of caged hunting dogs. Indeed, with hindsight, the effect of witnessing another’s distress seemed to impact me more than I realised at the time. It was as if once my eyes had been opened to the suffering, I noticed it every time I went out of the house. I could hear dogs barking and howling in cages all around in the local countryside, their cries carried up the valley. I would feel anxious driving in case I saw an emaciated stray and would feel compelled to pick them up. I began to feel over-protective of my dogs and, during my research, I added another three rescued dogs to my group of six as I could not ignore their plights. These were symbolic acts of rescue for the hunting dogs I had witnessed and did nothing to save. For some reason, those responsible for their dogs’ suffering did not seem to acknowledge that the dogs would feel or experience suffering in the same way that they might do.

“Witnessing can easily drive you to madness or exacerbate mental health issues already there. It can carve out new psychological and emotional wounds. And it can open old ones, worrying at the tender scars until suddenly what you thought was healed, or at least contained, is open again, raw, festering, and exposed to the world. For me, the act of witnessing has done both.”21

Josephine Donovan discusses this and argues that non-human animals should have moral status:

“…a strong argument for granting creatures moral status is to persuade oppressors that those they are oppressing are subjects who have feelings, not unlike those of the oppressor. This positing of similarity or homologousness serves to make empathy or sympathy possible. If one sees the other as a creature who suffers in a manner like oneself, then one can imagine oneself in that creature’s situation and can thus imaginatively experience his pain. One thereby implicitly grants him moral status comparable to one’s own.”22

I could not understand the mentality of the human “owners” of the caged hunting dogs, who viewed the dogs as mere objects. I became insular, and my anger was directed towards friends and family. I was oversensitive to any comments about the work or non-human animals in general. Eventually, it led to depression, and I realised I needed to take a break.

My compassion fatigue only became apparent to me when I no longer felt like I cared about dogs at all. I had gone from a witness to an observer. I no longer felt grief or shared their pain, yet, oddly, the fear of losing and grieving my own dogs became overwhelming.23

My situation is not an unusual place for people who witness suffering to find themselves in. Witnessing traumatic events is not without risks and is a recognised phenomenon of those who work with ill, wounded, or traumatised humans and non-humans. The focus of compassion fatigue centres on the veterinary profession—however, many people who work with animals in other settings experience it too. Work with animals can be extraordinarily rewarding, yet the paradox is that it can also be traumatising. If the traumas outweigh the rewards, the ingredients for compassion fatigue are there. Polachek and Wallace explored this notion within their research and found that “building relationships, barriers to care, and client grief are related to greater compassion fatigue”.24

I interpreted their conclusion to mean that the greater the emotional investment, the greater the grief, which in turn is linked to increased risk of compassion fatigue. This does not acknowledge the accumulative effect that witnessing can have though. It is not necessarily just about the relationship but about the dripping tap of seeing trauma so regularly that it eventually builds up to a level that becomes overwhelming. This long-term exposure is defined as vicarious trauma25(Bride, Radey & Figley, 2007) and is thought to be different to secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue, which can develop “afterwards without an ongoing emphatic relationship with a source of trauma such as a suffering other”.26

I wonder if those who choose to witness another’s suffering have a particular empathy towards those whom they witness. If so, this will put them at a higher risk of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Figley also observed that those who have a large capacity for empathy, both felt and expressed, tend to be more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. I consider how this might be measured in non-human animals as we know that they experience and demonstrate empathy.27-32 Does this make specific species and individuals more at risk of vicarious trauma? This area requires more research, particularly in the anthropocentric context where non-humans are likely to witness the suffering of others, such as within food production and biomedical sciences.

Let’s for a moment consider dogs who see conspecifics euthanised in high-kill shelters, or witness the suffering of others in laboratories, or even the animals in the veterinary clinic hearing the cries of those in the next room undergoing procedures. These types of events surely impact those who witness them. Therefore, perhaps it is time that we paid as much attention to non-human animal witnesses of trauma as we do humans. Increased understanding on the impact of conspecific suffering on non-human animal witnesses could bring about change, or at least positively influence how the commodification and exploitation of other-than-humans are conducted. These types of investigations and understanding eventually filter down into policy and education, which is at the heart of change-making.

References

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  2. Mason, G., & Rushen, J. (Eds.). (2006). Stereotypic Animal Behaviour: Fundamentals and Applications to Welfare (2nd ed.). Egham. CABI.
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  15. Wechkin, S., Masserman, J. H., & Terris, W. (1964). Shock to a conspecific as an aversive stimulus. Psychonomic Science, 1(1), 47–48.
  16. Cools, A. K. A., Hout, A. J.-M. V., & Nelissen, M. H. J. (2008). Canine reconciliation and third-party-initiated postconflict affiliation: Do peacemaking social mechanisms in dogs rival those of higher primates? Ethology, 114(1), 53–63.
  17. Custance, D., & Mayer, J. (2012). Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: An exploratory study. Animal Cognition, 15(5), 851– 859.
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  30. Gruen, L. (2015). Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals. Brooklyn. Lantern Books.
  31. Lutz, B. J. (2016). Sympathy, empathy, and the plight of animals on factory farms. Society & Animals, 24(3), 250–268.
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Dr Teresa Tyler is an anthroozologist with a PhD from the University of Exeter, an animal behaviourist, veterinary nurse, and human psychotherapist. As such, she has a keen interest in human/canine interactions, which is where The Dogenius Institute originates from. She developed The Dogenius Institute to provide opportunities for people looking to understand,
work and share their lives with animals from an animal-centric and ethical perspective. The Dogenius is committed to creating and continuously improving effective learning methods to all communities on non-human animal needs. It is dedicated to promoting online knowledge and awareness of the demands of the ever-changing human/animal concept and trends for professional and ethical competency.

TO CITE: Tyler, T. (2022) Dogs who witness trauma. The IAABC Foundation Journal 25, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj25.1

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