Trauma, PTSD, and The Healing of My Best Friend

 

jackson

In one-hundred degree heat, he wandered onto the main campus where I was working, a black lab puppy in tow. Malnourished, thirsty, and with his fur full of knots, he would only get within twenty feet of a human being, even though you could tell he wanted someone to help him. The kind-hearted people at the treatment center (Cumberland Heights) gave the dogs food and water, eventually having to trap them both in order to get them to a veterinarian. After both the dogs had been treated, it was decided they would be moved out to Stillwater’s, a small, all men’s treatment center that myself and some colleagues were trying to get off the ground. There was a fenced in dog-run there and four dog lovers, so it seemed like the ideal place for the two dogs start acclimating to humans.

I remember the first time I saw the Husky-mix up close, he resembled a caged wolf, wild-eyed and feral, a look of abject terror when I tried to pet him. The black Lab puppy was so unaccustomed to the touch of a human being that he foamed at the mouth when I first put a hand on his fur, his body seizing and becoming catatonic. We put the dogs up in the dog-run with a climate controlled dog house, hoping they would start getting used to us before we began taking residents for the program. It was obvious that the two dogs had not only been abused at some time in their past, but also that they had been taken somewhere and dumped, forced to fend for themselves though they lacked the ability of their wolf ancestors.

Once in the dog-run, the Husky would trot along the fence-line for hours on end looking for a way out, his brain stuck in the “fight or flight” position with no way for him to turn it off. I began my relationship with him by taking some food with me into the fenced-in area, sitting in a chair with my back to him, and waiting for him to get the courage to take the treat out of my hand. It took about five or six hours until he finally came close enough to get the food, but I knew that when he did, it was the first step to his recovery.  I repeated the process every time I went to work, until finally he allowed me to touch his fur without taking off.

After about a month of  the dogs being at Stillwater’s, we realized that because of the severity of the two dog’s trauma, it would probably be best if we found homes for them where they could get the attention and nurturing they needed. I also knew that the Husky would be coming home with me. From the first time I looked in his eyes, I felt a bond with the dog that is hard to describe, though I’m sure other dog lover’s will understand what it’s like when that sense of knowingness comes over you in an almost spiritual kind of way.

So with the help of a Proverbs 12:10, a no-kill shelter, I helped get the Black Lab puppy a home with a dog-loving little girl, and took the Husky home with me. I admit I may have overestimated my ability to train the dog, as well as underestimating the extent of the dog’s trauma. I don’t think he had ever been inside a house until he was brought into mine, and for the first two or three days he did nothing but run around in circles from the kitchen, to the dining room, to the living room. I don’t think he even slept, afraid that if he let his guard down for a minute, something or somebody would hurt him again. It was hard for me to imagine what someone had done to this beautiful animal, and even harder for me to understand why.

After about a month, I began to get frustrated. I was reading books on how to train dogs and watching “The Dog Whisperer” non-stop, trying to figure out how I could help him overcome his trauma. A veterinarian told me to try crating him, but his anxiety was so bad that he would try to chew through the metal of the cage, flipping the whole kennel over and knocking holes in the plaster of the bedroom when I left him by himself. I started to think that I was incapable of reaching the dog, that I was doing him more harm than good. Finally, on a particularly bad day where he’d clawed through a screen and almost escaped out the front window, I decided that I’d had enough. I called a woman who ran a dog rescue, told her the situation, and begged her to take the dog from me. There was a long silence on the other end. I’ll never forget what she said to me.

“Jeff, I’ll take the dog from you, but I want you to ask yourself a question first: Have you ever needed someone to not give up on you? Have you ever needed someone to love you enough to stick with you through your worst times? That’s what this dog needs from you. Call me tomorrow, and if you still want me to get the dog, I will.” She hung up the phone. I looked in the eyes of that scared, hopeful Husky on the end of the leash and realized that this animal had chosen me. He wanted me to see him and not give up on him, learn how to look deeper, past his behaviors to what was underneath the trauma. I never called the woman at the dog rescue again, except to thank her for reminding me of the importance of faith and perseverance.

It took about six months of patience, love, gentle discipline, and consistency until my wife and I began to see significant changes in Jackson. Recovery, whether it be from abuse, addiction, or war, is not something that can be rushed. Eventually, Jackson’s brain began to heal and his instincts began to normalize, instead of being on high alert. Today, he is a relaxed, loving dog who likes nothing better than curling up in bed and playing with his squeak toys. He still has some separation anxiety and is leery of adult males, who were more than likely his primary abusers. He has been my constant companion over the last ten years, and when I am feeling down there is nothing more therapeutic than running a hand over his silky, black and silver fur.

I have loved dogs since I was a small child. There were times in my life due to my addiction when I was unable to keep a dog. Those times were some of the darkest, always feeling like some vital and essential part of myself was missing. In my sobriety, when I have gone to pick out a new family member, I have always headed straight for the dogs that look the most afraid, the ones huddled in the corner. Those are the animals I connect with the most, the ones who show teeth when approached, not because they are dangerous, because they don’t know what else to do.  One of my favorite spiritual teachers says that whatever we pay attention to becomes special to us. Part of the reason why we love our families and our pets is because we are willing to look at them on a deeper level, overlooking and forgiving their flaws and imperfections. True spirituality and recovery asks that we do the same with all beings. 

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