Many people have heard the term, bunkering, as it relates to people with PTSD. “Going to the bunker” is often associated with PTSD related to the military or other high-stress service jobs.
Did you know that rescue dogs are predisposed to this type of difficulty as well?
Going to the bunker, seeking protective isolation, is something that is extremely common, particularly with dogs that have either suffered a trauma or have had little to no contact with humans or a typical home / family life.
Working with many Greyhound rescues while living in Calgary, I witness this time and time again. Greyhounds, coming off of the track after varying lengths of time spent racing, had never lived in a home. Everything was foreign to them ...and foreign was frightening.
Many greyhounds had never seen a flight of stairs, a sliding glass door…. heard a toilet flush. The sights, sounds and smells of a family life were overwhelming for them and the first thing that they did was to try to find a way to block all this stimuli.
Commonly, I would enter the home of a foster or an adoptive family and find that the dog had taken up safe residence in a closet, small room and in one case, a bathtub. While a degree of protective isolation is somewhat necessary in order to begin a new, and often very frightening chapter, it can close them off and limit their ability to move forward. This bunkering behavior 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 and a 'fight or flight” struggle ensues over something as simple as a potty break or even a meal time.
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 and if the kennel is removed, the next option might be a closet or under a bed.
Good intentions are often the catalyst for a dog to choose protective isolation. Owners or foster homes, in their attempt to help the dog to feel secure, will often provide a spot to bunker & don't realize that it may only perpetuate a dog’s need to bunker. Once the safe spot has been chosen, it can be a tougher road for the dog in his or her ability to bond and start to build confidence in their new life.
Being proactive is always a better choice than having to be reactive.
Prior to bringing a new dog into the environment, ensure that bedroom doors are closed, access to basements, crawl spaces and spaces behind furniture is limited.
Provide soft places to lay, off to the side but still in an environment where the dog can begin to experience exposure to 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.
Make sure that furniture is pressed up against walls and that there are less 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.
Colleen McCarvill CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADBC