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Dog Waving Paw

Dog Blog

  • Writer's pictureBecki Gude

Trauma Bonding and the Quadrants - From Humans, to Dogs, to the Asian Elephant.

Updated: Jun 10

I was inspired to write this article after seeing a post by Shay Kelly on social media a few weeks ago. Shay referred to the trauma bonds that can develop between domesticated dogs and humans who are are cruel or that use abusive training methods. His post really packed a punch, and got me thinking about the animals I have worked with over the years.

“Trauma” is a bit of a buzz word at the moment. We are learning more about what it means as part of the human experience, but also in the wider animal kingdom, particularly domesticated animals. Yes, animals can experience trauma too. While they may not process trauma in the same way that we do, animals can be profoundly affected by distressing or harmful experiences. Trauma in animals can result from various sources, including abuse, neglect, accidents, loss of a companion, confinement, abandonment, and exposure to natural disasters.

Traumatic bonding refers to a complex psychological phenomenon where individuals develop strong emotional connections with those who have caused them harm; physical or emotional. It occurs through repetitive cycles of negative experiences and intermittent reinforcement (the good stuff). You may have heard of Stockholm Syndrome, which is a type of trauma bond that humans experience, which can lead to feelings of loyalty, dependency, and affection towards an abuser. This behaviour is not limited to humans; animals can also develop similar bonds, including our dogs. Dog's are incredibly social animals and their desire to bond is so strong, that they will absolutely attach to someone despite mistreatment.

Signs of trauma in animals can often be obvious to see and may include behavioural changes such as fearfulness, aggression, withdrawal, hyperactivity, or changes in eating and sleeping patterns. We see these behaviour patterns occurring often in the dog world, particularly in rescue or after a dog experiences something frightening.

However, signs of trauma bonding in dogs can be difficult to observe and can also be misinterpreted. It may look like extreme clinginess, quiet or "calm" behaviour around their handler, excessive appeasement gestures, or separation distress - behaviours that could be interpreted as signs of love or trust but could instead be subtle signs of dysfunctional attachment. Interestingly, I have seen similar behaviours in another species I have had the opportunity to observe at length—elephants.

A kiss for Kamoon, an 80 year old elephant who was trained to assist her mahout with begging

Observing captive elephants

In 2016 I was lucky enough to spend time working with Asian elephants in Thailand. My husband and I lived at a sanctuary that housed about 25 of these creatures that had been rescued from various different illegal and abusive trades in the country.

On arrival, I remember being amazed at how calm and “well behaved” the elephants were in the sanctuary, some of them following their Mahouts (elephant carers) round like little lost puppies, coming when called, leaning gently on them and caressing them with their trunks – they seemed almost in a giddy trance a lot of the time and I couldn't help but wonder what the Mahout's secret was?!

I actually felt a little jealous! I was at the start of my animal training career and I assumed they must have been superb trainers to have this level of trust with their animals!

After a day or two it became apparent quite quickly what was going on.

Each Mahout carried a bullhook (see pictured below). Bullhooks are routinely used as a method of positive punishment to control elephants around the world. I think it's pretty self explanatory what a person might do with a bullhook, but they are used as a means to suppress the natural behaviours of the elephants through the threat (or actual act) of violence. Whilst not used to physically punish the elephants at this sanctuary (to my knowledge) the mere presence of them was a clear reminder to each elephant what they had experienced as a baby, and kept them in check without incident. These animals appeared calm, beautifully trained and genuinely affectionate with their carers. However, the reality is that they were shut down emotionally, and functioning in a chronic survival mode to avoid the bullhook.

Bullhooks are an aversive tool routinely used as a method of positive punishment to control elephants around the world.

In South East Asia, all four operant conditioning quadrants are routinely used in elephant training and management. This often involves using fear, punishment, and tools to enforce desired behaviors. Unfortunately, some dog trainers in the Western world still promote and recommend these outdated and inhumane methods. Whilst dog trainers would probably be put in jail if they used a bullhook on a dog, the way that dogs learn and make associations with aversive stimuli is the same.

The Phajaan - Breaking the Elephant's Spirit

Now, a little background on what these elephants go through. For an elephant to be “tamed” for tourist rides, illegal logging or trafficking, a practise known as the“Phajaan” takes place. Phajaan is also known as “breaking the spirit” of the elephant. This is typically done when elephants are young before puberty, after being forcibly taken from their mothers in the wild, when they are still completely dependent on maternal care and the bonds they share with their family units. These baby elephants are confined and subjected to harsh treatment, often involving stabbing with nails, beating with rods, chains, or you guessed it... bullhooks. The "Phajaan" process is designed to break their spirits, ensuring they submit and do not exhibit their natural behaviors, such as avoiding humans or acting defensively. In the final stage of the Phajaan process, the elephant’s new Mahout provides them with their first proper meal and water, and is the one to 'release' them and lead them away from the crate to "safety".

Elephants like dogs are incredibly social animals, and their desire to bond to a caregiver for survival is just as strong. After enduring weeks of mental and emotional torment, the baby elephant comes to see this human as its saviour – the one it trusts, and a dysfunctional attachment is formed which can look very much like an unbreakable and loving bond.

My husband Thom with one of the young adults. It was a bitter sweet experience knowing what these animals had experienced in their past.

Aversive tools in animal training

Now, working with traumatised elephants is not something that we do every day, however the same learning theory principles apply to our dogs and other pets (even captive zoo animals!). Using positive punishment and negative reinforcement in the form of administering pain via corrections, prong, or e-collars can create incredibly negative associations between the dog and the handler resulting in a level of emotional shutdown that can appear as calmness, relaxation, or being "fixed". The confusion of experiencing unpleasant or painful sensations at the hands of their human mixed with the intermittent reinforcement of cuddles on the sofa later can create a very confusing and paradoxical experience for our dogs. They may simultaneously fear and seek comfort from the source of their negative experience, and what we begin to see is something that resembles a trauma bond.

Working more ethically - we can do better!

Many mahouts in Thailand are struggling for their own survival while facing numerous social injustices. Displaced and often without citizenship, both they and their elephants endure significant hardships and rely on each other completely to get through. But for our pet dogs (and other captive wild animals) in the western world we can do better.

I wanted to include this photo of my colleague and friend, animal behaviourist Kirsten Dillon working on some cooperative care with Dartmoor Zoological Park's big cats. No force or fear is required when you understand the complex needs of another species and you can work to help build mutual trust in individual animals. I always think of this picture when I think of wild animals and force-free handling. Building trust and allowing choices when it comes to operant learning is incredibly powerful and should be a first point of call for dog owners and trainers.

Understanding attachment and how it can improve your training as a professional

Understanding the complex ways in which animals form attachments with each other and us humans is crucial for recognising and addressing the emotional needs of those who have experienced trauma. It is neither good practice nor within a dog's best interest to use aversive tools to suppress their natural behaviours when they are experiencing emotional distress.

Veterinary and Clinical Behavioural experts recommend that issues such as aggression, anxiety, reactivity, PTSD and obsessive compulsive behaviours in our pet dogs are treated in a clinical setting by qualified professionals. By looking at how we can help the animal with patience, empathy, and proper care, it's possible to help dogs overcome their past experiences and build healthier relationships based on trust and security (exactly like we do with humans!) and avoiding the route of dysfunctional attachment like I witnessed in the elephants.

There are some incredible resources out there for people to start understanding how to work more ethically with our pets, there are literally no more excuses!

Secure Attachment - in a nutshell

Anyone can use tools and force to control the behaviour of an animal, whether that is a dog, an elephant or indeed another human. But it takes real skill and a deeper knowledge of behavioural science to make traumatised animals feel safe enough to start making the changes they need to recover, and creating the secure bonds with their humans that they often so desperately need.

Seeing how force and fear in training shaped the elephant's behaviour and lives made me want to do better when I started learning about dogs. You may have to put more work and time in as a force free professional to get the results you want, but it is absolutely worth it 100% of the time.

Becki Gude


Surrey Canine Corner

Further reading

Recommended Elephant Sanctuaries:

Completely hands off and ethical santuary - Somboon Legacy Foundation

Find a professional trainer or behaviourist:

The Animal and Behaviour Training Council:

The Institute of Modern Dog Trainers:

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