Tuxedo Rat TerrierFranklin has left a number of people bleeding from his lightning bites and now my hand is sandwiched between his teeth. With softly sparkling eyes, he slides away into a bow, barks once, and growly-talks his way through a belly-up roll in the rumpled bedding, kicking himself upright to launch off the bed and ricochet down the hall. We are playing. He uses no more tooth pressure on me than the brush of a dragonfly wing.

When I play with my New Rattitude foster dog, Franklin, I’m working. All of my senses have to be focused on his body language, my body language, and where we and other dogs are in space at every second. It’s not the relaxing fun that playing with a psychologically healthy dog would be, but it is highly rewarding. In the fourteen weeks that Franklin has lived with me, play has been instrumental in his increasing ability to make more peaceful choices to retain control over his own body.

Eight-year-old Franklin spent almost two years in the excellent Save-A-Pet Illinois shelter before Pilots N Paws flew him down to me in Georgia. His history before landing in animal control is unknown, but his aggressive behaviors are apparently trauma-driven. He has a ripped ear tip, a round scar on the top of his head, and a markedly stiff walk. He barks, whines, paces, repeatedly snaps his head back, and redirects aggression onto nearby dogs — or shoes, or chair backs — when he hears thunder, fireworks, motorcycle backfires, and my neighborhood’s recurring gunshots. (We are not way out in the country; we just act like we are.) Among other quirks and aversions, Franklin will scream and/or strike with his teeth at any perceived threat, including benign human touch. Complicating matters initially was his pattern of persistently seeking attention and rubbing his head under hands, only to scream if the hand moved. He reminded me of a traumatized person reenacting the event.

During the first four weeks with Franklin, an additional two of the then-eight dogs in the house had behavior issues to work around. It was overwhelming and emotionally draining, especially when my own trauma history was triggered. My ego wants to believe that I kept myself from being bitten because I’m super-spectacular at reading dogs and finessing my way through risky situations. More likely, guardian angels exist.

Besides what I’ve read in the literature regarding trauma, my experience tells me that the key to Franklin’s healing is empowerment. At first, I was going to teach him to accept nail trims, but it made more sense to teach him to file his own nails on a grit tape-covered pine board. I was going to teach him an alternate greeting behavior, but I decided to let him interact with my hands — for a half second. Over the weeks, he has become more and more comfortable with my touch — always given as less than he solicits. I am proving, over and over again, that I am safe and he owns his body. He feels safe enough to play with me and I am physically prepared to quickly create distance if he shows the slightest discomfort. He can’t feel playful and frightened at the same time, so we practice playful at his pace, whenever he chooses to engage. When he deliberately touches his body to my hands, my hands touch him briefly and then I give him space. Over and over again. Until he is confident in his power to choose.

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