At 10 sessions in, we informed Caroline that this was the depth level at which the worst-of-the-worst dogs usually started. Caroline said, "I’m not so sure that Callie even counts as a dog yet…"
"She’s our un-dog!"
The UN-Dog Becomes a Whole Dog!
A New Kind of PTSD Recovery Therapy for Animals (and humans too)
By Casey Sugarman, Founder of OSCAR Therapy Dec 19, 2022
On the outside, you wouldn't know anything was ever wrong with this Snoopy-esque 40-pound Beagle-Pit mix, and yet the recovery story of this once nameless victim is one for the record books. This story is about building the mental health of a seriously traumatized dog from scratch. Thanks to the willingness of Callie’s Cohort, every bit of the year-long treatment of this case has been captured on video and is being edited into a movie for teaching animal rehabilitators.
At the time of her rescue in September 2018, Callie’s medical chart included: mange, anemia due to a severe flea infestation, malnutrition, severely underweight, dehydration, and motherhood. She was found still desperately trying to nurse what was likely her second litter of puppies, but only two of her six pups survived. The others died shortly after their rescue, overrun with flea anemia and unable to be saved. At just about two years old, Callie had desperately been trying to save and care for her pups. Caroline vividly recalls the story…
“Callie came to us after she and 40 of her relatives were rescued from a hoarding situation in West Virginia, where all 41 dogs had been allowed to roam the fenced-in property at will, seemingly without much, if any, care. Callie was simply an object living in our house. All she wanted was to be ignored - she did not want to be looked at, acknowledged, touched, or engaged in any capacity. Over her first two weeks with us, she slowly started to trust us and began exploring the house, but any progress she might have made disappeared when she was spooked by a loud noise across the street, panicked, and escaped from her harness.”
“Callie was lost for the entire month of a very cold, snowy, and icy February in 2019 in Connecticut. She was often sighted wandering through the neighborhoods, yards, and woods of our rural town, just trying to survive sleet, snow and the daily single digit temperatures. We had 44 sightings of Callie over the 27 days she was missing. She was constantly on the move.”
“She encountered a skunk, and got into some kind of gooey tar that covered her fur on her legs, belly, chest, and skin. Pawprints in the snow and trail camera photos showed that she narrowly avoided multiple close calls with coyotes, as well as the town bobcats. One night we also got a call from a lady who tearfully reported that she had just hit a dog that looked exactly like Callie in the middle of a sleet storm. She was spotted in the wee hours of the following morning on a home security camera, thankfully seemingly uninjured. After we finally captured Callie and brought her home, thanks in large part to the tireless help and support of volunteers with CT Dog Gone Recovery, she was now terrified of going outside. She was clearly suffering from extreme PTSD. We did what we could to help her regain a sense of control and comfort and safety, but it would take another two years before we met Leita and Casey. That’s when Callie’s real healing began.”
About four months after Callie was rescued by Big Fluffy Dog Rescue and fostered in a Tennessee home, she was adopted by Caroline and Matt, a Connecticut couple who already had a “normal” dog named Finn. Callie would look to Finn for guidance whenever her fear hit a fever pitch, but even if he was not reacting, she was unable to calm herself and would continue to shake and cower in fear. Callie always had to be on high ground. She would sprint across the floor from one piece of furniture to another, like check points in a video game. She hated being on any floor or ground and would never do so unless she had no other option. This meant that she had no access to food or water bowls on the floor.
Callie was therefore uninterested in spending any time in the yard. She even refused to leave the bedroom of her own accord. Callie did become slightly more comfortable with being touched over the next two years, but only on the head and belly, and only when she requested it. Overall, however, there was still no progress in her behavior or comfort level with people, on any level.
Caroline had been walking Finn in the park around Thanksgiving 2021 and was drawn over to Leita Hagemann who appeared to be using an unusual “language” with another socially fearful dog. Leita trained for years as a “traditional” dog trainer before she met Casey Sugarman, the pioneer behind OSCAR Therapy. Because OSCAR was “so very different from anything I had seen to date,” Leita immediately asked Casey to teach her. Here is Leita’s description of how OSCAR therapy works:
“Traditional positive reward operant conditioning (think Pavlov’s dog hearing a bell and starting to drool) is a part of OSCAR, but it is a very small part. OSCAR Therapy is really a re-wiring of a dog’s “awareness” nervous system. OSCAR’s simple button-pushing game teaches the brain how to interact with the world rationally. It teaches both “social” and “body re-mapping” cause and effect in a safe way. It is 100 percent choice-based, so no animal, including Callie, feels forced. Animals (and even people) gain confidence to trust themselves in the game more and more. And OSCAR-taught animals quickly become empowered to experiment more with the real world even when the game isn’t being played.” OSCAR is the opposite of linear learning through practice; the learning curve is exponential and goes straight up!
Caroline is an educator with a Masters in neuropsychological development and evaluation, so this kind of approach appealed to her understanding of the brain, so we started in on Callie’s case right away. Each session included Casey coaching by video and Leita on scene with Callie and Caroline and sometimes a third-shift groggy Matt, all of whom were on the couch. But at first, Callie needed to hide behind Matt while she worked on learning to connect the first few dots. For Callie to learn to accept Leita’s presence in the room, Leita had to position herself in the next room, watching the dog in a mirror and making no eye contact. Even though the dog was being rewarded on the couch with a variety of scrumptious treats (bacon, cheese, steak, ham, etc.), Leita had to work her way toward the dog mere inches at a time.
In order to begin to build or rebuild an animal’s sense of self, OSCAR Therapy dictates that the practitioner must never touch the dog; it is the dog's job to reach out and touch the practitioner (i.e., touch my hand with your shoulder). The other mandatory rule of OSCAR Therapy is that the animal must be at liberty, meaning no leashes, no harness, and sometimes no collar. Callie took advantage of this freedom of movement, and would slink and ooze away, climb up and over her owners, and climb up and over upturned couch cushions, all to get away from the scary, bacon-laden Leita. And yet, small little signs made it clear the dog was learning. She couldn't exhale, but she could yawn; she couldn't drink water in public, but she could pant; she couldn't get off of the couch, but she could lie down on it instead of always being up and ready to bolt.
Building the first “button touch” was done through the use of surrogates: first Matt, then Caroline, and finally through Leita’s hand overlapping onto Matt’s hand. Four sessions in, we rejoiced when Callie finally took food from Leita’s hand for the first time. We were 10 sessions in when we informed Caroline that this was the depth level at which the worst-of-the-worst dogs usually started. Caroline said, "I’m not so sure that Callie even counts as a dog yet… she’s our un-dog!"
Now we had to teach Caroline how to play the role of the OSCAR therapist because she was the only person Callie would not run from. By touching Caroline's hand, Callie began to build up the awareness that, “I can touch someone and live to tell about it” - starting with her right front quarter (RFQ). We also had to teach Caroline one of the finer points of OSCAR Therapy: that on a black and white animal like Snoopy, or any animal sporting bicolor patches, there is a neurological/mental map/psychological disconnect between the color zones, surprisingly enough.
An animal can touch you with their black body part and know exactly where you both are in space, but as soon as you cross over and offer your same button hand to the white fur, they lose track of where the button is. Or vice versa. You wouldn't believe it until you see it, but you CAN see it because it's on video in this case and in many others on the OSCAR Therapy Channel on YouTube. We had to teach Caroline how to “zip” Callie’s color zones together, integrating across her color-based continental divides. Animals act much more “together” after this.
Every week, reports were that Callie was getting better in small ways like standing on the ground to get her leash put on and letting Caroline and Matt pet her more often. Many of the staff and students at Caroline's school had been hearing the stories of the un-dog becoming a dog and became quite attached to Callie’s story. When Caroline came into school and celebrated what would appear to be a very basic dog skill, such as, “My dog walked on the floor today!”, any uninitiated staff members were baffled while everyone else cheered Callie on from afar.
In OSCAR Therapy, we proceed to chip away at filling “holes.” An OSCAR hole is a spot on the individual that is very afraid to reach out and touch our button. With a little courage and practice, every individual fills in all of their own gaps in their own “ ‘hand’ shake” comfort level; the more afraid a brain is at that spot, the deeper its hole. The second deepest OSCAR hole we found was at Callie’s midline butt right at her tail base, maybe from birthing puppies on her own. She acted very trapped by, and very scared of this part of her body, like she may have experienced a breach or painful and lengthy pup birthing – a speculation we will never be able to confirm.
Callie’s very deepest OSCAR hole was at the flap of skin between the thigh and torso of her RHQ, or right hind quarter. This was not only the same corner of her body that was reportedly hit by the car, but it was also the area of skin from which Caroline had spent a very long time cleaning and removing sticky tar. Callie wouldn't hit a button there to save her life. Musculo-skeletally, her RFQ had always been healthy, strong, and it was the leg she preferred to climb up with. But even though we were at session #25 (May 18, 2022), her eyes turned into saucers and her breathing rate quadrupled when she was finally attempting to build her awareness of (and conscious control over) that simple flap of skin.
Notably, if you look at that part of this particular dog, it just so happens to have her most suspicious mixing of black and white color patches, as there is a very thin channel of white that cuts a large black patch in half. We therapists hadn’t even had the opportunity to visualize the coat coloring in that anatomical spot much because she was always burying it in the couch or finding other ways to hide it from us, but it became clear that this very unlucky dog was hit by the car at the worst possible spot on her body– this spot where she wouldn’t be able to recover from her trauma independently, psychologically, or even neurologically. Bad luck? Maybe…
But you’d also have to ask yourself: Maybe her lack of awareness of that body zone to begin with is what put it in the path of a wet, noisy car? Perhaps she thought that she was safely across despite the fact that her back right end wasn't yet clear of the road? This is what having an OSCAR hole “in your brain” is like: you are unable to account for the whereabouts of your own body parts in social-sensory space. In the video of that session, it is plain to see that “the high tension and high speed of the cross-talk” are as hard-core as OSCAR Therapy gets. Leita was doing stellar work at 100 mph to keep up with the tsunami of Callie’s incoming memories. And sometimes I do wonder if animals can read minds on the energy waves because at the same moment that we were trying to ask Callie to “push back on the car that hit you,” we could hear many other dogs on the street instantly beginning to howl.
Once Callie was finally “built to round,” meaning that she could hit our hand buttons with any and all of her body parts, Callie still hadn't yet gotten off the couch while Leita was in the room. Encouraging Callie to try stepping onto the floor required standing all of the couch cushions up on end, making it physically harder for her to sit on them. The couch was technically still an option but sitting on uncomfortable springs only 6 inches off the floor urged her to consider touching the rug. She did a bunch of bouncing back and forth until she realized that she was just as in control of her body on the floor as she was on the couch, that she was still causing good bacon-y things to happen on the floor, and that she wasn't going to die on the floor.
On the floor, another one of Callie’s major causative issues revealed itself. It quickly became apparent that Callie did not have any awareness at all of her entire right field of vision, which would have been another liability while attempting to cross a road, or, it may even have been switched off by the car strike. Even though she was eventually able to turn in both directions on the couch, once on the floor, her right-side field of vision was experienced either as a tunnel vision, or as a huge threat that she refused to acknowledge. She would only ever exit any scene to her left (turning counterclockwise). On a leash, for example, she would only ever circle counterclockwise to bolt back into the house.
This limitation in her awareness was so reliable that we didn't even have to block off the room during sessions. To remove herself from her lessons, she would only have had to turn clockwise to walk into the dining room of the house she knew and lived in. And yet… she couldn’t.
Teaching animals to purposely use/think about the whole second half of their (physically normal) field of vision is required in about a third of OSCAR cases. And once rebuilt, animals feel much relieved about having twice as many options for making a safe exit. For Callie, we also had to “rewire” her right side ear-to-brain when we realized that any sound she heard coming in from the right side RHQ was shocking to her and caused her to flinch and flee to the left, no matter how quiet or innocuous the sound.
So, once this dog’s brain had conscious awareness of/access to the “sensory space” around her in all directions, it was now time to try to marry “Stranger Danger Leita” and the dog together on the ground. Leita sat cross-legged and Callie’s job was to bring all of her body to bear… to attempt to push gently on Leita’s hand with each one of her body parts as best she could. Here is the order in which Callie chose to build her own “body buttons” on the ground (notably, the same order she chose to build them on the couch): Right Front, Left Front, Left Hind, and the Right Hind was last to volunteer.
And now that Callie had safe/survivable/negotiable access to the “ground in social space” in her own mind, we started getting ALL KINDS of new reports of improvements which the dog was now teaching to herself in between sessions with us: eating on the floor, running to the front door with Finn to see who was knocking at the door, and lying on the floor (which had never been seen in the entire three years she had lived with Caroline and Matt). She began voluntarily leaving the bedroom to join her family, and she even came out into the kitchen when some of Caroline's students came over for tutoring. “I was shocked, absolutely shocked, when she did that,” Caroline said. “Callie never goes into the kitchen. Plus, to see people!”
When an OSCAR-built dog graduates from the floor of the house, that's when they can begin meeting the great unknown… the big outside world! For Callie, that meant trips outside to THE DECK! She was able to experience the sights and the smells and the sounds and the temperature gradients of the great outdoors without the added challenge of grass or dirt beneath her feet. It only took four sessions on the deck for her to go from 95% paralyzed with fear to fully socially capable and relaxing out there. Callie was successfully using all of her body buttons to prove to herself that she was in rational control- even with all of that sensory input (much of which likely reminded her of Callie's Big Adventure and the snow and ice storms she endured). By the time Fall 2022 rolled around, we took a 2 month break from sessions so that Caroline could start a new teaching job because Callie had become a “fairly normal dog in the house.”
Just before winter hit in full force, it was finally time to go out to the landing. Caroline attached two leashes to Callie in case the unimaginable were to happen again. With some urging from us to try the ground, Callie opened with her first out-of-doors clockwise circle all on her own. This was a new experience for her, and she looked like she was asking, “So when did this big yard get here?” The next session saw Callie climbing down from the landing about 10 separate times on her own to come out to investigate the yard, its smells, and the scenery all around her in every direction.
The Story continues…
(This brings us up to Christmas week, 2022)
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