June 2017: Canner’s Story – Chapter Two: Trauma


Canner’s Story by Mackenzie Cole


One misstep can mean big setbacks in the short run with traumatized animals because their brains simply react differently than animals who haven’t experienced trauma. Many people have run into skittish household pets, but comparing those to animals like Canner would be like comparing a guy with mild anxiety and one with PTSD. Someone with anxiety might avoid uncomfortable situations and may even develop compulsions to help soothe the anxiety, like foot tapping or licking their lips. Someone with PTSD, however, can literally stop breathing when triggered. They can fall into delusions or lose control of their bladder. They can also fly into a rage so intense they will attack their best friends.

Although it might seem counterintuitive to believe that animals can suffer from similar psychological disorders as humans, things like PTSD impact portions of the brain that we have in common, namely the hypothalamus and the amygdala.

Canner has symptoms like those of PTSD. Instead of aggressive behavior, he tends toward extreme flight. Like people with PTSD, his brain created this response because of several intense events where his amygdala convinced him his life was in extreme danger. In the world of behavior, when any animal learns to react based on this extreme level of sensitization, we describe them as traumatized and/or reactive.

PTSD in the Human Brain

Because this process is based equally on the animal’s interpretation of stimulus as the stimulus itself, it doesn’t always occur simply because of abuse. People ask me if someone abused Canner, and I simply can’t say. But his behavior tells me he was definitely traumatized. Some animals are naturally more sensitive to new stimuli; some simply did not receive enough exposure to new things during critical periods when they were young; and many suffer from both those possibilities in addition to abusive situations. Whatever is the case, it’s difficult to distinguish base causes, though the solutions to all of them are similar.

It is possible for an animal to be exposed to abuse and display no signs of trauma. If an animal is habituated to a negative stimulus, it can often withstand and potentially even come to enjoy it. Think about all the horrible jobs out there that people are perfectly willing to do because they receive a large reward for them.

For example, a friend of mine works in fracking. He’s regularly exposed to intense chemicals, long stretches of isolation, long hours of intense physical labor and lack of sleep, as well as occasionally witnessing someone severely injured. Many of these conditions can be considered abusive in certain contexts. He often expresses problems he has with the environmental impact of what he’s doing. But he’s willing to keep doing it because the paycheck has allowed him to buy a new truck, pay down his student loans, and enjoy other financial perks. Ultimately, the reward and his ability to choose the situation are what make it non-abusive. His work may affect him psychologically, but it would be a stretch to describe it as abusive.

In positive-reinforcement training, we call my friend’s big payment a jackpot. And jackpots can lead to sophisticated behavior chains where humans and/or animals choose to offer behaviors that would otherwise feel torturous.

But for traumatized animals, the opposite can be true. Rather than willingness to withstand what seems to most people minor adverse stimuli for what appear to be large rewards, they will turn fearful, aggressive, or shut down completely. Most are unwilling to work with or withstand any unfamiliar, sudden, or adverse stimuli. And it’s very easy to misjudge what might be averse to a traumatized animal, as it is often influenced by a variety of factors that can shift in any given moment.

Even a great trainer like Stan can make excellent progress and then make one mistake, trigger the animal, and unwind all the habituation that had been accomplished.

Everyone who works with traumatized animals regularly learns two lessons:

  1. You can never do too much management to make sure that if the animal is triggered, they won’t experience more than one negative stimulus in order to avoid the cascading effect that can happen when you stack adverse stimuli and, thereby, cause severe regression.
  2. It’s always better to go too slow. Most mistakes happen when you amp things up too fast and work toward rigid deadlines.

On seeing Stan in my kitchen, I knew right away that something had gone severely wrong with Canner. All I could think was, “Well, I hope no one got hurt.”


As far as he could tell, Stan hadn’t done anything different from the last several times he haltered and led Canner around the pasture. And he’s probably right. Canner was likely just having an off day, or caught scent of something that reminded him of his trauma, or the rope just flicked into his peripheral vision for a split second—who knows.

But Canner spooked and ran. Stan dropped the rope, as he should have (no one wins tug-of-war with a horse). And because he was already prone to being terrified of life, when the rope came after him, he treated it like it was death. He was so frightened that for three hours he ran full bore, only stopping when he fell over trying to get away, or freezing, stooped, his eyes on the rope, too terrified to move.

Stan tried to catch and calm him, but the horse wouldn’t have it. Eventually, Stan gave up and headed to town to see if I could help. He hoped that in the meantime Canner’s fear would extinct, meaning it would stop entirely because his nervous system couldn’t sustain it and the horse would realize there was nothing to be afraid of. This would be an example of flooding, an extreme form of exposure therapy, which presents the “scary” stimulus in maximum effect until the animal finally stops offering a frightened or reactive response, and occasionally results in the animal learning not to fear the stimulus at all, through extinction. But that’s a best-case scenario, and it can often have quite the opposite effect, further sensitizing the animal and creating a much worse problem by strengthening the neurological networks of trauma in the brain.

To be clear, Stan wasn’t trying to “break” Canner of his fear of ropes this way. He just hoped that Canner would figure it out, since he didn’t see another option and couldn’t get the rope off of him. The other possibility was that Canner would break a leg or run through a fence and somehow severely injure himself or someone else in the process, or even continue to react to the rope and overwhelm his body’s ability to cope, potentially causing a stroke or heart attack.

When we got back to Frenchtown three hours later, Canner was still trying to escape the rope. He would run from one end of the pasture to the other, usually trying to dodge the rope and falling. Twice I watched as he did full somersaults, which can break a horse’s neck. Once he attempted to stop fast and folded his front legs under himself, scrambling to get back up and turn to get away. I thought he had definitely broken his leg at least two separate times during those falls.

Fortunately, every once in a while, he would stop suddenly and turn so that the rope managed to stretch out ahead of him. He would freeze, then attempt to slowly back away, turning and bolting as he drew it after him. But I saw an opportunity there.

I got some grass and a clicker and jumped into the pasture. I tried to keep myself from adding any potential triggers, by moving to the middle away from him and waiting for him to stop with the rope in front of him. Canner came running at me, rope flicking off his side and spurring him on.

He paused 50 feet from me. I clicked to mark the stop and slowly walked toward him, grass out. He stayed frozen this time. I took a chance and marked again, being sure to approach at an angle and with my gaze averted so I couldn’t trigger any sort of predator/prey behaviors.

Canner snorted at the rope with loud, heavy breaths, nostrils flaring. I worked my way closer, taking up the rope very slowly, and then reached where it attached to the halter. Clicked for touching the clip, another click for the release. And then I dropped all the grass I had (always feed when you click) and turned and walked away. The adrenaline coursed within me, my veins went to beating quick and heavy, just as I imagined Canner’s were.

In a flash, Canner bucked and charged past me, kicking in what I can only call the sort of relief that comes when one of the scariest experiences of your life has suddenly come to an end.


Another thing ended that day: Stan’s training relationship with the horse. Canner refused to come to him from then on.

We couldn’t get the halter off for a week, until finally one day he let me get up to him again. I took it off and walked away and then headed home. And, to me, that was a huge win.

The experience with the rope sent Canner back to square one. He paced the fence again, nervous of people, and all the tension that had evaporated from his musculature had returned like dew to the grass.

Stan deemed Canner too dangerous to work with, and put his energy into his own horses and preparing for his trip into the backcountry. He thought Canner should be put down.

We talked about this a lot. Stan’s thinking made plenty of sense: with the economic downturn, there were lots of horses available for free or cheap that didn’t have Canner’s problems. Canner was a major drain on resources in terms of time and money to feed and pasture him. And he was potentially dangerous: if he spooked at the wrong time, he could hurt someone severely. But most importantly, it was hard to imagine that this horse, so easily terrified, would ever just settle down and relax enough to appreciate life. He was literally in a living hell.


Still, it seemed to me he wanted to live. Yes, he saw “monsters” in everything. Any new stimulus was a potential threat, and physiologically he responded to it like death was coming for him. He couldn’t distinguish between a plastic bag rolling across the ground or aspen leaves stirring in a wind: if it was sudden and new, he behaved as if it had claws and wanted to take him by the throat. But that also meant he had a strong desire to live, to keep going, to get away from danger and keep breathing.

To a lot of people, what the horse wanted wouldn’t be a factor. To some people, an animal is a possession, something they own and discard when it is inconvenient. To others, an animal is a being, but one incapable of feeling true emotions or “real” thought.

But everything I’ve seen tells me we really can’t know the full capacity of thought and emotion in other creatures. What we can know is that we have common evolution, and that means we share a lot of very similar regions in our brains with other mammals and, to a lesser extent, with other animals generally. These regions govern intense and immediate emotions, memory, and split-second reactions. They’re where our own basic thoughts start to form and how we, as animals, first receive and interpret the world in any given moment. They’re also where our emotions live.

By respecting that commonality, I’ve gotten to know a lot of different animals. I’ve seen them express thoughts that are a lot more complicated than they should be able to express. Thoughts like the goats who asked to be let out into a field, or the crows who have asked me to crack nuts for them. And science has begun to back up my observations. There’s plenty of research on the thinking capacity of crows and the mathematical and linguistic intelligence of dogs. Animals may think differently, but they definitely do think, especially when thinking is rewarded and nurtured, or even simply allowed. And to me that means we have an obligation to value them, not for what they can do for us, but for their own desires, just as we do humans.

Canner seemed to tell me he was terrified, but that he wanted to live. And that he was curious. That he was willing to believe something different about people if given the chance. Some animals, after going through a life like his, will “shut down.” They refuse to eat; they will lie down or not even move. Others become aggressive and will strike out. The base cause of these behaviors is usually fear.

But Canner tried to get away. He tried to live and do no harm. So when Stan felt like he could go no further, I decided I would try to train him, even though my experience training horses was limited, and my experience rehabilitating an extreme case like Canner was non-existent.

Canner’s owner lived in Minneapolis by this time and she was still hopeful. Because I was in graduate school and had no car, we worked out an arrangement where I would borrow her little Honda hatchback so I could get out to Frenchtown more often to check on and train Canner.

So, as Stan began making arrangements to take his horses north to Glacier, I started over again with Canner. I helped Stan with his work as I needed to learn what I could of traditional horse training, and slowly, over the next few months, worked hard on thoroughly counter-conditioning Canner to humans and all the different clothes they wear, ways they walk, and other sudden stimuli they present.


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