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Military & Veterans' Issues

Military Dogs Showing Signs Of PTSD From Combat Deployments

America’s wars have long taken their toll on the people who fight them, and the recent attention to post-traumatic stress disorder has helped improve treatment for those who suffer; however, nightly newscasts and newspaper headlines never mention the military working dogs who are also changed by the combat zone.

"Ultimately we want these dogs to become military working dogs and go down range and save lives,” said Tech. Sgt. Joe Null, who fosters canine companions for the first few months of their lives to socialize them.

Llee, who was named after a fallen Army soldier, is one of the foster dogs and receives check-ups at the clinic on base regularly. Veterinary technicians make sure the Belgian Malinois is in tip-top shape.

Fostering and building trust

"I really enjoy being a foster to the dogs, to be honest with you," said Staff Sgt. Johnathan Winters, a handler instructor at Lackland. "He's [another foster dog] actually brought life to the family. My daughter loves this dog. She understands that we're going to give it back."

Fostering is an important part of the process, according to the Department of Defense’s military dog breeding program stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

"It's people's way of giving back by adopting one of these dogs and fostering it for that period of time," said the program’s supervisor Bernie Green.

Once the animals are house broken and comfortable around people, dogs that demonstrate playfulness and energy will be drafted into a rigorous training program and eventually will ship off on a tour of duty overseas with human troops.

Noticing that something was wrong

When the dogs showed signs they were suffering from nervous exhaustion – appearing distressed and confused, forgetting routine commands – doctors began wondering if canines could experience PTSD like people.

"It's not as if we're trying to call canine PTSD the same as human PTSD, although a number of the signs, the things that we see in the behaviors, are very similar," said Dr. Walter Burghardt, Chief of Behavioral Medicine and Military Working Dog Studies at Lackland.

Human psychiatrists, statisticians and veterinary behaviorists gathered at Lackland to hash out what more people were noticing -- that some dogs from war zones could be affected like people.

"It compromises the ability of the team to do its job," said Burghardt.

Coincidence or trend?

Burghardt said that only a few cases of the canine PTSD theory existed, until the evidence started to pile up.

"We started amassing more and more anecdotal cases and saying, 'Gee, this looks like it's something for real; looks like it's something that's consistently happening -- at a fairly low level -- but it's something that's happening,'" said Burghardt.

Burghardt said only 30 to 50 dogs have been identified as having PTSD symptoms so far, but that number is growing.

He said half of the dogs identified with PTSD are able to go back into service, but the others are retired and adopted out, or they are assigned other areas of service.

Improving treatment

The team treats the dogs using medicine or counter-conditioning to un-train a PTSD behavior, but one problem is that each dog's health and deployment history isn’t tracked the way a human warrior is. Burghardt wants that to change.

"So we can actually capture the data and look at the dog and say, 'Same or different, from time to time?' I think that's going to be a real benefit, both on the medical side for the dogs, but also on the behavior side for problem behaviors as well as for problems with performance," he said.

The world of medicine is beginning to accept canine PTSD as a valid symptom, but still others aren't convinced canine PTSD is real.

"You don't have to believe in this," said Burghardt. "You don't have to believe in bullets for them to kill you. And you kind of present it in that fashion. It's like, oh yeah, I can see where that would be happening in a dog from time to time and we need to start looking for it."

But, he noted, the effects of PTSD in dogs – and also in people, too – could last long after the last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.