In 2014 about 5-10% of deployed military working dogs showed signs of canine PTSD – but the disorder can affect dogs far away from battlefields too
From 2008 to 2009, Gina served a six-month tour of duty in Iraq. She was tasked with going door to door and flushing insurgents out after US marines threw flash-bang grenades in before her.
She became jittery and panicked, and was unable to perform her duties. So she was returned to the United States and a meeting was called to consult experts on the matter. While Gina’s symptoms lined up with those of post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition triggered by traumatic events, she was experiencing something the world wasn’t as familiar with: canine PTSD.
Wednesday marks Veterans Day, a time to honor all those who have served the US – including military dogs. The American Humane Association usually sponsors a float in New York City’s Veterans Day parade in honor of military working dogs, although this year it concentrated on its push for Congress to pass the National Defense Authorization Act, to ensure dogs are brought home after their service overseas.
Currently, there are approximately 1,700 military working dogs in service throughout the US Defense Department, according to a spokesman. They are used to sniff out mines, track enemy fighters and clear buildings. And their time in combat can lead to mental trauma, just as it can for their handlers and other soldiers.
In 2014, about 5-10% of US military working dogs who were deployed in combat settings were reported to have signs of canine PTSD – approximately 50 dogs. Since then, the numbers seem to have been decreasing, probably because fewer dogs are currently deployed, according to Dr Walter F Burghardt, chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E Holland military working dog hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
The mental health condition first came to public attention five years ago, when the diagnosis was officially recognized by the military in January 2010, according to Burghardt. Some in the veterinary field don’t fully recognize canine PTSD as a behavioral phenomenon. However, Burghardt said he had first seen anecdotal reports as early as 2007.
Dr Nicholas H Dodman, director of the animal behavior clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said he saw his first canine PTSD case in the 1980s, when he treated a dog named Elsa. While Burghardt believes “C-PTSD is diagnosed in [military working dogs] only when they have been exposed to a combat deployment”, Dodman said he has seen many household dogs who he believes are affected by it.
Elsa had never seen combat, but she had been shot by a police officer who thought she was going to attack him, according to reports. Following her physical recovery, she continued to behave strangely. She was hypervigilant, very clingy, needy and unable to sleep at night. Elsa also avoided people and things that reminded her of the incident, including policemen, black people (the officer who shot her was African American) and flashing lights.
The symptoms surrounding canine PTSD differ from case to case. Some dogs are over-responsive; others undergo changes in temperament toward their handlers, becoming more aggressive, clingy or timid. Some attempt to escape or avoid some settings. And many fail to successfully complete the tasks they have been trained to perform.
But because dogs cannot talk, veterinarians can obviously never truly know what they are thinking or feeling.
Treatment for these cases also varies. Anti-anxiety medications can be used for short-term management, and for more difficult cases longer-term medications like antidepressants might be used. Generally, dogs are retrained to be desensitized to distressing events and situations. Veterinarians also employ “counter-conditioning to reinforce successful task behaviors”.
Canines are brought to the Holland military working dog hospital in rare cases but generally they are assessed and treated either in the field, at their home station or at field training sites. “It is important for the MWD to work with their normal handler in problem-appropriate settings,” Burghardt said.
The timeline of treatment is patient specific. Some cases that are caught early are resolved quickly, others take longer. While symptoms may decrease and behavior may normalize, Dodman does not believe canine PTSD can ever fully be cured as dogs are “very precariously balanced and always have the possibility of going back into the full-blown syndrome”.
“The challenge that we run into, and this is true for PTSD as well as almost any other issue where there’s been some sort of trauma, is that we can layer on new emotional responses and we can teach coping skills but what we can’t do is erase the memory of whatever that trauma was,” said Dr Christopher Pachel, a veterinarian with the Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, Oregon.
For Burghardt, there is a “practical limit” of three months for treatment. If a military working dog does not show enough improvement to return to service, normally they are either transferred to non-combat employment or put up for adoption.
There are several organizations dedicated to the care of veteran dogs, as the recovery journey can be lengthy and costly for their owners. One of these groups, Combat Canines: The DDoc Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to help with the financial burden of adopting a veteran dog, has helped 28 dogs since May 2013, according to founder Chloe Wells.
“Canine PTSD is still a relatively new diagnosis and there is much we do not, and may not ever, understand about it,” Wells said.
After adopting former military dog, DDoc, who was suffering from canine PTSD and was in danger of being put down, Wells started the organization to help other retired military dogs.
“They have selflessly risked their lives all for a toy [reward] and the loving touch of their handler,” she said. “It’s the least we could do for them.”