Dogs Suffer From War Also

SAN ANTONIO — The call came into the behavior specialists here from a

doctor in Afghanistan. His patient had just been through a firefight and

now was cowering under a cot, refusing to come out

Apparently even the chew toys hadn’t worked.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, thought Dr. Walter F. Burghardt Jr.,

chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working

Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base. Specifically, canine PTSD.

If anyone needed evidence of the frontline role played by dogs in war

these days, here is the latest: the four-legged, wet-nosed troops used

to sniff out mines, track down enemy fighters and clear buildings are

struggling with the mental strains of combat nearly as much as their

human counterparts.

By some estimates, more than 5 percent of the approximately 650 military

dogs deployed by American combat forces are developing canine PTSD. Of

those, about half are likely to be retired from service, Dr. Burghardt


Though veterinarians have long diagnosed behavioral problems in animals,

the concept of canine PTSD is only about 18 months old, and still being

debated. But it has gained vogue among military veterinarians, who have

been seeing patterns of troubling behavior among dogs exposed to

explosions, gunfire and other combat-related violence in Iraq and


Like humans with the analogous disorder, different dogs show different

symptoms. Some become hyper-vigilant. Others avoid buildings or work

areas that they had previously been comfortable in. Some undergo sharp

changes in temperament, becoming unusually aggressive with their

handlers, or clingy and timid. Most crucially, many stop doing the tasks

they were trained to perform.

“If the dog is trained to find improvised explosives and it looks like

it’s working, but isn’t, it’s not just the dog that’s at risk,” Dr.

Burghardt said. “This is a human health issue as well.”

That the military is taking a serious interest in canine PTSD

underscores the importance of working dogs in the current wars. Once

used primarily as furry sentries, military dogs — most are German

shepherds, followed by Belgian Malinois and Labrador retrievers — have

branched out into an array of specialized tasks.

They are widely considered the most effective tools for detecting the

improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, frequently used in

Afghanistan. Typically made from fertilizer and chemicals, and

containing little or no metal, those buried bombs can be nearly

impossible to find with standard mine-sweeping instruments. In the past

three years, I.E.D.’s have become the major cause of casualties in


The Marine Corps also has begun using specially trained dogs to track

Taliban fighters and bomb-makers. And Special Operations commandos train

their own dogs to accompany elite teams on secret missions like the Navy

SEAL raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Across

all the forces, more than 50 military dogs have been killed since 2005.

The number of working dogs on active duty has risen to 2,700, from 1,800

in 2001, and the training school headquartered here at Lackland has

gotten busy, preparing about 500 dogs a year. So has the Holland

hospital, the Pentagon’s canine version of Walter Reed Army Medical


Dr. Burghardt, a lanky 59-year-old who retired last year from the Air

Force as a colonel, rarely sees his PTSD patients in the flesh.

Consultations with veterinarians in the field are generally done by

phone, e-mail or Skype, and often involve video documentation.

In a series of videos that Dr. Burghardt uses to train veterinarians to

spot canine PTSD, one shepherd barks wildly at the sound of gunfire that

it had once tolerated in silence. Another can be seen confidently

inspecting the interior of cars but then refusing to go inside a bus or

a building. Another sits listlessly on a barrier wall, then after

finally responding to its handler’s summons, runs away from a group of

Afghan soldiers.

In each case, Dr. Burghardt theorizes, the dogs were using an object,

vehicle or person as a “cue” for some violence they had witnessed. “If

you want to put doggy thoughts into their heads,” he said, “the dog is

thinking: when I see this kind of individual, things go boom, and I’m


Treatment can be tricky. Since the patient cannot explain what is wrong,

veterinarians and handlers must make educated guesses about the

traumatizing events. Care can be as simple as taking a dog off patrol

and giving it lots of exercise, playtime and gentle obedience training.

More serious cases will receive what Dr. Burghardt calls

“desensitization counterconditioning,” which entails exposing the dog at

a safe distance to a sight or sound that might set off a reaction — a

gunshot, a loud bang or a vehicle, for instance. If the dog does not

react, it is rewarded, and the trigger — “the spider in a glass box,”

Dr. Burghardt calls it — is moved progressively closer.

Gina, a shepherd with PTSD who was the subject of news articles last

year, was successfully treated with desensitization and has been cleared

to deploy again, said Tech. Sgt. Amanda Callahan, a spokeswoman at

Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.

Some dogs are also treated with the same medications used to fight panic

attacks in humans. Dr. Burghardt asserts that medications seem

particularly effective when administered soon after traumatizing events.

The Labrador retriever that cowered under a cot after a firefight, for

instance, was given Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, and within days was

working well again.

Dogs that do not recover quickly are returned to their home bases for

longer-term treatment. But if they continue to show symptoms after three

months, they are usually retired or transferred to different duties, Dr.

Burghardt said.

As with humans, there is much debate about treatment, with little

research yet to guide veterinarians. Lee Charles Kelley, a dog trainer

who writes a blog for Psychology Today called “My Puppy, My Self,” says

medications should be used only as a stopgap. “We don’t even know how

they work in people,” he said.

In the civilian dog world, a growing number of animal behaviorists seem

to be endorsing the concept of canine PTSD, saying it also affects

household pets who experience car accidents and even less traumatic


Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the animal behavior clinic at the

Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said he had

written about and treated dogs with PTSD-like symptoms for years — but

did not call it PTSD until recently. Asked if the disorder could be

cured, Dr. Dodman said probably not.

“It is more management,” he said. “Dogs never forget.”

Article provided courtesy of NY Times

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