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
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
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.
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