PTSD Diagnosed Among Military Dogs
Now that military dogs are taking on a larger role in combat, they're also taking on more of the risks that come with going to war, including developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
The New York Times reports that more than 5 percent of the approximately 650 deployed military dogs are developing some form of canine PTSD. While the diagnosis is still being debated, some veterinarians are prescribing agressive treatment plans, which can include Xanax or other anti-anxiety drugs.
"It really is difficult, because once the dog experiences these traumatic explosions, it's the same as the troops," Army Lt. Col. Richard A. Vargus, chief of the law enforcement branch at CENTCOM told the Military Times in September. "Some dogs move right through it and it doesn't affect them. Some dogs, it takes some retraining, and some dogs just refuse to work."
Like humans, military dogs exhibit a range of changes in temperaments when they develop PTSD. Some become aggressive, others retreat. But because dogs can't express what the problem is, soldiers can be put at risk if their partner simply stops doing his job without warning.
"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. Walter F. Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base. told the Times. "This is a human health issue as well."
And searching for such devices has become a key responsibility for military dogs. Even after spending six years and nearly $19 billion on experimenting with innovative ways to detect bombs, the Pentagon admitted in 2010 that its most sophisticated technology was no match for a dog's nose, Wired.com reported.
The number of active duty dogs has increased to 2,700, from 1,800 in 2001, according to the Times.
"Electronic equipment is great in the laboratory, but out on the battlefield, you can't beat the dogs," Bill Childress,
manager of the Marine Corps working dog program told the Los Angeles Times.
One such dog, Gina -- who searched for explosives in Iraq -- appeared to have left the playful part of her personality behind when she came home. Gina developed into a fearful German shepherd who avoided people and hid under furniture, according to the Associated Press.
"She showed all the symptoms and she had all the signs," Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, the kennel master at Peterson Air Force Base, told the news outlet. "She was terrified of everybody and it was obviously a condition that led her down that road."
She gradually improved thanks to a healthy dose of walks with friendly people and a gradual reintroduction to military noises.
Just as physicians have yet to find a surefire way to treat PTSD among humans, so too are veterinarians weighing a wide range of options when it comes to helping their canine patients, according to The New York Times. Some focus on exercise and gentle obedience training, others go the more aggressive route and prescribe medications and counterconditioning.
But offering dogs the same innovative treatments that their human counterparts get, doesn't guarantee a full recovery, Nicholas Dodman, head of the animal behavior program at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine told the Associated Press.
"It's a fact that fears once learned are never unlearned," he said.