Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a well-recognized, well-documented and widely treated condition in people.
Now the condition has been diagnosed in military working dogs (MWDs).
It has long been known that working dogs in any field require a balance of “work and play.” Constantly alerting on bombs, detecting drugs or other types of canine occupation can lead to burnout. Put most simply, dogs cannot stay in extended “alert status” without there being a physical and/or emotional price to pay.
On the front lines of this diagnosis is military veterinarian Dr. Walter F. Burghart, Jr. Dr. Burghart is the Chief of Behavioral Medicine and Military Working Dog Studies at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX. (Colonel Burghart has since retired.)
About half of the dogs so-diagnosed can return to duty, Dr. Burghart says. The other half are retired from service. Between 5 and 10 percent of the canine working force experiences PTSD. Some of those continuing to work cannot return to war, but may be able to work domestically in law enforcement.
Although Lackland is an Air Force base (and where I took my AF basic training in the 70s), MWDs for all branches are trained there. Supplemental training is performed at other bases, including Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia.
While it is not possible to know all of the triggers, it is known that some dogs experience relapses even when working in conditions very different from the source of their initial cause. Something in the dog’s memory, it seems, reminds them of the original insult, leading to recrudescence of symptoms.
Some trainers believe that the handler’s response to an event may be the spark for relapse. Handler and dog are inextricably intertwined. They have a connection like any partnership, so sensing each other’s emotions is not surprising. Handlers even speak of the leash as an umbilical cord. Some say that the trainer’s emotions “travel down the leash,” sharing the human’s feelings with the dog’s.
Titling the condition “Canine PTSD” did not come without careful thought. While you and I think our dogs hung the moon and stars, not everyone thinks of canine companions in that way.
One factor was that those involved in diagnosis and treatment didn’t want to convey disrespect for military veterans who suffer from the disorder.
Another is that veterinarians make assumptions based on what we see. As Colonel Burghart says, “You can’t ask them questions.”
Furthermore, it is important for treatment to fully evaluate the patient. If a working dog is trained to detect bombs, human life is on the line, too. Some dogs will appear to be working, when, in fact, they are just going through the motions, perhaps too afraid or too anxious to actually “alert” when they detect explosive material.
Medications can supplement counter-conditioning therapy. The first step is to gain the wounded dog’s trust. That is impossible if he has so much anxiety that he can’t concentrate. Next comes the physical component: if the MWD is afraid of the dark he is gradually introduced to lower and lower light levels. If loud noises cause him to cease working, low-volume noises are associated with food and treats, thus turning a negative into a positive.
Most dogs are given a maximum of 3 months to recover and return to duty. Failing that, they go on to less intense work or retire completely.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, well-known canine behavior specialist and pioneer in the field was asked whether PTSD could be cured. He says probably not. “It is more management. Dogs never forget.”
See you next week, Dr. Randolph.