- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense perceiver of the divine in the canine
We’ve said it here before but we’ll say it again: Yes. Military working dogs deployed to combat zones can become afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), just like their human handlers. And some, according to a new, buzz-worthy NY Times article, “After Duty, Dogs Suffer Like Soldiers,” are even being treated in the same way as humans — with Xanax.
Over the last year or so the military has made a big push to up its numbers of handler-dog teams on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, the more dogs that go to war, the more dogs there are who are likely to suffer the traumas of combat. According to the article: “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 [chief of behavioral medicine at Lackland’s MWD hospital] said.”
While the article points out early on that “the concept of canine PTSD is only about 18 months old, and still being debated,” canine PTSD is nothing new. It’s been around as long as dogs have been fighting alongside soldiers. But what I think is actually noteworthy here is that the term has as the article says, recently “gained vogue among military veterinarians.” Maybe now canine PTSD will get the attention and resources it deserves.
As handlers have told me, sometimes there’s just no way to know how a dog will handle the stress of an actual firefight — even if they tolerated the noise of a ammunition on a training facility back on base, doesn’t mean they’ll handle it the same once deployed. And some dogs — remember Gunner? — don’t even make it through the earliest stages of that transition to combat zone.
There has been headway in rehabilitating canines showing symptoms of PTSD, even with those dogs who are almost completely debilitated by their fear of sudden noises, strangers, or the dark. But these methods vary in time and intensity, availability of resources, and degrees of success. As more dogs are put into service, the problem is likely to rise and the military will have to adapt to keep up the number of active, high-performing dogs on the ground.
So how do we solve a problem like MWD PTSD?
One Army veterinarian commented on a MWD Facebook forum in response to the NY Times article, the answer is not to wait and depends first and foremost on vigilance of the handler who, upon seeing and signs of stress or trauma, must immediately alert a veterinarian so that the appropriate meds and therapy can be applied as soon as possible.
“Remember,” she writes, “It takes a TEAM to combat cPTSD!”
In other War Dog news: Peg, a stray adopted by the family of a fallen parachutist, Pte. Conrad Lewis, is finally out of quarantine and is going home, for real this time. And Gracie, a dog rescued from Afghanistan by U.S. soldiers needs a home. She lost a leg and part of both ears to neglect but makes up for it in spades with her loving disposition. Any takers?