Like humans, dogs can suffer from PTSD

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • Keesler Public Affairs
When Staff Sgt. Jay Martin was shot during his 2010 deployment, his partner stayed at his side during the medevac flight to a trauma unit. When Staff Sgt. Garth St. Clair carried his partner out of a building after an explosion in 2011, it wasn't immediately evident that his partner was deaf - he just had a limp from a leg injury as he kept scouring the area for improvised explosive devices. Tech. Sgt. Christopher Jarrell and his partner were pinned down side by side during a three-hour firefight with Taliban troops in 2011.

The partners of these 81st Security Forces Squadron members who deployed to Afghanistan had four legs, a tail and symptoms of what is being referred to as canine post-traumatic stress disorder. Military working dogs exposed to gunfire, explosions and other combat-related violence sometimes exhibit troubling behavior.

"It's important to understand that although we're calling this collection of behavioral problems in military working dogs canine PTSD, there's no indication that this is the same problem seen in humans with PTSD, even though they do appear to have some similarities," noted Dr. Walter Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

Out of the 2,366 MWDs currently on active duty, 325 are deployed, according to Tech. Sgt. Breon Shird, Department of Defense military working dog program action officer at the Air Force Security Forces Center at Lackland. He said that about 50 military working dogs have been killed in action since 2005.

"From 5 to 10 percent of the deployed canines have been identified with signs of PTSD," Burghardt explained. "The keys are that the dogs weren't showing problem signs during earlier employment, but develop some combination of the signs or hyperreactivity or hypervigilance, changes in relationship with their handler, escape or avoidance from work areas and task failure during or after prolonged deployment and exposure to combat environment and events."

"You know when something's not right," Martin insists. "Moods and frustrations run up and down the leash."

After Martin was wounded in a gunfight, his dog, Densy, remained with him on his flight to Kandahar for treatment.
"If one goes down, the other goes with him," he said of the special relationship between a handler and his dog. When Martin developed a staph infection and returned to Keesler, Densy remained by his side.

"Densy didn't eat for three days," Martin remembered. "She still hates explosions and loud booms."

During his deployment, St. Clair sustained a concussion when an improvised explosive device made a roof collapse. He carried his dog, Carlos, outside to safety.

"At first, I didn't realize Carlos was deaf - he was still following hand signals," St. Clair said. "An Army counterpart called him and there was no response - he had always responded to his name before. It took about three weeks for his hearing to return.

"Explosions had never fazed Carlos before," St. Clair observed. "After the attack, he would disappear and hide. He was good around gunfire, but not explosions. Even thunderstorms would get him looking for me."

"With Toki, hypervigilance was the thing - he became very skittish around large crowds, yet always on alert," Jarrell pointed out. "He's come out of that a little bit, but he still regresses from time to time."

If signs of PTSD are caught early, canine warriors may be treated at their deployed locations for three weeks or so. If more treatment is required, dogs are returned to their home station or field training locations.

Burkhardt described a process called desensitization counterconditioning in which dogs are exposed to low levels of environmental events, such as gunfire, that seem to trigger problem behaviors, but at a distance and level low enough that problem behaviors aren't demonstrated.

"At the same time, these patients are selectively rewarded for desired social and work-directed behaviors," he stated. "Over time, the canine team moves closer to the previously distressing environment in an attempt to overcome the distress reaction by rewarding the positive behaviors. This is often a fairly lengthy treatment."

"We start small and gradually go big until they can get used to it," Martin explained. "We use toys to make it fun and less frightening."

Sometimes medication like the anti-anxiety drug Xanax can be beneficial for dogs with moderate to severe symptoms that don't respond to initial behavioral treatment alone.

Because of practical requirements of employment and deployments, a treatment plan is considered either effective or ineffective within 12-16 weeks, Burkhardt said. Dogs that are unable to overcome canine PTSD symptoms are assigned to other law enforcement duties or may be made available for adoption.

"Keesler has one of the most combat-proven kennels I've ever worked in," said Jarrell. Six of Keesler's seven MWDs have had combat experience and often face back-to-back deployments.

"Our MWDs are living, breathing animals that feel pain," Martin stressed. "Some people think of them as equipment, but they aren't."

"Our canine partners have made a lot of saves," St. Clair remarked. "They should get medals for their bravery. Carlos is almost 12 year old and is nearly at the end of his combat days, but he has a huge heart and he's still eager to work."