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Military Dogs and Combat Stress

Dogs may suffer from canine PTSD

By Pet Lover
January 2, 2012

It seems that military dogs can face some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Estimates prove that close to 5% of all American military dogs deployed at combat forces develop canine PTSD.

And, this information shouldn’t came as a surprise, as those dogs are exposed to stressful and dangerous situations, sniffing out mines, clearing buildings and tracking down enemy fighters. It is very likely that they feel mental distress almost as much as humans do.

The concept of canine PTSD is rather new, but military veterans claim that they’ve witnessed disturbing behavior among dogs that were exposed to gunfire, explosions and other combat-related violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. The behavioral patterns of distressed military dogs vary, depending on the level of stress and different temperaments of the dogs. Some of them become extraordinarily aggressive with their handlers, and some start to avoid certain areas that they used to be comfortable at. It may happen that some of those dogs simply stop performing the task that they were trained for.

Dr. Burghardt, veterinarian and retired Air Force colonel, has made a series of videos for the purpose of training veterinarians to recognize canine PTSD. Some clear signs are, for example, if a dog widely barks at the sound of gunfire which it has tolerated before. Another example in one of the videos is a case of a dog whose task was to inspect car interiors, but now refuses to get into a bus or a building. The most obvious symptom of canine PTSD is if an animal runs away from situations, people or places it was previously comfortable with. Dr. Burghardt explains that distressed dogs use an object, vehicle or person as a “cue” for some violence they had witnessed.

Treatment of canine PTSD is rather difficult because the diagnoses can not be made easily. A dog can not explain what is wrong, but veterinarians and handlers should try to guess which event was deemed traumatic. In some minor cases, treatment is very simple: it is enough to provide a dog with a lot of exercise, playtime and obedience training.

Another method, for more serious cases, is called “desensitization counter conditioning”. This treatment is performed by exposing a dog to whatever has caused a condition (gunshot, explosion…), but from the safe distance. If a dog does not react, it gets rewarded, and the next day the dog is moved closer. This process repeats as many times as necessary. Actually, this method has proven to be very successful.

Nevertheless, some dogs are treated with medications used for curing panic attacks in humans. Such treatment have proven to be the most effective if administered right after a traumatic event.

If the recovery progress is slow, dogs are taken to their home bases for additional treatment. Sometimes they are even put into early retirement.

Some cases of canine PTSD symptoms were also seen in some household pets that experience car accidents or a similar traumatizing event. Experts believe that, using different treatments, dogs can be retrained to ignore the triggers of their condition, but they never really forget.


The New York Times

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