A recent New York Times article highlights the issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in military canines who have been deployed overseas. According to the article, over 5 percent of the now 650 military dogs deployed by US forces are developing some form of canine PTSD; half of which are likely to be retired from service. Canine PTSD is described as an 18-month old concept which is still being debated by veterinarians. Yet it is a growing concern for many military veterans who use the dogs to sniff out mines, track down enemy militants and clear buildings. Some dogs are exhibiting troubling behavior, specifically those who are exposed to explosions, gunfire, and other violence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The report explains how different dogs experience different symptoms. Some avoid areas where they were once comfortable, some become hyper-vigilant, and others undergo extreme changes in their temperament by either clinging to their handlers and acting timidly, or becoming unusually aggressive with their handlers. Most importantly, many of the dogs experiencing PTSD stop doing the tasks they were trained to do, such as sniffing out improvised explosive devices.
Military dogs have branched out to perform a number of specialized tasks. Most commonly, military bomb dogs are used to search for and detect IEDs, frequently used in Afghanistan and the major cause of casualties within the war there. The Marine Corps has begun using military dogs to track Taliban fighters and bomb-makers. Special Operations units train their dogs to accompany their teams on secret missions, like the dog brought on the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. With this growing importance of military working dogs, the article notes there has been a rise in the number of dogs on active duty. Currently, there are 2,700 working dogs, up from 1,800 in 2001; each susceptible to experiencing canine PTSD.
Treatment for canine PTSD is explained as “tricky,” as it differs for dogs that have experienced varying traumatizing events. In some cases, care can be as easy as taking a dog off of patrol and giving it exercise, playtime and obedience training. More serious cases have to undergo “desensitization counterconditioning,” during which the dog is exposed (at a safe distance) to a sight or sound that will trigger a certain reaction. This could be the sound of a gunshot or a loud bang. If the dog does not react, the dog is rewarded. The sight or sound is then moved a little bit closer each time the dog does not react. The article explains that dogs that do not recover as quickly as others through the treatment exercises are returned to their home bases for longer-term treatment.
To read the full article on canine PTSD, please visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/02/us/more-military-dogs-show-signs-of-combat-stress.html?_r=2.