09 December 2011

Military dogs returning from combat with PTSD

Since 2001, the number of working dogs in the U.S. military has risen from 1,800 to 2,700. As a result, more than 5 percent of the 650 dogs currently deployed by American forces have developed Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Every year, about 500 military working dogs are produced at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base (located 6 miles west-southwest of San Antonio, Texas).  Most of the dogs at Lackland are Labradors; however, Belgian Malinois are also used. According to a fact sheet from the U.S. military's working dog unit, these breeds "have the best overall combination of keen sense of smell, endurance, speed, strength, courage, intelligence and adaptability to almost any climatic condition". 

The history of dogs in warfare dates back centuries; however, their use became spotlighted in more recent times when, in 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued an order banning their use during interrogations at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Since this ban only applied to Guantanamo, those locked up elsewhere remained unaffected. According to testimony, guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq unmuzzled dogs for use outside interrogation rooms during shakedowns and cell searches. At least two instances were uncovered involving dogs biting prisoners, one resulting in serious injury.

Today, most military working dogs are trained to sniff out improvised explosive devices, weapons caches, track missing soldiers, and perform traditional sentry duty.

Like their handlers, dogs endure repeated deployments, sometimes as many as four. Dogs generally retire from the military between the ages of 8 or 9. PTSD symptoms can include a startled reaction to loud noises, panic attacks, sleeping problems, and loss of social skills.

Many war dogs are placed on antidepressants such as Xanax, despite the nasty side effects of such medications. Lee Charles Kelley, a dog trainer, told the New York Times that these drugs should only be used temporarily because "we don't even know how they work in people".

Dr. Walter F. Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine at the Lackland dog hospital, told the New York Times that for severe cases of PTSD, "desensitization counterconditioning" is often prescribed. This process involves exposing the dog at a safe distance to a sight or sound that might set off a reaction (such as a gunshot, loud bang, vehicle, etc.); if the dog does not react, s/he is rewarded, and the trigger is moved progressively closer until the reaction disappears.

So far, approximately 20 Labrador retrievers have been killed in action since 2007, most in explosions. Within the Special Operations Command, the home of the dog that went on the Bin Laden mission in May, some 34 dogs were killed between 2006 and 2009, as reported by the New York Times.

After enduring a life of violence, it's hardly surprising that dogs are increasingly returning to the United States with PTSD symptoms. Though a cure for this new disease is likely years away, perhaps the most obvious solution to canine PTSD would be not sending dogs to war in the first place.

Jonathan Reynolds
Jonathan is a freelance writer and blogger residing in upstate New York.

Photo credit: Zenner