SAN ANTONIO - Over the past decade military working dogs have faithfully served their country by going into battle with their two-legged handlers.
Much like their human counterparts, some canines are showing signs of combat stress and have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"In 2007 we started seeing some dogs that were showing some behavior problems that we really didn't account for," said Dr. Walter Burghardt, Chief of Behavioral Medicine and Military Working Dog Studies at Lackland Air Force Base. "They were having problems doing what they were supposed to be doing for a living. The dogs were showing overactivity to sounds and other stimuli going on in their environment, they were hyper vigilant."
The anxiety exhibited by the highly trained dogs was very similar to some of the signs observed in soldiers that have been diagnosed with PTSD but there was no such diagnosis for dogs.
"We started calling this canine PTSD really for lack of a better name," Burghardt said. "Of course we can't ask the dogs some of things that go on in people's heads, like intrusive recollection and things like that but some of the signs were very similar."
Some of the dogs shut down and refused to work when put into stressful situations.
According to Burghardt, canine PTSD is a growing problem with 30 to 40 new cases in the past year.
"It's a huge number, in some ways it doesn't sound like it, but that's about 5% of the dogs," Burghardt said. "That's larger than any other cause of performance failure in a working dog. In other words, illnesses, injuries, even combat type wounds are really low compared to this type of problem developing in a dog."
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Once Burghardt and his team began focusing on PTSD veterinarians in the combat zone started treating the dogs with anti-anxiety medications and therapy that included reconditioning the dogs.
Some of the dogs were able to return to active duty in a short period of time while others were returned to their home installations where they were put through a lengthy recovery and retraining program. Some of those dogs were returned to service in new jobs while others had to be retired and adopted out.
"Working dogs are working dogs and they love to work so if they can stay in a working occupation that's preferable for them as well as for everyone else," Burghardt said. "If they really can't do that type of work then getting them into a home that is a suitable home for them and for that family is sometimes a really good outcome and it's something we can do."
Louisa Vaughan, a retired Army veterinary technician, adopted one of those canines with PTSD. Vaughn and her family adopted a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois named Chef who had developed emotional problems during his two tours in Iraq and a third deployment to Africa.
"He had severe gastrointestinal problems, he wouldn't eat or drink and he refused to work," Vaughn said. "His ideal weight was 86 pounds and when he got back he got all the way down to 59 pounds."
Chef was retired four years ago and has adapted to his civilian life but just like a two legged soldier, it doesn't' take much to trigger a flashback that will send him cowering in a corner.
"Thunderstorms are really bad, he'll make himself sick," Vaughan said. "Anytime there's a movie on television, combat movie where's there's gunfire, he just runs frantically and tries to get away."
While Vaughan has learned to help Chef deal with his anxiety, she's hopeful the ongoing studies at Lackland will help active duty canine's overcome their fears and keep serving their country.
"So far it does appear that those medications do really help us through the first couple of weeks," Burghardt said. "We're still trying to get more information about what is actually going on but hopefully in the future we're going to know a lot more."
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