PTSD In Military Dogs


Verified Military
Sep 7, 2006

Dogs bring home warʼs stress, too

By Michelle Tan - Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Dec 30, 2010 12:10:14 EST

SAN ANTONIO — Dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress, too.
Years of war and frequent deployments have affected military working dogs just as they have
humans, and Dr. Walter Burghardt is trying to do something about it.
Burghardt is chief of behavioral medicine for military working dog studies, assigned to the
Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base here.
While the Air Force is the executive agent for military working dog training, the Army is
charged with the dogs’ veterinary care, said Burghardt, an Army civilian.
“The dogs that go overseas … we’re starting to see some distress-related issues,” he said. “It
results in difficulty doing work. They’re distracted by loud noises. We’re not saying it’s the
same as in people, but there are common things.”
That includes hypervigilance or showing interest in escaping or avoiding places in which
they used to be comfortable. For example, a dog that used to work at a security checkpoint or
gate may try to pull away on his leash when he sees he’s being led to that checkpoint or gate,
Burghardt said.
Some of the dogs also become very clingy or more irritable or aggressive, the doctor said.
However, he cautioned, “canine [post-traumatic stress disorder] is only diagnosed if the dog
has combat exposure or repeated, prolonged deployments.”
Burghardt and his colleagues are already treating dogs with some of these stress-related
problems, but it’s too early to know how prevalent it is, he said.
“We’re going to formally diagnose this and evaluate them so we can capture data,” he said.
In 2007, Burghardt conducted a data call in which he asked all military veterinarians and
units with working dogs if they were seeing post-traumatic stress in their dogs.
“We got 25 responses saying yes,” he said.
Around the same time, a colleague who was working on her master’s degree found about 25
dogs with behavioral problems related to their experiences in combat zones, Burghardt said.
In the last year, any dog that was to be officially diagnosed with canine PTSD had to be
evaluated, reviewed and diagnosed by Burghardt.
“Last year we had about 30 cases,” he said. “This year, this week, I’ve had about six, and four
of the six will be diagnosed with canine PTSD.”
The big question, according to Burghardt, is whether canine PTSD is treatable.
“Maybe,” he said. “Some dogs may break permanently, but some can be rehabilitated and
sent back into the service. These are really highly valuable, athletic animals.”
The dogs under Burghardt’s care are being treated with medication or therapy or a
combination of the two, he said.
Dogs that are so distressed and scared that they’re shaking and hiding can sometimes be
given anti-anxiety medication, Burghardt said. Some dogs need antidepressants.
Therapy for the dogs can range from desensitization and counter-conditioning therapy to
recreational, social and work therapy, Burghardt said.
So far, about 25 percent of the dogs being treated are returned to service, he said.
Another 25 percent are assigned to other jobs, while 25 percent are retired and adopted by
families or go to work on a local police force, Burghardt said.
The remaining 25 percent need prolonged therapy.
“With dogs in prolonged therapy, we’re talking anywhere from 90 days to six months,” he
said. “If we can retrieve these dogs, we’re not only doing a good thing for these dogs but also
for the program. These dogs are daily saving lives.”
As he moves forward with caring for the military’s war-hardened dogs, Burghardt hopes to
do more.
In January he will convene a panel to study canine PTSD and behavioral issues. He also is
looking to develop behavioral and mental health checklists that dog handlers can fill out
before and after a deployment.
“We haven’t invested as much as we could in this,” he said. “We really want to do better and
we want to evaluate how we’re treating the dogs.”
In Peter Haran's book trackers he talks about the dogs being good for about 2-3 (1 year) tours before being considered pretty much non effective. They did these tours back to back, cycling through handlers, before being retired and adopted out to various Saigon embassy's.