We know that many soldiers are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, but they're not the only ones disturbed by what they've seen in war zones. The concept is new, but military veterinarians say they're diagnosing service dogs with PTSD and even developing treatments, even though it's incredibly difficult when their patients can't tell them what they've witnessed.
Since people talk about pets who were once abused cowering from people or barking at certain objects it's a bit surprising that doggie PTSD is a new idea. However, the New York Times reports that it only became popular about 18 months ago and is still controversial. It's estimated that more than 5% of the roughly 650 military dogs currently in combat have the disorder. Soldiers are noticing that dogs they work with are undergoing drastic behavioral changes. Some become timid and want to stick with their handlers while others are suddenly agressive. Other dogs seem fine most of the time, but won't go near buildings they associate with violence and become alarmed by explosions when they weren't before.
About half of the dogs diagnosed with PTSD will be retired, but first the military tries to rehabilitate them. This has proven difficult since veteranarians have to guess about what's upsetting the dog. (Not that treatment is easy for their human companions. This week the Senate Veterans' Affairs committee heard testimony about servicemembers facing delays in treatment for PTSD at VA hospitals.) Some dogs just need a break. After some time of for exercise, play, and obedience training, they seem to improve. Dogs that are seriously traumatized undergo "desensitization counterconditioning" at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base. The dogs are exposed to triggering sights and sounds, like gunshots, explosions, or vehicles, and rewarded if they don't react. Over time trigger is moved closer and closer to show the dog that it isn't a threat at that distance. In some cases dogs are even prescribed anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax, though some experts oppose that treatment.
Dogs perform many tasks in combat that humans can't, and are particularly good at detecting I.E.D.s, which are extremely difficult to find using standard equipment. Dogs are vital to many military operations and it's generally considered better to risk an animal's life than a human's, but their use in war is still unsettling. On the one hand, the new awareness of PTSD in military dogs is positive because the treatments can be applied even to canines who haven't been in combat but were traumatized by car accidents or abuse. Yet, there's a disturbing undertone to the story that makes it impossible to simply enjoy some adorable photos of soldiers with their dogs. The dogs are all forced into service, and in addition to risking their lives, they're suffering from psychological trauma they can't explain we don't quite know how to treat.