Military Dogs Suffer From PTSD

About 10 percent of dogs sent to Iraq and Afghanistan have developed canine post-traumatic stress disorder, say military veterinarians.

Dogs and humans can both suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to veterinarians and senior dog handlers Lackland Air Force Base.

Military dogs appear to be most at risk, but it's likely any intense, stressful period could induce the debilitating condition.

"This is something that does not get better without intervention," Walter Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine and military working-dog studies at Lackland, told the Los Angeles Times. "They're essentially broken and can't work.

He estimates that 10 percent of dogs sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to safeguard U.S. troops have developed canine post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Treatment may involve conditioning, retraining and drugs like Xanax. That anti-anxiety drug, as for many meds, comes with its own laundry list of side effects documented in humans. With or without drugs, recovery from canine PTSD is often only partial.

One dog with a relatively mild case is Cora, a Belgian Malinois

who used to sniff out buried bombs. For just verbal praise, a short play session or a food treat, she'd search over long distances. When she detected an explosive, she'd lie down as a visual cue.

"Cora always thought everything was a big game," said Air Force Tech.

Sgt. Garry Laub. He trained Cora before she deployed. "She knew her job. She was a very squared-away dog."

After months of active duty in Iraq, however, Cora changed. The once-independent dog hated to be alone. Loud noises made her jump, and the previously friendly canine started to growl and pick fights with other dogs.

"Dogs experience combat just like humans," said Marine Staff Sgt.

Thomas Gehring, a dog handler at Lackland who works with Cora.

Physically, she looks fine. Cora is a fit, 60-pound dog with a shiny coat. But it sounds like she now suffers from permanent mental scars. She used to anticipate her handler's orders and show excitement about her military work.

That's now all in the past. The Cora of today is moodier and less eager. She's a bit older now, of course, but age isn't the only explanation for her change in behavior. At least she still enjoys head pats and doggy biscuits. She's again one of the more treatable, mild cases.

Most U.S. military dogs are trained at Lackland, so it's fitting that the base should be the site of the new U.S. Working Dog Teams National Monument, which will be unveiled in January. The monument will be the first ever national monument to pay tribute to military dogs.

(Image: "Jackson," another military dog, working on a mission in Iraq; Credit: Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall)