Battling Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

August 17, 2016
Kristi Rosa

Early identification and intervention for canine troops that exhibit symptoms of C-PTSD is needed in order to ensure safety in combat environments as well as provide the enlisted dogs with adequate and effective treatment.

Since World War I, dogs have been enlisted into the military and deployed into combat environments to fight for their country alongside their human counterparts. These canine troops remain ready to serve today, despite a notable decline in deployment in recent years due to post-traumatic stress disorder. Walter Burghardt, PhD, chief of behavioral medicine and military working dog studies at Lackland Air Force Base, said, “Dogs are trained and maintained. They will serve typically until age eight or nine. If any dog beings to show signs of stressful behavior, we quickly intervene.”

Dr. Burghardt, who is responsible for 2,000 Military Working Dogs (MWD) worldwide, spoke on August 6, 2016 at the American Veterinary Medical Association Convention held from August 5-August 9 in San Antonio, Texas.

According to a press release, combat-related behavioral issues developed by the dogs were given a name: Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), only within the past decade, despite the fact that the US military has enlisted canines for over 100 years now.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as “a disorder that develops in some…who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” According to press release from the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal, dogs are one of the most effective means when it comes to hidden explosive detection, and thus, are used extensively by the military, which makes it easy to understand how canines are subject to C-PTSD.

Dr. Burghardt explained, “We began identifying more and more afflicted dogs, at the height of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These dogs were failing in service; they were unable to do something they were trained to do and had always done successfully.”

In 2010, a meeting sponsored by the US Army Veterinary Corps was held to draw expertise in veterinary as well as human medicine. It was here that the Corps adopted the diagnoses of C-PTSD to identify traumatized dogs, due to the fact that the panel came to the conclusion that there was an increase in behavioral issues as well as increased performance failure in MWD when put into combat environments.

When speaking of the symptoms or signs that the dogs exhibited, Dr. Burghardt said, “Dogs with C-PTSD show definite signs of distress. We’ll observe things like overreaction to noise, a change in response to the handler or attempts to escape or avoid a situation.” According to the press release, canines who specialize in the detection of explosives alone are at a higher risk compared with dual-purpose dogs who are trained to detect substances as well as exhibit controlled aggression.

“Above all, the fundamental goal is to keep everyone safe. If we have a dog with a transient response to a combat situation, we’ll pull him out for a short period of time so he can be evaluated and managed. If the behavior worsens, we’ll need to provide more definitive treatment.” said Dr. Burghardt.

The key to providing initial treatment to dogs who may be suffering from C-PTSD is to work on their skills and interaction with their handlers in a quieter environment, according to the press release. Depending on each individual situation, medication can be added to treatment plans. Trainers use positive reinforcement when the dogs exhibit preferable behavior.

However, if the dog still appears upset after several weeks of care, they will then be sent back to their home base for “longer term follow up, desensitization, and counter-conditioning." The therapy that occurs at the home base is limited to four months, and puts the canines into settings similar to combat environments that had previously caused the dogs distress. Anti-depressants may also be administered to the dogs depending on the case. If the dogs do not respond to this treatment, they will either be assigned to other duties or retired, in which their service comes to a close as they are put for adoption.

With the assistance of a personal care plan, at least 50% of dogs are able to remain on duty and less than 25% percent of dogs can remain in service without intensive treatment. Dr. Burghardt said, “It’s a good outcome. The key is early identification. The quicker we can get a dog out of stress, the more successful we will be in our treatment.”

In addition to early identification and treatment, both handlers and veterinarians must be educated in recognizing the common symptoms that canines in service tend to exhibit. Through increased knowledge and understanding of C-PTSD, new cases of the disorder have experienced a notable decline between 2013 and 2015.

When speaking of the implications of understanding stressors in canines, Dr. Burghardt added, “There are significant adverse reactions of animals to stressors, responses that are related to performance of task-related behaviors. Our work with Canine PTSD may be relevant to other animal populations.”