• Thanks for stopping by. Logging in to a registered account will remove all generic ads. Please reach out with any questions or concerns.

Military war Dogs also suffer from PTSD after combat


Full Member
Reaction score
Sorry if this is in the wrong section, wasn't too sure.

After Duty, Dogs Suffer Like Soldiers


SAN ANTONIO — The call came into the behavior specialists here from a doctor in Afghanistan. His patient had just been through a firefight and now was cowering under a cot, refusing to come out.

Apparently even the chew toys hadn’t worked.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, thought Dr. Walter F. Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base. Specifically, canine PTSD.

If anyone needed evidence of the frontline role played by dogs in war these days, here is the latest: the four-legged, wet-nosed troops used to sniff out mines, track down enemy fighters and clear buildings are struggling with the mental strains of combat nearly as much as their human counterparts.

By some estimates, more than 5 percent of the approximately 650 military dogs deployed by American combat forces are developing canine PTSD. Of those, about half are likely to be retired from service, Dr. Burghardt said.

Though veterinarians have long diagnosed behavioral problems in animals, the concept of canine PTSD is only about 18 months old, and still being debated. But it has gained vogue among military veterinarians, who have been seeing patterns of troubling behavior among dogs exposed to explosions, gunfire and other combat-related violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like humans with the analogous disorder, different dogs show different symptoms. Some become hyper-vigilant. Others avoid buildings or work areas that they had previously been comfortable in. Some undergo sharp changes in temperament, becoming unusually aggressive with their handlers, or clingy and timid. Most crucially, many stop doing the tasks they were trained to perform.

“If the dog is trained to find improvised explosives and it looks like it’s working, but isn’t, it’s not just the dog that’s at risk,” Dr. Burghardt said. “This is a human health issue as well.”

That the military is taking a serious interest in canine PTSD underscores the importance of working dogs in the current wars. Once used primarily as furry sentries, military dogs — most are German shepherds, followed by Belgian Malinois and Labrador retrievers — have branched out into an array of specialized tasks.

They are widely considered the most effective tools for detecting the improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, frequently used in Afghanistan. Typically made from fertilizer and chemicals, and containing little or no metal, those buried bombs can be nearly impossible to find with standard mine-sweeping instruments. In the past three years, I.E.D.’s have become the major cause of casualties in Afghanistan.

The Marine Corps also has begun using specially trained dogs to track Taliban fighters and bomb-makers. And Special Operations commandos train their own dogs to accompany elite teams on secret missions like the Navy SEAL raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Across all the forces, more than 50 military dogs have been killed since 2005.

The number of working dogs on active duty has risen to 2,700, from 1,800 in 2001, and the training school headquartered here at Lackland has gotten busy, preparing about 500 dogs a year. So has the Holland hospital, the Pentagon’s canine version of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Dr. Burghardt, a lanky 59-year-old who retired last year from the Air Force as a colonel, rarely sees his PTSD patients in the flesh. Consultations with veterinarians in the field are generally done by phone, e-mail or Skype, and often involve video documentation.

In a series of videos that Dr. Burghardt uses to train veterinarians to spot canine PTSD, one shepherd barks wildly at the sound of gunfire that it had once tolerated in silence. Another can be seen confidently inspecting the interior of cars but then  refusing to go inside a bus or a building. Another sits listlessly on a barrier wall, then after finally responding to its handler’s summons,  runs away from a group of Afghan soldiers.

In each case, Dr. Burghardt theorizes, the dogs were using an object, vehicle or person as a “cue” for some violence they had witnessed. “If you want to put doggy thoughts into their heads,” he said, “the dog is thinking: when I see this kind of individual, things go boom, and I’m distressed.”

Treatment can be tricky. Since the patient cannot explain what is wrong, veterinarians and handlers must make educated guesses about the traumatizing events. Care can be as simple as taking a dog off patrol and giving it lots of exercise, playtime and gentle obedience training.

More serious cases will receive what Dr. Burghardt calls “desensitization counterconditioning,” which entails exposing the dog at a safe distance to a sight or sound that might set off a reaction — a gunshot, a loud bang or a vehicle, for instance. If the dog does not react, it is rewarded, and the trigger — “the spider in a glass box,” Dr. Burghardt calls it — is moved progressively closer.

Gina, a shepherd with PTSD who was the subject of news articles last year, was successfully treated with desensitization and has been cleared to deploy again, said Tech. Sgt. Amanda Callahan, a spokeswoman at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.

Some dogs are also treated with the same medications used to fight panic attacks in humans. Dr. Burghardt asserts that medications seem particularly effective when administered soon after traumatizing events. The Labrador retriever that cowered under a cot after a firefight, for instance, was given Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, and within days was working well again.

Dogs that do not recover quickly are returned to their home bases for longer-term treatment. But if they continue to show symptoms after three months, they are usually retired or transferred to different duties, Dr. Burghardt said.

As with humans, there is much debate about treatment, with little research yet to guide veterinarians. Lee Charles Kelley, a dog trainer who writes a blog for Psychology Today called “My Puppy, My Self,” says medications should be used only as a stopgap. “We don’t even know how they work in people,” he said.

In the civilian dog world, a growing number of animal behaviorists seem to be endorsing the concept of canine PTSD, saying it also affects household pets who experience car accidents and even less traumatic events.

Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the animal behavior clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said he had written about and treated dogs with PTSD-like symptoms for years — but did not call it PTSD until recently. Asked if the disorder could be cured, Dr. Dodman said probably not.

“It is more management,” he said. “Dogs never forget.”



Sr. Member
Reaction score
Good article.  I am not surprised that dogs and animals in general would be dealing with these issues.  Some if it as stated might be based on experiences such as a vehicle being associated with loud explosions etc.  Animals learn, both positive and negative association.  Just like an animal that is abused can develop a temperament to avoid people, an animal that has been exposed to enemy contact and explosions could develop a temperament to avoiding those situations that can bring about those things.


It's good to see that those faithful comrades are going to get help if needed, not like in the past.  Photos at story link. 

Military's dogs of war also suffer post-traumatic stress disorder
- Canine PTSD is now recognized by military dog specialists as a combat affliction, and they're learning to treat it.

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

November 26, 2012
LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — Not long after a Belgian Malinois named Cora went off to war, she earned a reputation for sniffing out the buried bombs that were the enemy's weapon of choice to kill or maim U.S. troops.

Cora could roam a hundred yards or more off her leash, detect an explosive and then lie down gently to signal danger. All she asked in return was a kind word or a biscuit, maybe a play session with a chew toy once the squad made it back to base.

"Cora always thought everything was a big game," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Garry Laub, who trained Cora before she deployed. "She knew her job. She was a very squared-away dog."

PHOTOS: Military dogs

But after months in Iraq and dozens of combat patrols, Cora changed. The transformation was not the result of one traumatic moment, but possibly the accumulation of stress and uncertainty brought on by the sharp sounds, high emotion and ever-present death in a war zone.

Cora — deemed a "push-button" dog, one without much need for supervision — became reluctant to leave her handler's side. Loud noises startled her. The once amiable Cora growled frequently and picked fights with other military working dogs.

When Cora returned to the U.S. two years ago, there was not a term for the condition that had undercut her combat effectiveness and shattered her nerves. Now there is: canine post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Dogs experience combat just like humans," said Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Gehring, a dog handler assigned to the canine training facility at Lackland Air Force Base, who works with Cora daily.

Veterinarians and senior dog handlers at Lackland have concluded that dogs, like humans, can require treatment for PTSD, including conditioning, retraining and possibly medication such as the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. Some dogs, like 5-year-old Cora, just need to be treated as honored combat veterans and allowed to lead less-stressful lives.

Walter Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine and military working-dog studies at Lackland, estimates that at least 10% of the hundreds of dogs sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to protect U.S. troops have developed canine PTSD.

Cora appears to have a mild case. Other dogs come home traumatized.

"They're essentially broken and can't work," Burghardt said.

There are no official statistics, but Burghardt estimates that half of the dogs that return with PTSD or other behavioral hitches can be retrained for "useful employment" with the military or law enforcement, such as police departments, the Border Patrol or the Homeland Security Department.

The others dogs are retired and made eligible for adoption as family pets.

The decision to officially label the dogs' condition as PTSD was made by a working group of dog trainers and other specialists at Lackland. In most cases, such labeling of animal behavior would be subjected to peer review and scrutiny in veterinary medical journals.

But Burghardt and others in the group decided that they could not wait for that kind of lengthy professional vetting — that a delay could endanger those who depend on the dogs.

Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the military has added hundreds of canines and now has about 2,500 — Dutch and German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labrador retrievers — trained in bomb detection, guard duty or "controlled aggression" for patrolling.

Lackland trains dogs and dog handlers for all branches of the military. The huge base, located in San Antonio, has a $15-million veterinary hospital devoted to treating dogs working for the military or law enforcement, like a Border Patrol dog who lost a leg during a firefight between agents and a suspected drug smuggler.

"He's doing fine, much better," the handler yelled out when asked about the dog's condition.

Cora received her initial training here and then additional training with Laub at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. Before they could deploy, however, Laub was transferred to Arkansas, and Cora shipped off to Iraq with a different handler, much to Laub's regret.

"I'll always remember her as the girl who got away," Laub said. "She and I had clicked so well."

The bond between handlers and military working dogs is legendary. Army 1st Sgt. Casey Stevens has a catch in his voice when he mentions Alf, the German shepherd with whom he deployed to Iraq. Alf survived the war and died in the U.S. of natural causes.

"He saved my life several times; he had my back," Stevens said. "Some guys talk to their dogs more than they do to their fellow soldiers. They're definitely not equipment."

"Equipment" is a kind of dirty word among dog handlers. In the Vietnam War, the military left behind hundreds of working dogs, determining that they were excess equipment. That will never occur again, military officials promise.

But when some of the current generation of war dogs returned to the U.S., their handlers noticed the lingering effects of battle.

Stevens has seen once-confident dogs freeze up when going through an easy training exercise. "They would just shut down," he said. "I think they were going through memories."

Just why Cora's behavior changed is unknown. One possibility is that she sensed the apprehension of her handler or other troops around her — that classic battlefield concern that after months of survival, your luck is running out. A working dog has been trained to understand and even anticipate the handler's needs and moods.

"There's a saying in canine handling: Your emotion goes 'down the leash,'" Laub said. "The handler's stress goes right to the dog."

Calling Cora's condition canine PTSD drives home a point that Burghardt feels is key: "This is something that does not get better without intervention."

Two factors slowed down the decision to label canine PTSD. For one, Burghardt and others did not want to suggest disrespect for the military personnel who have been diagnosed with the disorder.

Second is the problem faced by any veterinarian. "You can't ask them questions," Burghardt said.

The goal is to "rebuild and recondition" an afflicted dog, said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Charles Rudy, instructor supervisor at the dog training school.

"It's really counter-conditioning," Rudy said. "You find out what the dog doesn't enjoy and then find what will overpower that."

If the dog is afraid of the dark, exercises involve a decreasing amount of light, with the dog given treats and positive reinforcement each time it successfully enters a dimly lighted space. The same approach is used if the problem involves places that are noisy or crowded with people.

At a compact 60 or so pounds, Cora is fit and bright-eyed, her coat is shiny and she can still outrun most other dogs. Thanks to retraining and shielding her from battle, she has calmed down somewhat.

She no longer snarls at other dogs. But neither does she anticipate her handler's orders or quiver with excitement at the idea of sniffing out hidden explosives. Like many a human veteran, Cora is marked forever by having gone to war.

One recent day, Cora appeared to work well with Cpl. Drew Daniel Adams, a trainee from the Marine base in Yuma, Ariz. Cora stayed close by Adams but gave off a vibe to other humans of "don't get too close to me."

Sometimes Cora will appear to respond to a command and then decide that, no, she would rather sit down and rest.

"Sometimes she just doesn't do what she's asked," Rudy said. But her occasional moodiness makes her an excellent trainer of trainers. "It's beneficial because [the trainees] get to see not just when things are working right, but when things aren't working. That increases their skills."

Trainees admire Cora as a combat veteran. But admiration and affection may be two different things.

Asked about whether the trainees like Cora, Rudy laughed. "I can't say specifically, but I'm willing to bet they don't appreciate her quirks at first."

If Adams cannot control Cora, he might not pass the course. Better that Adams or any trainee wash out now rather than be unable to work with a balky dog in Afghanistan.

"Cora has proven a challenge for him and that's good," Gehring said. "Cora is still working for us."

Another thing about Cora hasn't changed. She still loves a pat on the head or a biscuit, reminders of a younger dog who seemed to see everything as a game.


Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times



Army.ca Legend
Reaction score
That's interesting. When I heard someone speaking about PTSD before they were saying animals cannot get PTSD.  This was due to the emotional attachment human beings place on significant events where as animals don't.


Sr. Member
Reaction score
I don't know how much emotional attachment dogs form in the face of significant trauma, I can however say that one dog we had working for us had 'canine PTSD', and whilst 90% of the time he was a friendly, happy dog, if so much as a poo bag exploded in the burn pit he would either hide in his cage trembling or take off running around the perimeter of the COP with his poor handler running after him, frantically trying to calm him down. It was almost like he had extreme gun-shyness.



Army.ca Veteran
Reaction score
I posted about a couple of good books that cover the subject:


Soldier Dogs goes in depth about the whole program of Military Working Dogs from selection through training and on to deplyment. A couple of chapters discuss the problem of Canine PTSD which was only recently accepted as a concern, and some of the steps the US is taking to deal with the problem.

Sgt. Rex goes into the story of one dog and his handler and their experiences in Iraq.

Check out this thread for some comments and reviews. It also gives some info on the changes made to DOD policy towards treatment of MWD's after they are retired from service, such as lifetime vet care, recognition for wounds, and so forth.



Army.ca Veteran
Reaction score
The US Military has dedicated a monument to Military Working Dogs and their Handlers.

U.S. military dedicates first national monument to combat dogs


(Reuters) - The United States' first national monument to a soldier's best friend, recognizing the sacrifices of dogs in combat, was dedicated by the U.S. military on Monday.

Inscribed with the words "Guardians of America's Freedom," the nine-foot tall bronze statue at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, features four dogs and a handler.

"These dogs were patriots just as much as anybody else who served," said military dog handler John Baker of Fallon, Nevada, whose 212th Military Police Company Detachment A was known as "Hell on Paws."

Lackland is home to the U.S. Armed Forces center that has trained dogs for all branches of the military since 1958.

The sculpture, built with private donations, features the four major breeds used since World War Two: Doberman Pinscher, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, and Belgian Malinois.

In World War I, a bulldog named Stubby helped sniff out poison gas, was promoted to sergeant, decorated for bravery by General John Pershing, and became the mascot for Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

During World War II and in Korea and Vietnam, dogs were used as sentries, scouts, and trackers. In Iraq and Afghanistan, dogs have detected improvised explosive devises (IEDs) and roadside explosives.

Larry Buehner, who served in Vietnam as a platoon scout with the Army's First Cavalry Division, said he is alive because of his military dog.

"Callie saved my life on at least one occasion," he said on Monday of the dog that accompanied him and his unit on jungle patrols.

John Burnam, who handled dogs during the war in Vietnam, said he got the idea for a memorial after military officials decided not to let dogs working in Vietnam return to the United States with their handlers.

"They were heroes, and they were left to die," said Burnam, who has written two books about combat dogs.

"Dog units are worth a million dollars for everything they do ... You can't say enough, you can't give enough accolades to them."