For years, PTSD — or post-traumatic stress disorder — has been an issue for military members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
But humans aren't the only ones with problems. Military dogs returning from war zones are also showing signs of PTSD. And there's evidence that these canines need some extra tender loving care after their tours of duty.
Every morning, veterinarian technicians check playful and intelligent Belgian Malinois pups at the Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Many of these dogs will become four-legged warriors — looking for roadside bombs or helping to fight the Taliban.
"Ultimately, we want these dogs to become military working dogs and go down range and save lives," says Tech. Sgt. Joe Null.
Null's job is to socialize the dogs before they become canine soldiers. They're pampered and spend months playing, getting housebroken and becoming accustomed to working with people.
Bernie Green, supervisor for the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Breeding Program, says, "It's people's way of giving back by adopting one of these dogs and fostering it for that period of time."
The most energetic and playful dogs will be trained for combat. Once on the job, the stress and rigors of war may take their toll on the dogs like they do on humans. Sometimes the animals show signs that they're suffering from nervous exhaustion; others appear distressed or confused and forget routine commands.
Doctors began wondering: Could it be that canines experience PTSD like people?
According to Walter Burghardt, chief of behavioral medicine and military working dog studies at Holland, there's something parallel in dogs.
"It's not as if we're trying to call canine PTSD the same as human PTSD, although a number of the signs, the things that we see in the behaviors, are very similar," Burghardt says.
That's why human psychiatrists, statisticians and veterinary behaviorists gathered at the San Antonio base to discuss how war-zone dogs could be affected. Burghardt says there was a case here, a case there. Then they looked more deeply into the issue.
"We started amassing more and more anecdotal cases and saying, 'Gee, this looks like it's something for real, looks like it's something that's consistently happening, at a fairly low level, but it's something that's happening,' " Burghardt says.
So far, half of the dogs identified with PTSD have been able to return to service. Others are retired and adopted out, or re-assigned. The researcher says treatment includes medicine or conditioning to untrain a PTSD behavior.
One problem is that dogs' health and deployment histories aren't tracked like their human counterparts. And Burghardt wants to change that.
"I think that's going to be a real benefit, both on the medical side for the dogs but also on the behavior side, for problem behaviors as well as for problems with performance," he says.
About 50 military working dogs have returned from combat with symptoms of PTSD, and Burghardt says the number is growing. That could be because more veterinarians now know about it. Still others aren't convinced that canine PTSD is real.
"You don't have to believe in this. You don't have to believe in bullets for them to kill you. And you kind of present it in that fashion," Burghardt says.
But he says the effects of PTSD in dogs — and also in people — could last long after the last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.
Support the news
More NPR or Explore Audio.