Are military dogs just 'equipment'?

There is a famous saying among dog handlers: emotions run down-leash.  Just as with a soldier, combat can affect a military dog.

Canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as it was named in 2010, identifies military dogs showing signs of hyper-vigilance and hyper-responsiveness to noises and other environmental stimulants.  American Thinker interviewed experts on this subject, including the renowned Dr. Walter F. Burghardt, Jr., a retired colonel, DVM, Ph.D., and DACVB.

Unfortunately, the military still classifies dogs as pieces of equipment, although Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) is trying to pass a bill that would reclassify a military working dog from "equipment" to a "canine member of the Armed Forces." He told American Thinker, "Military dog handlers consider their dogs as part of their team -- as partners, not as pieces of equipment."  The congressman agrees with this powerful quote by author Robert Crais from his latest best-selling novel, Suspect: "These dogs are not machines...They are alive! They are living, feeling, warm-blooded creatures of God, and they will love you with all their hearts! These dogs will be the truest and best partners you can ever hope to have, and they will give their lives for you.  And all they ask, all they want or need, all it cost YOU to get ALL of that, is a simple word of kindness."

Congressman Jones further points out that in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, more than any other war, dogs have been instrumental in saving soldiers' lives and have become an intricate and invaluable part of the fighting team.  Crais told American Thinker he wanted to convey in his book that the leash is like a nerve that connects the dog handler to his canine. 

Usually, the first person to see that there is a problem with the canine is the dog handler.  Unlike humans, what makes diagnosis and treatment difficult with Canine PTSD is the obvious: that dogs cannot talk about their problems and fears.

Dr. Burghardt, the chief of behavioral medicine and military working dog studies, is responsible for the behavioral care of over 1,500 military working dogs.  He noted that the clinical signs for canines with PTSD is the way they relate to their environment and/or handlers.  "Either the dog sticks to the handler like glue or they become aloof or aggressive toward the handler.  Regarding the environment, the dog shows failure in a job they were proficient in by having a reluctance to go into particular areas or try to get away from these areas."

Like any other medical condition, it is best to become aware of Canine PTSD early.  Within the first 24 to 72 hours, many cases do not have the dog air-lifted to the home base, but the doctor gets the handler to work with the dog away from the combat environment.  If the condition is detected after 72 hours, some anti-depression medication may be prescribed.  If nothing appears to be working, or if the condition is still detected after a few weeks, the dog will be flown out of the environment to its home base.

Part of the treatment is to place the dog in familiar surroundings and with his or her dog handler if at all possible.  Dr. Burghardt told American Thinker, "PTSD canines are started with routine training the dog is comfortable with and are given a reward each time they go through it.  There is a need to re-train by slowly focusing on the problem until there is no fear anymore, exposing the dog to low-intensity situations that caused the problem.  The dogs will be exposed to small amounts of whatever had produced their distress and awarded for showing any behavior not related to that distress.  Since dogs cannot communicate, there is a need to rely on training, response, and reward.  It needs to be determined if the dogs still have that drive to help them overcome the fear they have, within a time period of 12 to 16 weeks."

Currently, the success rate is 50% for dogs going back into active service.  For the other 50%, they will either work at the trainer schoolhouse with "green" dog handlers or be sent to other jobs, such as police or search and rescue, with a final possibility of being adopted out.  Thankfully, the doctor knows of no cases where dogs were put down because of Canine PTSD.

Master Sergeant Rick Reidel, who supervises the dog-training program, does not see outside jobs being a problem, since military dogs are trained to recognize by scent anything from an IED to a person.  He points out that law enforcement has the first right to adopt the dogs.  Debra Tosch, the executive director of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, agrees that dogs can be trained as scent-detection dogs: "The number of scents a dog can be trained on continues to rise, so there really is no set limit."

Does Dr. Burghardt know of some breeds being more susceptible to Canine PTSD?  He noted that dogs who are detecting IEDs, who work in units outside the traditional forward operating base, are from the sporting breed -- mainly Labrador retrievers.  However, research is still being done to determine if these breeds are overrepresented because of something in their personality or if this breed just happens to be associated with the task.

Whatever the breed or whatever the reason, Americans must remember that military dogs are invaluable members of a team and not pieces of equipment that can be discarded when they can no longer work properly and perform their tasks.  Those like Dr. Burghardt, Congressman Jones, and Master Sergeant Reidel are determined to make sure these canines are given the proper treatment, because they have proven themselves to be true heroes.

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.

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