march 2012

‘Military working dogs have all sorts of behavior problems, or can have all sorts of behavior problems, just like pet dogs. But this was just something that was somewhat different.’

The Dogs of War, And Their Invisible Wounds

Dr. Walter Burghardt treats military dogs exhibiting symptoms of a canine form of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD)

talking animals

By Duncan Strauss

Host, ‘Talking Animals,’ at NPR affiliate station WMNF-FM, Tampa, Florida; online at

I think it was stipulated many moons ago that dog is man’s best friend, while a far less codified corollary is that a military dog can be a soldier’s best friend. And where these twains often meet is that, upon returning home, veterans can be profoundly healed by canine companionship, especially if they’re grappling with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This all seems perfectly logical, all those pieces of the puzzle fit neatly together. But what if someone comes along and upends the table that puzzle’s sitting on, sending the pieces flying. That is, what if-- instead of the soldier--it’s the military dog that’s experiencing the PTSD?

Turns out that’s precisely what can happen these days, the subject of a fascinating, if disquieting. conversation we conducted recently on Talking Animals with veterinarian Dr. Walter Burghardt, chief of behavioral medicine since 1995 at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base, and considered the leading authority on canine PTSD.

Military dogs with PTSD, with author Jay Kopelman discussing his book From Baghdad to America, about living with a rescued dog suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder common in military veterans and occurring more often in military dogs.

Beyond his immediate duties at the Hospital, a 38, 000 square-foot facility in San Antonio, TX, Dr. Burghardt is responsible for 1500 military working dogs around the world, including the approximately 600 he says are deployed to combat situations at any given time.

The use of dogs in war is hardly new—indeed, the history stretches back to ancient times—but canine PTSD appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon.  “The problem started rearing its head in about 2007,” Dr. Burghardt explained in our interview, recalling the sessions he’d regularly lead with colleagues at Lackland and other locations, discussing cases of military dogs struggling with various behavioral issues.

“I was starting to see a small cluster of cases that sort of sounded vaguely familiar. Matter of fact, one or two times, I’d say ‘Haven’t we already talked about this dog?’ No, it was, in fact, another animal. And at that point, I started, with my colleagues, to say ‘Are we starting to see something here that’s a trend, because it’s a little bit different from the type of problems that we were experiencing in military working dogs before that.’

“Parenthetically, military working dogs have all sorts of behavior problems, or can have all sorts of behavior problems, just like pet dogs. But this was just something that was somewhat different.”

Dr. Walter Burghardt: ‘The first aid, if you will, for a dog showing severe signs of what we’re calling canine PTSD is to get them out of the fray. So you get them out of harm’s way, and at that point you do some of the things that parallel what we do for people with PTSD as well.’

Pinpointing exactly what that something was—and what it should be called--proved to be a slippery process, dogged (so to speak) by skepticism if not outright debate amongst Dr. Burghardt and his military veterinary brethren. When the phrase “canine PTSD” was first floated, Dr. Burghardt remembered, “ I was actually resistant to it, because I thought, in some ways, it could be problematic for us to use a term for a condition that’s so similar in people—because we really didn’t know.

By which he mainly means that the condition was too new for there to be research to bolster their anecdotal observations. “I’m a data kind of guy,” Dr. Burghardt noted, “epidemiologists tell us that you need to collect data before you call something, something.

“And so that’s kind of the skepticism I had, and I’m sure a lot of other people would have the same kind of skepticism. However, when we created the term, ‘canine PTSD,’ we did so in a fairly well defined way as shorthand, if you will, so that our veterinarians and operational people could identify dogs that were affected. And the dogs do have similarities from case to case.”

‘The Walter Reed for War Dogs’: a CBS Early Show report on a VA hospital for military dogs at Lackland Air Force Base, specifically designed to treat military dogs.

Dr. Burghardt outlined that those similarities--the signs of the affliction we’re now calling canine PTSD--include: over reactivity (to noise or other events in the area), hyper vigilance (for instance, continually scanning the environment), actively seeking to avoid or escape specific situations or settings (often related to combat scenarios, where the signs of distress first surfaced), and a change in the relationship between the dog and its handler. This can take different forms, including a dog that once worked relatively independently may suddenly be “sticking to the handler like glue,” or a dog closely aligned with a handler may act aloof—or aggressive. And whether exhibiting one or more of these signs, the consistent issue is that the dogs are experiencing “performance failure.”

“Since most of what our dogs are doing right now, in terms of saving human lives, is looking for explosives,” Dr. Burkhart said, “that means they’re either inaccurately saying there’s an explosive present, or they’re missing explosives when there are, in fact, explosives there. And it could be a real obvious things—that they’re just not using their nose to work, or that they look like they’re working, but they‘re not showing the accuracy they were showing previous to [exhibiting] these signs of PTSD.”

Dr. Burkhart went on to explain the significant diagnostic challenges posed by having a patient who can’t describe the impact of the combat stresses (also, incidentally, why they use “signs,” not “symptoms”—symptoms being aspects of a condition that can be mentioned or discussed, which dogs are hard-pressed to do…unless they’re bonafide talking animals!), which also means that, at least in this early phase of canine PTSD’s existence, the treatment provided is necessarily somewhat standardized.

Treating Gina, a German shepherd with canine PTSD

“The first aid, if you will, for a dog showing severe signs of what we’re calling canine PTSD is to get them out of the fray,” Dr. Burghardt explained. “So you get them out of harm’s way, and at that point you do some of the things that parallel what we do for people with PTSD as well. We do environmental enrichment. We do some play with them. We have the handlers work with them on their substance detection or their explosive detection tasks, but not in a situation that’s combat related. So we maintain the relationship between the dog and the handler, and we maintain the skills. Sometimes we need to use some medication….

dr“Later on, the best treatment that we can do with the dogs, if they’re severely affected--if they don’t respond immediately--we get them out of harm’s way and do some what we call desensitization and counter conditioning. It’s a method of trying to re-introduce them to that environment while reinforcing the behaviors that we need to see, and not reinforcing the problem behaviors. That’s also what’s done in people with PTSD, and it’s really the most successful treatment regime.”

As the Talking Animals interview drew to a close, Dr. Burghardt expressed optimism in these treatment strategies, and in the promise of having made adjustments to the ways military dogs are deployed, seeking to mitigate PTSD problem preemptively with different training (of both dogs and handlers), earlier intervention and treatment, and lots more research.

“We have a very, very scant amount of information and virtually no good research yet on the problem, and treatment of the problem,” Burghardt said. “But anecdotal evidence tells us that the earlier we intervene, the more likely it is that we’re going to get some positive effects.”

After learning a bit about this world, I would suggest that veterans, veterinarians and military dogs might agree about one more key factor ensuring positive effects: Having Dr. Burghardt on the case.

To hear the entire interview with Dr. Walter Burghardt, follow this link

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