Blog: Hope for the Heroes – News: Dogs of War: Those Daring Dogs of War that Defy Danger Everyday

Dogs of War: Those Daring Dogs of War that Defy Danger Everyday

Combat PTSD in Canines: What To Do When Fido Freaks and Rover Just Can’t “Get Over It.”

“These dogs, they’re willing to give their lives for you. They don’t ask for anything, you know? Some food, some water, little bit of petting. And they’re the most reliable person on the planet. You can’t get that from anywhere else.” – Master Sgt. Eric Haynes

Dogs of War ImageGood doggy. Sniff those bombs. Attack that terrorist. And if you happen to tremble, and shake and poop more than four doggy-bags full at the sound of a car backfiring, or a bag of popcorn popping years after you’ve left the battlefield then you, my fine furry friend are probably suffering from PTSD.

According to military veterinarians, it’s not just G.I. Joe that can lose a toehold on reality after the trauma of war—even Spot can get spooked so bad as the result of his military service on the battlefield that once back home he’ll exhibit classic signs of PTSD–just like his human military counterparts.
Take Gina. A once playful 2-year-old German Shepherd, Gina went to Iraq a playful pup only to return a shivering, shaking, tail-between-the legs mess of a mutt. When her handlers would try to take her into a building, she’d stiffen up and resist. Once inside, it was, “Where can I hide?”

In Gina’s case, says Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, kennel master of the 21st Security Forces Squadron, it was one traumatizing event: an I.E.D. exploding in a nearby convoy vehicles–that left her a mere shadow of her former self.

I mean, before she left, she was happy. She liked going out. She liked playing. She liked being around people. And once she came back, she was terrified of everything.”

Sounds like PTSD to me, though some military shrinks have a bone to pick with the idea of applying that diagnosis to a dog—even dogs that defy danger everyday…just like their masters. Joining that chorus of naysayers are “real” combat PTSD sufferers and their families who feel that diagnosing a dog with PTSD undermines the seriousness of this crippling malady on human beings.

So, the question is: Can animals suffer the same deep long-term psychological damage as humans? According to ScienceWeek, the answer is, Yes.

“Elephant society in Africa has been decimated by mass deaths and social breakdown from poaching, culls, and habitat loss. From an estimated ten million elephants in the early 1900s, there are only half a million left today. Wild elephants are displaying symptoms associated with human PTSD: abnormal startle response, depression, unpredictable asocial behavior and hyperaggression.” – Science Week

Of course elephants have a memory like…well, like an elephant. Meaning it’s long. Dogs… not so much. Now it’s true that they (dogs) don’t have the ability to recognize over 200 individuals like an elephant apparently can (though I’m not sure what the Science Week writer mean by “individuals,”) but they can remember people they haven’t seen in a long time…if only just a few of them.

Dogs can also associate, or connect, certain words with a memorable experience—both good and bad ones. For example, if I started making a certain whispering-hissing sound, followed by the word, “Bruce!” Joie, my 13-year-old Chow/Shepherd mix, would immediately go berserk and starting frantically looking for a cat to chase. (As to why the name “Bruce” is a trigger…well that’s a long story.)

Of course, I wouldn’t perform that amusing little ritual now simply because I’ve recently acquired a Ragdoll cat. And being rather fond of my slightly gimpy, cross-eyed cat, I wouldn’t want her to suddenly become my dog’s next meal simply because I unintentionally triggered some associative memory switch in Joie’s brain. Because whose to say that the memory of the joy of chasing cats might not supersede her love of the one cat she has been trained not to chase?

Which is exactly my point. Gina may not understand why she’s being punished 3-5 minutes after she did something bad like, for example, peeing in the house; however, she will definitely not forget a particular smell, sight or sound that might remind her of an event that severely traumatized her while serving in Iraq. The former would be termed “associative memory”—the latter, “real memory.”

Getting back to the elephants. Studies seem to indicate that elephants probably have both associative and real memory, while dogs have mostly associative memory. Yet, since to the best of my knowledge, elephants are not used in battle (with elephant-like creatures known as “Oliphaunts” or “Mumakils” in Lord of the Rings being the only exception), that only leaves us with dogs and dolphins—-two creatures used in sniffing out incendiary devices and who are also capable of being afflicted with combat PTSD.

Back from the Brink

Now the good news for Gina is that help seems to be more readily available for four-legged PTSD-afflicted foot soldiers, than the two-legged variety. In other words her paperwork wasn’t sitting on a case manager’s desk at the VA for months on end, waiting to be processed.

“I started taking her to staff meetings so it was a small group of people,” shares Master Sgt. Eric Haynes.  “You know, five or six people in a room, have them pet, give her treats. And once she got enough confidence that she could be around some people, I started … walk(ing) her around a lot of people, have somebody go ahead in front of me, have them hand out treats so that she could, you know, go up and meetpeople and realize that everybody’s not out to get me.”

I think a form of this adaptive therapy might just work with human PTSD sufferers, though from what I’ve seen, mental health professionals seem to try the opposite approach on humans—as in deliberately causing them to relive a particular incident. In any case, last month, Gina was re-certified for active duty with a new handler, Staff Sgt. Melinda Miller. He is now in charge of Gina’s re-entry into the world of war.

I have to confess, this bit of news leaves me with mixed feelings. Because whatever triggered Gina’s PTSD symptoms before could very well likely trigger it again. It appears that most highly- trained military canines are never as severely effected by the trauma of war as Gina was which leads me to believe that Gina may be predisposed to always react that way. And next time, Gina may not recover. (The same would hold true for human soldiers as..some are clearly more affected than others by the trauma of war-time experiences.)

That’s why I think Gina would be better off being “reassigned” to perform a different kind of patriotic service—like, for example, participating in the military’s new canine therapy program for combat-PTSD sufferers. This is a very promising program where the US Army uses canines to help solders recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As the saying goes, “it take one to know one” —meaning that perhaps on some level Gina—as a former PTSD sufferer—would have more empathy for the human she would be assigned to than dogs that never experienced that.

Just a thought. Regardless, the military’s new PTSD canine therapy program looks like a surprisingly effective program… one I’ll talk about in my next post. Watch for it! – posted by: jenni keast

Read how dogs are being used as therapy dogs for PTSD-afflicted soldiers.


Original published post for Daring Dogs can be downloaded here: 


About seekandfind

I'm a strategic storyteller/copywriter who is divinely wired to be idea-driven, strategic minded & cause motivated.

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