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War can take its toll on military dogs

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Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 9:52 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Colleen Flaherty

Fort Hood Herald

It's hard to hear Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Kirby's voice over the din of the post's kennel for military working dogs, operated by the 178th Military Police Detachment, 89th Military Police Brigade.

As the kennel master passes by the dogs' individual enclosures, pointing out a "big sweetheart" or a dog "on isolation" for bad behavior, the powerful Belgian malinois and German shepherds bark, jump and bounce off the walls for Kirby's attention, some spinning midair in circles.

Since World War I, the U.S. military has been putting some of the world's most intelligent dogs to work in war zones to detect explosives, clear buildings, sniff out narcotics and more. Interest in them peaked in May 2011, following reports that dogs fitted with titanium teeth assisted SEAL Team 6 in the capture of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.

And by the way Eenzo and Hulda - the two dogs Kirby lets out for a demonstration exercise - delight in latching on to the protected arm of a handler, it's clear they love their work.

Deployments are especially fun, said Kirby. "(In the kennel), 90 percent of their life is waking up and getting fed, but with a deployment, there's continuous missions and hours of being around people."

In addition to constant stimulation, deployments offer dogs the opportunity to develop stronger bonds with their handlers, with whom they typically spend 24 hours a day.

"You're not always working, and they get to see 'mom' or 'dad' in a room," said Sgt. Brian Pate, kennel trainer, adding that his dog, Eenzo, often dropped a toy on his head in the wee hours of the morning during a recent tour to Iraq, wanting to play. "They get the opportunity to be a pet."

As with human military personnel, however, the sights and sounds of a war zone can take a toll on military working dogs.

Dogs get PTSD, too

Although it's a new topic few people within the military are authorized to talk about authoritatively, there's growing evidence that dogs suffer from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, too.

According to information from the Defense Department Military Dog Veterinary Service at San Antonio's Lackland Air Force Base, the military's center for training, breeding and research on working dogs, there are 2,700 worldwide, 600 of which are deployed at any one time.

Although, "in the purest clinical sense, that PTSD exists (in dogs) hasn't been established yet," said service spokesperson Gerry Proctor, about 5 percent of military working dogs will develop symptoms during their careers.

With therapy - either behavioral or pharmacological - about 75 percent of dogs with PTSD symptoms will return to duty in three months. Those that don't improve within that time will be adopted out of the working dog program to avoid a "negative cost value," said Proctor.

Dogs with PTSD rarely travel to Lackland for treatment, but their caretakers are coached remotely by base staff.

At Fort Hood, two of the 40-some dogs that are not deployed are currently being assessed for combat-related PTSD, according to information from the 89th Military Police Brigade. About 20 other dogs are deployed with their handlers to different locations.

Although Kirby couldn't identify or talk in detail about the two dogs, he said there's no doubt canines experience the same kinds of thoughts and feelings in combat as their human counterparts.

"Dogs are going to be just like soldiers," he said. "If you're riding in a convoy and the convoy gets hit and rocks the vehicle, or if he gets injured, especially if it happens more than one time, the dog realizes that. (The next time,) he thinks, 'I was in the vehicle and it blew up, and I don't want to get back in the vehicle.'"

Pate agreed, saying, "It puts a lot on a dog."

Research under wa

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist and director of animal behavior at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Mass., has been studying and writing about post-traumatic stress in dogs for years, though he didn't always use that term.

His interest in the topic began in the early 1990s, when he met a dog who was terrified to be alone at night - so much so that his owners took turns staying up with him. Dodman said the owners traced the behavior back to a singular, earlier incident when the dog was shot by a police officer.

"The dog (who was sitting in a car) saw a robber or someone who had done something wrong and in hot pursuit was a Boston policeman," said Dodman. "So the dog saw all this excitement and people running and, also in hot pursuit, (jumped out the window) and started chasing these moving things."

The police officer got scared of the dog, however, and shot it in the head, leaving it injured but alive. Upon recovery, the dog exhibited avoidance and hypervigilance, two of the hallmark symptoms of PTSD in people.

Although Dodman said some dogs can learn to again tolerate those things that became triggers following a traumatic event, he doubted whether dogs could ever fully recover.

In a moment of adrenaline-charged terror, "indelible learning takes place," he said, aided by biochemistry.

Current research suggests, however, that a beta blocker administered shortly after a traumatizing event can prevent the animal from "stamping" the trauma into his or her memory, said Dodman.

Effective models

Command Sgt. Maj. James Hamm of the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division rear detachment, studied with well-known dog trainer Martin Deeley before launching Lone Star Dog Trainer in 2008.

Working unofficially with coalition working dogs during a recent deployment to Afghanistan, Hamm - as in his "civilian" canine clients - found that the sooner he introduced therapy following the event, the better the outcome.

Dogs often can be rehabilitated simply by distracting them or "splitting the mind" during reintroduction to the traumatic environment, said Hamm, largely because dogs have the particular advantage of not being able to mentally "dwell" on events like humans do.

"Our brain operates in a much different capacity," said Hamm. "They don't think rationally or logically."

Kirby said whether or not a traumatized canine can return to duty depends on the individual dog and the trauma. Some can be coaxed back into doing their work, and others can't.

Despite the obvious differences between dogs and humans, Dodman said he believes the most important reason to invest in research is that what can help dogs may help people. If dogs can lessen the impact of trauma by taking a beta blocker after a traumatic event, he said, maybe people can, too.

Dogs already have proven to be effective models for humans in certain kinds of research, including molecular psychiatry studies to isolate genes linked to various behaviors and conditions, he said.

"That's been the modus operandi for everything I've done for 30 years," Dodman said of the potential human implications of his work, which also includes obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and even autism research in dogs. "As I love to say, 'We're all mammals in this together.'"

And for military working dogs and their handlers, that sense is heightened.

"Every dog here either saved a life or kept something from happening to someone," said Kirby. "(They're) way more than a battle buddy."

Contact Colleen Flaherty at colleenf@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHFortHood.

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