Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Experts say dogs of war face PTSD too

They are the four-legged soldiers on America's battleground - the sniffer dogs who root out explosives and save human lives. Many sacrifice their lives for their handlers. But in the years since combat missions began in Iraq and Afghanistan, dog handlers are recognizing that canines who return home are facing psychological traumas not unlike human troops.

Experts say dogs of war face PTSD too

They are the four-legged soldiers on America's battleground - the sniffer dogs who root out explosives and save human lives. Many sacrifice their lives for their handlers. But in the years since combat missions began in Iraq and Afghanistan, dog handlers are recognizing that canines who return home are facing psychological traumas not unlike human troops. Here is Gina's story from the Associated Press.

Gina was a playful 2-year-old German shepherd when she went to Iraq as a highly trained bomb-sniffing dog with the military, conducting door-to-door searches and witnessing all sorts of noisy explosions.

She returned home to Colorado cowering and fearful. When her handlers tried to take her into a building, she would stiffen her legs and resist. Once inside, she would tuck her tail beneath her body and slink along the floor. She would hide under furniture or in a corner to avoid people.

A military veterinarian diagnosed with her post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition that experts say can afflict dogs just like it does humans.

"She showed all the symptoms and she had all the signs," said Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, the kennel master at Peterson Air Force Base. "She was terrified of everybody and it was obviously a condition that led her down that road."

A year later, Gina is on the mend. Frequent walks among friendly people and a gradual reintroduction to the noises of military life have begun to overcome her fears, Haynes said.

Haynes describes her progress as "outstanding."

"Pretty fabulous, actually," added Staff Sgt. Melinda Miller, who's been Gina's handler since May. "She makes me look pretty good."

PTSD is well-documented among American servicemen and women returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but its existence in animals is less clear-cut. Some veterinarians say animals do experience it, or a version of it.

"There is a condition in dogs which is almost precisely the same, if not precisely the same, as PTSD in humans," said Nicholas Dodman, head of the animal behavior program at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

But some veterinarians dislike applying the diagnosis to animals, thinking it demeans servicemen and women, Dodman said. He added that he means no offense to military personnel when he uses the term.

The military defines PTSD as a condition that develops after a life-threatening trauma. Victims suffer three types of experiences long afterward, even in a safe environment. They repeatedly re-experience the trauma in nightmares or vivid memories. They avoid situations or feelings that remind them of the event, and they feel keyed up all the time.

When Gina returned to Peterson last year after her six-month deployment in Iraq, she was no longer the "great little pup" Haynes remembered.

"She'd withdrawn from society as a whole," Haynes said.

Haynes, who has worked with more than 100 dogs in 12 years as a handler and kennel master, said he has seen other dogs rattled by trauma, but none as badly as Gina.
 

Amy Worden Inquirer Staff Writer
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Amy Worden Inquirer Staff Writer
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