Four-Legged Warriors Show Signs Of PTSD Post-traumatic stress disorder has been a problem for many military members returning from combat zones. Now the military is looking more closely at whether its canine members suffer from PTSD in the same ways.
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Four-Legged Warriors Show Signs Of PTSD

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Four-Legged Warriors Show Signs Of PTSD

Four-Legged Warriors Show Signs Of PTSD

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Military dogs are an important part of most deployments. They've served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the military has been noticing some problems with dogs that return from war. The animals may be showing signs of PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Texas Public Radio's Ryan Loyd reports.

RYAN LOYD, BYLINE: Every morning, vet techs check over these playful and intelligent Belgian Malinois pups.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How is his crate training going?

LOYD: This is the Holland Veterinary Medical Clinic at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Many of these dogs will become four-legged warriors looking for roadside bombs or helping fight the Taliban.

SERGEANT JOE NULL: Ultimately, we want these dogs to become military working dogs and go down range and save lives.

LOYD: That's Tech Sergeant Joe Null. His job is to socialize the dogs before they become canine soldiers. They're pampered and spend months playing, getting housebroken and becoming accustomed to working with people.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, you like that bonesy(ph)? You like that bonesy, huh, big (unintelligible)? Yes.

LOYD: The Defense Department's dog breeding program supervisor is Bernie Green.

BERNIE GREEN: You know, it's people's way of giving back by adopting one of these dogs and fostering it for that period of time.

LOYD: The most energetic and playful dogs will be trained for combat. Once on the job, the stress and rigors of war may take their toll on the dogs like they do with people. Sometimes, the animals show signs they're suffering from nervous exhaustion. Others appear distressed, confused and forget routine commands. Doctors began wondering: Could it be that canines experience PTSD like people? Walter Burghardt is the chief of behavioral medicine and military working dog studies at Lackland.

WALTER BURGHARDT: It's not as if we're trying to call PTS - Canine PTSD the same as human PTSD, although a number of the signs, the things that we see in the behaviors, are very similar.

LOYD: That's why human psychiatrists, statisticians and veterinary behaviorists gathered at Lackland to discuss what more people were noticing: Some dogs from warzones could be affected like soldiers.

BURGHARDT: And it compromises the ability of the team to do its job.

LOYD: Burghardt says there was a case here, a case there, but then...

BURGHARDT: We started amassing more and more anecdotal cases and saying, gee, this looks like it's something for real. It looks like it's something that's consistently happening at a fairly low level, but it's something that's happening.

LOYD: So far, half the dogs identified with PTSD are able to return to service. Others are retired and adopted out or reassigned. Burghardt says treatment includes medicine or conditioning to untrain a PTSD behavior. Burghardt says one problem is that dogs' health and deployment history aren't tracked the way they are for human warriors. He wants that to change.

BURGHARDT: So we can actually capture the data and look at the dog and say same or different from time to time. I think that's going to be a real benefit, both on the medical side for the dogs, but also on the behavior side for problem behaviors as well as for problems with performance.

LOYD: About 50 military working dogs have returned from combat with symptoms of PTSD, and Burghardt says the number is growing. That could be because more vets now know about it. Still, others aren't convinced canine PTSD is real.

BURGHARDT: You don't have to believe in this. You don't have to believe in bullets for them to kill you, you know? And you kind of present it in that fashion. It's like, oh, yeah, I could see where that would be happening in a dog from time to time, and we need to start looking for it.

LOYD: But he says the effects of PTSD in dogs and also in people could remain long after the last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Loyd in San Antonio.

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