For War Dogs, Life With PTSD Requires Patient Owners

Like their human counterparts, canines in the military rely on loving families to help them recover from trauma overseas

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Larry Sargent with Buck, a retired IED-detecting dog, at his San Antonio home. (All photos and video by Catherine Cheney)

"Hey, Buck, look at what Mom got you," said Lynette Sargent as she dangled then tossed a skunk stripped of its stuffing. The dog, a chocolate lab, bolted through the backyard of the San Antonio, Texas, home where Lynette and her husband, Larry, live.

But minutes later, when the patio door slammed shut, Buck froze, his back stiffening, his eyes widening, and his hairs standing on end.

"We're working on trying to get more information to help him," said Larry as he tried to calm his dog down. "In the meantime, we have just been trying to love him and let him play."

Larry and Lynette, a couple in their 60s who have owned several labs in the past, adopted Buck in July from nearby Lackland Air Force Base. They knew that at only four years old, Buck had been retired early from his service as a military working dog. He could no longer carry out his mission, they learned, because of a condition referred to as canine PTSD.

But what they never anticipated was just how difficult it would be to help their dog heal.


Video: The Sargents talk about life with Buck


Dr. Walter F. Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine at the military working dog hospital on the Air Force base, spends hours every day evaluating animal behavior. He sits in front of his computer and watches videos submitted by dog handlers from military bases across the country and around the world.

"What we do now more and more is capture videos of the animals and try to interpret them," said Burghardt. "We look for telltale signs in the dogs that they are distressed, that they are showing behavioral changes consistent with what we call canine post-traumatic stress disorder."

"A lot of people don't understand, these dogs have something wrong with them. Otherwise we would keep them working."

In one clip, a handler holds a leash as a German shepherd takes the lead, leaping into the front seat, back seat, and trunk of a car, searching and sniffing with his tail up and wagging. In the next clip, taken later in the deployment, a handler leads that same German shepherd toward a vehicle, but this time the dog keeps his tail between his legs and his ears back, leaning away from the space he is supposed to search.

The 650 Labrador retrievers, Belgian Malinois, and German Shepherds deployed overseas can be exposed to a wide range of traumatic events, from hearing loud blasts to losing their handlers. This can cause changes in their behavior that may interfere with their work. That is where Burghardt comes in.

"My training in behavioralism is very much observational," Burghardt said as he pointed out the visual signs of CPTSD, such as dogs "trying to escape or avoid noises, visual events, and settings" that had never bothered them before.

The military first started to identify a "collection of behavioral problems all contributing to the fact that these dogs were not working as advertised" three years ago, explained Burghardt. It was not until a year and a half ago, he added, that these problems were labeled as CPTSD.

At the moment, Burghardt is what he calls "the army of one," the only behaviorist employed by the DOD, but he said that the military is beginning to devote more resources to understanding dog behavior as the extent of this disorder becomes clearer.

"It appears that at least five percent of the dogs that we've looked at that are at risk in the last year have got some signs of CPTSD," he said. "This is early data, and this is by reports from veterinarians on consult to me, so it may be an underrepresentation of the numbers."

If Burghardt determines that a dog is no longer able to perform its military mission, what comes next is decided just across the parking lot, at the military working dog school.

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"This room right here is the real cradle-to-grave nerve center for the whole DOD canine program," said Technical Sergeant Joseph Null (pictured right), who coordinates logistics for military working dogs.

Every year, Null and his team coordinate close to 300 adoptions of dogs declared "excess" to the military either because they failed to make the cut in training, are ready to retire after serving full careers, or had their service cut short due to medical or behavioral problems.

Before dogs are approved for adoption, Null and his team review their training and veterinary records and conduct behavioral tests. These dogs are then sent to law enforcement agencies, if they are young and able to work, or to adoptive families, where the hope is that they can live and be treated as normal pets.

"The idea of this program is to give dogs that have been working their whole lives the opportunity to be a pet, be a couch dog," Null said, explaining that applications requesting dogs for personal security will go straight to the bottom of the pile. "A lot of people don't understand, these dogs have spent their lives working, or they have something wrong with them, otherwise we would keep them working."

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Catherine Cheney is a multimedia journalist who has reported from Washington, D.C. and internationally for publications including The Washington Post, POLITICO, Spiegel Online International, and World Politics Review, where she writes on international affairs.

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