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

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."

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."

The adoption application includes questions and fill-in-the-blanks such as "Why are you interested in this dog?" and "I need a dog that will tolerate being alone for __ hours."

Applicants must also initial the Candidate Agreement Section, confirming that they have received written summaries of health conditions, that they have been briefed on the training received by their dogs, and that they will build fences six feet or taller around their yards.

"We give full disclosure on everything the dog is about before the potential adopter takes the dog. So if they decide they want to back out at the last minute, that's good," Null said. "We'd rather you back out and say, 'Hey I can't handle this dog,' than later be like, 'Hey I didn't know the dog was going to be like this.'"

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Null was able to go into the computer system and look up Buck, as well as the identification code tattooed in his ear: P027.

"He was purchased as an IED detector dog for the Marine Corps. His job was to go out and try and identify explosive devices," Null said. "In the kennel environment, he was really withdrawn. If you were in a military uniform and were to walk into his kennel, he would walk away, curl into a ball, and lean against the fence."

Null said the staff provides each adoptive family with as many guidelines as possible on how to handle behavioral problems, including CPTSD.

"In Buck's case," he added, "his adopter knew he had PTSD, that he had suffered from some kind of traumatic event somewhere."

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The Sargents face many of the same challenges as any families who take in military working dogs.

These dogs grow up in kennels, so they are not house trained. They are accustomed to concrete, not pillows and carpet, so they can do a lot of damage in their new homes. And a casual walk down the block may seem more like a mission: the leash goes on and the dog is on duty.

But the Sargents also face other, more extreme challenges with Buck because of his CPTSD.

Larry is a pastor, and he and Lynette often invite groups of people over to their home for conversation and prayer. But at the sound of the doorbell, Buck begins to bark wildly. He pants, he spins in circles, and he shivers behind the baby gates lining the kitchen. The only way Larry can calm Buck down is by putting his leash on him and allowing him to hide in his safe place: beneath the chair where Larry sits, just behind his legs.

And the couple has had to put a halt on travel plans, as Buck will not let anyone other than Lynette approach him unless he is on the leash and with Larry.

"It's almost kind of like having a toddler, cause you have to watch him and there's no one else who can take care of him at this point," Lynette said. "I'm glad we have him, but I wish we could get our lives back to normal."

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Burghardt said there is long list of unanswered questions when it comes to CPTSD, including whether dogs are able to completely recover from the trauma they experienced.

This is partly because the DOD loses touch with what happens to military working dogs once the adoptions are finalized and the waivers of liability are signed.

"I've certainly seen a number of dogs that have had signs and have gotten better and have been able to work," he said. "But with almost any behavioral problem, I think the objective isn't to cure a problem, it's to manage it, understanding that there are triggers to produce behaviors."

For distressed dogs in deployed environments, he recommends everything from throwing them Frisbees to giving them anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications. "It really depends on what the dog is doing. It's a case-by-case thing," Burghardt said, "And typically there are recommendations that are going to be in the medical record."

But the information the Sargents received in Buck's medical record does not answer their many questions about how to help their dog. "We're just figuring it out as we go along. Nobody told us anything, and to us this is a big fault," said Lynette, who had no idea that the authority on canine PTSD happened to live in San Antonio.

"I want a younger dog to play with him, and I would like to know from a doctor if that socialization process would help him to calm down," Larry said, adding that he is desperate to find information that will help Buck so that "he doesn't have to spend the rest of his life on a leash."

"I would like to see other guys like him that need to be adopted and be provided homes," Larry said, explaining that it "breaks his heart" to see dogs so scarred by their past experiences. "But in order for them to be adopted, there's got to be more information and more services available to people so they can take these guys and love them."