Like service members, military working dogs also battle PTSD
A military working dog named Balto developed canine PTSD. Experts and the dog’s owner share their experiences on how to handle what’s still considered a new diagnosis.
U.S. military working dogs serve all branches of the armed forces and neighboring ally nations, like Canada.
These canines assist military service members or working contractors in combat overseas. When these military dogs return from their jobs, some suffer from their own form of post-traumatic stress disorder — more commonly known as PTSD.
A military dog’s deployment to Afghanistan
Balto, a Czechoslovakian shepherd, worked as a military working dog for five years. In 2009, he was paired with John Logie, a civilian contractor dog handler for both the Canadian and U.S. armed forces.
“He was very loving and gentle,'' Logie said. ''He was the one dog I could have around my mother at the time because he's very gentle, not pushy, like other dogs I've had.”
Military canines are trained to track, patrol, search, rescue and attack. One of Balto’s jobs was to detect explosive devices. Logie and Balto worked together for several months on many missions.
“What we generally did was clear a compound first so we can have infantry guys up on the roof to watch us, '' said Logie.
One day, while Logie and Balto were patrolling outside of villages in Afghanistan, they came upon a 4-foot-high wall.
Logie then lifted Balto over to sniff the area. As Logie did a quick scan of their surroundings, Balto continued to sniff around and noticed an odor.
As the two went further into the compound, the dog pulled him closer to a doorway. On their walk, Logie stepped on an explosive device known as an IED. He was severely injured and was removed from Afghanistan by a medevac. Balto stayed behind.
“They wouldn't put Balto on the helicopter,” Logie said. “They sent another dog handler in to pick up Balto to take him back to base. They did a field test on him.”
A field test judges a dog’s abilities, such as memory, intelligence, attention and perseverance. Balto passed and was able to go back on the job.
How serving in multiple combat environments changed Balto’s life
Eventually, Balto became sensitive to gunpowder and loud noises, and he was diagnosed with PTSD.
Walt Burghardt — a veterinary behavioral specialist in San Antonio, Texas — said it’s not uncommon for military working dogs to develop symptoms linked to PTSD. He and his team gather data on dogs with PTSD from different combat environments.
“5 to 10% of the dogs that are in those conditions are probably getting at least some degree of that problem,'' Burghardt said. “That's a huge number. So, that's bigger than combat injuries. It’s bigger than infectious diseases that we're encountering.”
Looking for the signs of Canine PTSD
Symptoms of PTSD vary from dog to dog, and it’s often hard to understand what they’re experiencing. So, veterinarian Lori Teller at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences said to look for the signs.
“They may have some chronic anxiety where they're pacing or always hyper vigilant, like they can't settle down," Teller said. "They may avoid certain people or places."
Balto displayed many of these symptoms and was forced to retire in 2014. Shortly after his retirement, Logie adopted him. While they lived together in Utah, Logie noticed quickly that Balto changed.
“Balto would run and hide anytime he heard a loud noise like fireworks, thunder or anything that sounded like an explosion,” Logie said.
According to Burghardt, dogs like Balto can be treated.
Behavior spemedicialists often remove dogs from triggering environments and make their lives as normal as possible. They can do this by keeping them active with running or walking.
Medication prescribed by a veterinarian helps as well. If that doesn’t work, Burghardt said the last step most canines go through is rehabilitation.
“This is through a process called desensitization and counter conditioning, which is behavior modification aimed at giving them a new behavior for which they're rewarded,'' Burghardt said.
Logie tried some of those treatments on Balto with his veterinarian. Balto received free health care because of his military service. Balto’s symptoms improved, but he never fully recovered from PTSD and died of other health problems in 2018.
Canine PTSD is still a relatively new diagnosis, and rehabilitation could take weeks or even years. Still, Burghardt said with fewer dogs going to battle, canine PTSD cases will continue to decline in military working dogs.