Putting a Face to Canine PTSD
When I met Buck, the kennel he was in at Lackland Air Force Base was so loud that I thought his name was Puck. The other dogs – all part of the Department of Defense’s Military Working Dog program – were going nuts because they had visitors and it was hard to hear anything other than loud barks.
Several dogs were spinning in crazy, fast circles while others ran back and forth in their concrete kennels. Some just stood there barking at my escort and me like they wanted us for lunch.
And then there we came to Puck, er, Buck. Buck is a chocolate Lab. Because Labs are normally rambunctious, happy dogs, I would have expected him to be woofing with the rest. But he was curled up in a tight ball toward the back of his kennel. He appeared to be the only normal, calm one among these super energetic dogs. But there was something about his eyes, his demeanor, that seems almost sad. He didn’t lift his head, he just looked at me unblinkingly, and then stared out again, eyes not seeming to focus on anything much.
Buck, it turns out, had been in Afghanistan as a Marine IED detector dog. The man taking me through the kennels told me, “He heard one too many explosions.” The poor guy would jump not only every time he heard a “bang or a boom” but also at far-less threatening sounds, like someone walking by and kicking a rock.
Buck was diagnosed with the canine version of post traumatic stress disorder. He did not respond well enough to treatment, and it was determined that he needed to retire from being a war dog. He was going to be adopted the day after my visit by a couple “who loves him a lot,” my escort told me.
That was back in July, when I was on the road doing research for my upcoming book,Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes (Dutton, March 2012). I address canine PTSD in the book, and I was heartened when a couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran an article about it and dozens of media outlets picked up the story or ran their own version. It’s good to see this disorder getting some attention. The dogs who have it suffer greatly, as do their human counterparts.
Signs of canine PTSD include hypervigilance, increased startle response, attempts to run away or escape, withdrawal, changes in rapport with a handler, and problems performing trained tasks – like a bomb dog who just can’t focus on sniffing out bombs any more. These are variations of PTSD’s symptoms in humans.
Sporting breeds, like Labs, appear to be more prone to canine PTSD than war dogs like German shepherds and Belgian Malinois. Dr. Walter Burghardt, chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base, is not sure of the reasons for this. But he a small team at Lackland are starting to investigate this and dozens of other questions about the disorder, including how to prevent it, and how to best treat it. Right now, affected dogs are given time off, and get a combination of drugs and different therapies. A dog who is shaking and hiding may be given anti-anxiety medication; one who is withdrawn could get antidepressants. There are also counterconditioning therapies, in which a dog is slowly desensitized to loud noises.
About 25 percent will not be able to work again, and end up being retired from service. Depending on their condition, they could go to a police force, or be adopted by a family or individual, as Buck has been.
About three weeks ago I got in touch with Buck’s new owners, Larry and Lynette Sargent. We played phone tag for a while, and when Larry left a message on my voice mail saying, “I’m calling you back about my dog Buck,” I have to admit that I misted up a little. It probably sounds strange, but it was the “my dog Buck” part that got me. After the rigors and terrors of war, Buck was someone’s dog, at last.
Buck, now 4, is living a happily-ever-after story. Or he would be if he didn’t have PTSD. The Sargents have no human children, and think of him as their child. They dote on him, spending a great deal of time working and playing with him and trying to help him . They live in a large San Antonio home with a big yard they fenced just for Buck. But Buck isn’t a typical Lab.
“We’ve had other Labs before, and thought Buck would be similar, but we’re still trying to figure him out,” says Larry.
Larry is a pastor, and the two frequently have people over for prayer groups, or just to lend them a hand. Buck quickly attached to Larry, and if the pastor is not holding him by a leash or right next to him when other people come by, Buck barks in fear, or he cowers, or both. He is not friendly with strangers, as most Labs are. As is expected, he is scared of loud noises, too. Fortunately there haven’t been too many thunderstorms since they adopted him.
Buck has done a couple of PTSD-related things that are pretty heartbreaking. I describe them in my book, and my publisher doesn’t want me to give too much away in this blog post. But the good news is that with a lot of love and attention, Buck is coming around.
“We are seeing more and more of his inner puppy,” says Lynette. “He loves to catch a ball and throw it in the air for himself and catch it over and over. He can be really silly.”
And Buck loves stuffed animals. Like any self-respecting Lab, he seeks them out no matter where they’re hiding and joyously rips the stuffing out of them.
The Sargents wish they had a little more background on Buck. Or some instructions from the Department of Defense about how to best help a dog with PTSD. But it’s such a relatively new disorder – Burghardt called a blue-ribbon panel together in January 2011 and it was only officially decided then that canine PTSD is, indeed, real – that there aren’t yet many answers.
So the Sargents take it one day at a time, and that pace seems to be a good one for Buck, who appears to be starting to heal with the Sargents’ self-written prescription of big doses of love and happiness around the clock.
*** New York Times article says civilian dogs can get PTSD from car accidents or less traumatic incidents. I wonder how prevalent PTSD is in puppy-mill breeder dogs or bait dogs?