They search for bombs. They engage in combat with terrorists. They ride in military vehicles and walk war-ravaged streets, witnesses to death and destruction. They risk their lives serving in the military.
So why can’t dogs develop post-traumatic stress disorder, too?
According to a recent article in The New York Times, more than 5 percent of the 650 or so dogs deployed by the U.S. military may have canine PTSD. The idea of such a thing is about 18 months old; it may have been noticed now because so many dogs are being used at once in the military.
These heroic dogs received a lot of media coverage after the mission that led to Osama Bin Laden’s death, when it was reported that a dog entered the compound along with the Navy SEALs. It was likely a German shepherd, the most common breed used by the military, but Belgian Malinois and Labrador retrievers also make great service dogs.
While physically attacking the enemy is one role of a military dog, its specialty is sniffing out bombs. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) typically don’t contain metal, making dogs’ superior sense of smell extremely valuable.
Exposure to explosions has its consequences, though. As is the case with humans, different dogs display different symptoms of stress. Some become less social and are fearful of entering unfamiliar buildings.
“If you want to put doggy thoughts into their heads, the dog is thinking: When I see this kind of individual, things go boom, and I’m distressed,” Dr. Walter F. Burghardt Jr., chief of behavioral medicine at a military working dog hospital, told the Times.
There are instances of dogs having a similar response after the 9/11 attacks. Dogs were used to find bodies—some alive, most dead—in the rubble following the collapse of the Twin Towers. When some of the dogs started showing signs of depression over the lack of results, their handlers would stage mock rescues to keep the dogs motivated.
While some veterinarians hesitate to assign the PTSD label to animals, fearing it undermines human military personnel who have the disorder, the idea of canine PTSD is gaining steam among experts, even for household pets that witness traumatic events.