James Dao wrote an article about dogs suffering PTSD. The information he's revealing has been known to me for months, and I've already been involved in providing some help and advice to soldiers with dogs, not the bomb-sniffing dogs of war, but dogs placed with soldiers who have PTSD. Their dogs sometimes also mimic or sometimes develop symptoms relating to PTSD.
Some dogs are not a good match with their handlers and that exacerbates the problem. A change of handlers can often fix the problem.
Another issue is that the soldier thinks the dog is a cure-all, not a help, so when they get flashbacks and abuse the dog, the dog develops a form of PTSD, too, and the soldier thinks the dog is useless, leading to anger and neglect. The soldiers don't intend to abuse the dog, it's one of the symptoms of PTSD over which the soldier has no real control. The abuse often takes the form of yelling and screaming at the dog in anger - some dogs can take this in stride and some can't. It's rare for the dog to suffer physical abuse or neglect, but if the dog can't handle the yelling, they may receive emotional neglect with the soldier ignoring the dog, which then exacerbates the dog's issues. That, in turn, makes the soldier worse.
This is a simple problem to fix - the soldier needs basic training in how to care for the dog. Once the soldier is treating the dog correctly, it often overcomes the PTSD it developed. The usual signs are a mix of extreme separation anxiety, destructive behaviors (chewing up things, mostly walls and furniture), extreme digging (tearing up floors, carpeting, mattresses, sofa cushions), extreme anxiety (hiding under the bed or hugging a wall and not responding), not eating or over-eating, and similar things. One the dog regains confidence through proper treatment, these symptoms disappear and the soldier and dog meld into a good partnership.
A lot of people forget that dogs aren't machines that can be programmed and will tick along doing their job with no reactions or emotions. Dogs are very intelligent animals, they love having jobs, and they are extremely emotional. They require more care and consideration than machines. They respond well to treats, praise, and pets or cuddles.
Soldiers who withhold praise, cuddles, and/or treats because they think the dog is wrong are often hurting the dog and damaging the dog's ability to function properly. Dogs need attention - a lot of it - in the ways they want.
Itzl started to suffer PTSD and still has lingering traces of it even years after the triggering incident. In his case, it was a car accident where the airbag popped out farther than it was supposed to and smacked him in his car seat. He suffered a concussion and a ruptured ear drum and some broken teeth. The ambulance ride and the time at the vet's ICU compounded his trauma. One reason he alerts so insistently on ambulances is that he wants me to get away from them, as far away from them as possible. Since this is a behavior I want him to continue, it's been a fine line between encouraging his fear and rewarding him for alerting.
He also refuses to go into the vet's office where he was held prisoner (in his eyes) for 2 days, with his fur shaved off and IVs inserted and noisy monitors he dutifully alerted on and no one giving him the stand-down signals or taking care of the beeps and alarms. He was a ragged mess the whole time he was there, shaking, refusing to eat, clinging tightly to me. The vet techs all shrugged it off as "typical Chihuahua behavior" but I knew better. I convinced the vet to let me treat him at home, where he recovered. But he still refuses to enter that particular vet clinic and will start resisting even before I pull into the parking lot. If we even drive past it, he will freak out and only calm down if I don't turn into the parking lot. I ended up getting him a new vet, where he's quite calm and happy.
It took him a couple of months to stop being frantic every time I got ready to leave. His separation anxiety levels were extremely high. I couldn't leave him at the groomer's. When we went to the vet, he refused to be carried off for procedures. If I held him, he was just fine. Even if I was there with a hand on him, he was fine. When he recently needed dental surgery to correct some damage done by the accident, the vet allowed me to hold him until he was unconscious and did the procedure right then, then let me hold him until he regained consciousness, so for him, I was never gone. He loves that new vet a lot, and is always happy to see him. I still can't leave him with the groomer, though. That's OK, the only thing I really need the groomer for anymore is clipping and grinding his nails (they're black and I don't trust myself to do them).
My experience with Itzl's trauma and PTSD has helped me help others work through their service dog's PTSD, as well as a few pets and rescue dogs who develop PTSD.
I'm glad vets are beginning to take real notice of it and to treat the dogs for it.
I'm not sure they should be sent back to war zones after being treated, because treating them for PTSD takes about as long as training a new dog. I think training methods should improve, not just for the dogs, but for the soldiers handling the dogs. I think, if the dogs are handled well, and treated correctly (as dogs, not machines), then incidences of PTSD can be reduced, and when dogs develop it anyway, they can be treated and rehomed, perhaps even as PTSD dogs for soldiers (assuming the new handlers learn the proper treatment of their assistance dog) or as service dogs for civilians.
The four most common things I've recommended, that seem to have helped dogs with PTSD are:
1. praising the dog extravagantly when they successfully complete a task, especially one which might trigger their PTSD or giving them a favored treat. Itzl prefers praise and snuggles to treats or toys.
2. letting the dog know they are safe, (usually through giving the dog a permanent "safe place" - Itzl's safe places are his carry pouch, his monkeybed, and under the hem of my skirt. I wear long skirts just so he has the illusion of being in a hiding spot he can still see out of.
3. giving the dog play time immediately after a triggering event. I don't generally do this with Itzl, because he really doesn't like to play often. Itzl gets snuggles, which he appreciates more than play.
4. establishing and sticking to a mega-schedule: always getting up at the same time every day, always toileting the dog immediately after waking, always feeding the dog immediately after that toileting - even if it's just a snack on the way out the door, and always letting the dog go to sleep at the same time every night, even if everything in between changes a lot. I keep Itzl's morning routine the same regardless of where we are, whether it's at home, visiting friends, in a hotel somewhere, or out camping. And he has a set bedtime, even if I stay up beyond it.
These have worked for me and the dogs I've helped for years, so I'm glad to receive some hint that what I've been doing is what real vets are also doing. I can't prescribe Xanax for dogs, but the behavioral treatments are well within my abilities.
I just worry about dogs who are sent back to war zones. It's one thing to treat the dog for PTSD and another to send them back to a triggering environment without a properly trained handler. Are they training the handlers to care for dogs with proven PTSD, as well as retraining the dogs? This wasn't answered in the article. DOgs are really good at their jobs, but they need a supportive working environment even more than people do, they aren't quite as adaptable.