One thing we know all too well these days is that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is all around us. As we honor and remember our fallen military personnel this Memorial Day, one can’t help but think about the state of a service man or service woman’s state of mind in this age of war and loss.
There are many things that can trigger or jump-start PTSD. From an injury, to the loss of a fellow soldier, to simply being dropped suddenly back into “normal” life . . . all of these things can have a profound effect. However, loss is not defined nor limited to human brothers and sisters in arms, as evidenced by a growing number of PTSD cases related to losing a “furry friend” in the throes of war. These dogs of battle, known as Military Working Dogs or MWDs, have been used for wars in the past and date as far back as World War II in 1942.
The Military’s Four-Legged Fighters
Trained from the MWD Training Center in San Antonio, Texas, these dogs provide a helping hand to our military personnel in the field. They are capable of patrolling bases and detecting a number of potential dangers, including drugs, bombs, and more recently, mines. The most common dogs used in the MWD program are German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois, but Labrador Retrievers are gaining popularity for tasks such as sniffing out land mines. Each dog is assigned to a soldier or Marine, known as that dog’s “handler.”
Dr. Rachel Hedlin, worked closely with the MWDs based out of Camp Pendleton. In fact, she reports, “They were my number one priority.” Hedlin was stationed at Pendleton from 2005-2007, and served as one of the main veterinary doctors on staff. “My role with the dogs was to provide full medical care. The busiest time was pre-deployment preparation. Each dog had to have a full medical exam, be updated on vaccinations and bloodwork, dental cleaning and pelvic radiographs.”
But Hedlin’s involvement with these dogs was not only limited to the canines themselves. “Not only did I work closely with the dogs, but also with the handlers. We did pre-deployment training on basic medical information as well as emergency procedures such as placing an IV catheter, CPR, etc.”
Losing a Comrade
Dog trainers and handlers alike can grow attached to their canine counterparts, much like you or I grow to love our own pets. They are truly appreciated for their hard work and dedication, and losing a dog partner can be much like losing a human partner. Not only that, but the dogs can also become very attached to their handlers, and extremely affected by injury or loss – to the point of developing a form of PTSD themselves.
In fact, recent evidence shows that Military Working Dogs going through firefights, tracking enemies and detecting land mines can struggle with a tremendous amount of mental strain that can lead to canine PTSD.
It’s estimated that more than five percent of the 650 currently-deployed MWDs suffer from canine PTSD, and over half of these will be retired from service. Just like with humans, dogs can show a wide variety of symptoms. Some can be extremely jumpy or alert, while others completely avoid buildings or hide under tight areas, unwilling to come out.
In the case of an injured or killed dog, the dog’s handler goes through many of the symptoms associated with PTSD; nervous breakdowns, major depression, nightmares, and significantly diminished energy or enthusiasm, all in addition to the standard grief that comes from losing a loved one.
Hedlin witnessed both sides of the coin first-hand. “I worked with one dog that had lost his handler, who was killed in Iraq. I also worked with a couple of handlers that had lost their dogs due to illness. The emotions that were associated with this were tremendous. It’s hard to measure the reaction of the dog … But the emotions of the handlers who lose a dog, or even have a dog with a major medical problem, is devastation. And it’s not just the primary handler that is affected. I had to euthanize a dog that was suffering from spinal degeneration and even I was crying uncontrollably! Not to mention the other handlers present. The military takes these dogs very seriously, and any kind of death is treated with the utmost respect.”
So why does such a strong connection form between the two? Hedlin attributes it partly to the amount of time spent together – from before deployment to time on the battlefield. “They spend so much time together – literally together at all times on deployment, eating and sleeping side-by-side – that even a small amount of separation can easily exacerbate a medical condition; whether it’s mental or physical. One handler I knew that was injured along with his dog in Iraq was more focused on his dog’s status than his own. So you can see that even an injury or illness to a dog can create anxiety and stress for both the handler and the dog.”
Whether they are on their first tour, or fifth tour, these dogs have gained respect from fellow service members and civilians alike. And in death, these dogs are treated to memorial services fit for a veteran. For example, an entire military base in Florida mourned the loss of one of their MWDs named Beto, who died of natural causes. They held a memorial service and gathered at a chapel to remember their fallen friend.
Times are Changin’
The focus on using Military Working Dogs has led the military to treat them much better than previous times in history. For example, during the Vietnam War, MWDs were left in the warzone once their purpose was fulfilled. Today, the military better understands how important these wet-nosed soldiers are to a human serviceman’s life. Without them, tracking land mines and sniffing out enemies would be a much harder task. In the War Against Terror, MWDs are considered to be the best tool for detecting I.E.D.s.
Aside from the worth of having the sharpened senses of a dog on our side, the MWDs also provide therapeutic benefits to soldiers who are going through tough emotional times. Having a companion that is always willing to listen can provide the much-needed support our troops need to succeed – whether physically or mentally . . . and on or off the field of battle.
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