U.S. army braces itself for increase in PTSD in sniffer dogs

The American Marine Corps is taking steps to combat post-traumatic stress disorder in its’ bomb sniffing dogs, as it prepares to increase the number of those on duty in Afghanistan.

The highly trained canines recently hit the news when Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, accompanied the team that stormed the compound of Osama Bin Laden in May. So far, he is the only personnel to be named as taking part in the operation.

However, as the armed forces begin to rely on dogs more and more, the numbers that are wounded or killed on the front line are rising steadily. In fact, 14 highly trained dogs have died on the front line since May 2010. In that period, six were wounded and three are still missing in action.

Richard Vargus, who is head of law enforcement at the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), understands the support that is required to rehabilitate dogs that have been at the sharp end in the fight against the Taliban. He commented:

“Our biggest issue that we have with canines is canine PTSD.”

“We’ve seen a significant issue with that because when you’re standing 10 feet away from an explosion, the dog has emotions and the dog is affected as well.”

When a military dog encounters an improvised explosive device (IED), it and the handler are ordered to stand down for two or three days. If the dog is suffering from trauma, it may run away and hide, cower or even bite its handler if he/she is worried that they are going back out on patrol. Vargus added:

“We can’t tell until the team gets ready to go outside the wire again how the dog is affected.”

“It really is difficult, because once the dog experiences these traumatic explosions, it’s the same as the troops.”

“Some dogs move right through it and it doesn’t affect them. Some dogs, it takes some retraining, and some dogs just refuse to work.”

Dogs that are seriously hurt are flown out to Germany for treatment, and if necessary, are given further rehabilitation at Lackland Air Force Base.

The number of dog teams in Afghanistan is lower than at the height of the Iraq war, and the U.S. is looking to boost these numbers by funding a new initiative called TEDD (Tactical Explosive Detector Dog) on the orders of General David Petraeus shortly before his retirement. Although Vargus admits that the Army’s canine resources are expendable, he acknowledged the part that they have to play:

“The goal of the program will be to put more dogs out on patrol and potentially save more troops.”

“We need a solid, stood-up force to support the war fighter.”