War is hell... for dogs, too



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Posted on February 13, 2013 at 11:14 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 13 at 11:19 PM

SAN ANTONIO — At Lackland Air Force Base, what might be considered fun and games for dogs is a life-and-death training session for their handlers.

Jeff Justice, now retired from the Air Force, says his dog saved his life.

"I know he did... on more than one occasion," he said.

The scar on Justice's arm isn't from his combat in Iraq; it's from helping an injured working dog covered in blood.

"When I found the injury, he responded the only way he could, and that was to lash out," he recalled.

Justice's wound did not hurt his passion for training war dogs. About 1,200 of the canines deployed to Iraq; most of them are now in Afghanistan.

Dogs are used to sniff out hidden bombs better than any machine. They're bred specifically for this job at Lackland.

Only about half of a litter of Belgian Malinois pups will make suitable military dogs, but even the best are not machines.

"As early as 2007, we started seeing dogs being affected by what we are now calling K9 PTSD... we just didn't really know what to call it," explained Dr Walt Burghardt, chief of behavior medicine at the Holland Working Dog Hospital at Lackland.

He said initial reports were sporadic... dogs were observed starting to cower, getting overly excited or too aggressive after firefights and explosions.

Reports kept coming in... so many that veterinarians labeled it "PTSD" — post-traumatic stress disorder.

"About 30 to 60 dogs a year are being identified with PTSD," Burghardt said; that's 5 to 10 percent of all dogs sent to war.

Lackland Air Force Base trains more military working dogs than any place in the world. There are about 900 right now, but it's only within the last three years that the experts here started studying PTSD in these dogs.

Dr. Burghardt is quick not to equate the canine affliction with human PTSD, but he said handlers need to recognize symptoms so dogs can be removed to de-stress.

Severe cases require drugs for depression and anxiety; the most severely affected dogs are retired.

"I don't know of a single case where we've euthanized a military working dog because it's showing signs of canine PTSD," Dr. Burghardt said.

It's a sensitive issue; before a law was changed in 2000, nearly all military dogs were euthanized when they could no longer work.

Now, nearly all are adopted — mostly by their handlers.

Marine Sgt. Bryan Manthey took Zzisko to war three times, then took him home.

"He's saved my neck multiple times," Manthey said.

A memorial wall in a training room provides a constant reminder that dogs and their handlers have paid a high price. But trainers note that that price has saved a lot of American lives.

E-mail jdouglas@wfaa.com