Thursday, January 3, 2008

Canine PTSD in disaster and war

Happy 2008 everyone! Along with my good wishes to all, two and four legged, I have a bit of a different post today.

Recently I was talking to friend and author Julia Szabo, who's great blog is at (and of course ) about dog aggression, and the case of the Blackwater mercenaries shooting the NY Times compound dog Hentish came up. For those who have not read the story, a dog named Hentish, who lived in the compound occupied by the NY Times in Baghdad, allegedly attacked a bomb detector dog used by the Blackwater operatives in Iraq. The mercenary handler then shot and killed Hentish.

There is relatively little solid information about the incident, but Julia asked about the likely behavior of a dog living in or around a military-style compound in a war zone. To answer that I had to back up almost three years to the animals I dealt with in New Orleans post-Katrina and a dog that I worked with for a time after the animal airlift from Lebanon that happened in the wake of that recent Mid-East flare-up.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is well defined in humans. According to the NIMH website ( ), “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.”

Although the literature is less definitive about the presence of PTSD in companion animals, the dogs that I observed on the streets after Hurricane Katrina exhibited symptoms that seemed to be a canine analog of human PTSD. These animals were depressed, lacking in normal affect, startled easily, agitated, and shy of human contact. More importantly, some of these animals exhibited generalized aggression.

An aggressive response in such stressed animals is not surprising, nor unobserved outside disaster situations. Many dogs, especially those who are under- or un-socialized, default to an aggressive display when frightened or exposed to a novel situation. The destruction of homes and evacuation, even death, of the human population of New Orleans was certainly frightening and novel, even to the best socialized of pets.

What did this mean for the dogs of Katrina? In my case, I set up a quiet treatment area, apart from the hustle of the rescue operations. The dogs got personal attention, most often after I built a working relationship through the use of non-verbal communication signals (body language is the basis for about 95% of inter-canine communication – NOT “whispering”, ESP, or other nonsense!) and let the dogs know they were once again safe. They were then introduced to other friendly, non-threatening humans and gradually returned to a ‘normal’ environment.

Did this ‘cure’ the dogs? Absolutely not. Many of these animals have had lasting effects, physical and behavioral. Some, such as Winnie (my Katrina Pit Bull rescue), still show fear during storms. Some have shown varying degrees of suspicion and aggression towards humans. Some have recovered exceptionally well.

Another personal observation, directly applicable to Iraq, was Rudy. He is a German Shepherd mix that was rescued from the bombing of a shelter in Lebanon. He was place in a home here in the US, but began showing aggression towards humans. A delayed reaction in stressed and traumatized dogs is not uncommon; some of the dogs from Katrina only started to show symptoms after they had been removed from the ‘war zone’ and had started to adapt to their rescue. Rudy showed just that delay.

As time went on he showed increasing sensitivity to loud noises (gee, ya think?) and became spooky and likely to give an aggressive response with minimal non-verbal warning signals. He trusted me, but even my daughter, a very dog-savvy teenager, did not trust him.

Rudy’s issues were too much. He was eventually transferred to a safe, permanent shelter where the handlers are skilled and accustomed to difficult animals. He will live out his life safely and in peace, but sadly is unlikely to ever transition to being a family dog. The reason? Lasting PTSD.

What does all of this have to do with Hentish and Iraq? The situation with Hentish just illustrates the many casualties of war. Blackwater claims that Hentish attacked a bomb dog to the point that the handler had no choice but to fire. I find it difficult to believe that this was the first time that Blackwater had ever swept the NY Times compound for explosives. I certainly agree that a bomb dog is a valuable resource that should be protected, but I question the skill and planning of the handler that allowed an unknown dog to approach closely enough to his working dog to actually become a valid threat. Meanwhile, Hentish was killed as a result of behavior that was fully preventable, and may well have been nothing more or less than a manifestation of the war zone he was living in.

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