Attrition: Another Reason To Howl At The Moon


August 9, 2010: In the last nine years, the United States military has used several thousand military dogs in combat zones. Some have been killed in action, but many more are returning home with signs of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Treatment has to be improvised, because it�s a rare problem. Most of the dogs overseas are used to sniff out explosives, which is similar to drug smelling chores thousands of dogs perform for police organizations back home.

The dogs with PTSD tend to be terrified of loud noises (as many dogs are fearful of thunder and lightning) when they return home, as well as fearful of situations similar to those where they experienced a roadside bomb or combat. In general, however, the dogs seem to stand up to combat better than humans. But more and more dogs are taken into combat situations, and some of them have even been equipped with body armor.

War dogs have long been equipped with non-armored vests. These vests are inexpensive (under $100) and just provided protection from the elements and a way to identify the dog. Many vests come with a special features. Some vests have compartments on the inside for the insertion of cold packs (soft, flat plastic bags containing a chemical that, when activated, becomes very cool). Since dogs do not deal with heat as effectively as humans (dogs don�t sweat), and Iraq and Afghanistan can be very warm in Summer, the cold packs can prevent heat stroke. There are also attachments on the vest to enable the dog to be dropped by parachute, or hauled up via a rope. Vests allow identifying badges to be added, and more of them have various grips for the handlers to pick up an injured dog. One vest even has straps so that a handler can carry the dog on his back like a pack. The vests hinder the dogs' mobility a bit, especially when they are jumping. But the dogs have quickly adjusted to the vests. The armored vests, depending on the degree of protection, cost from $500-$1,000. Some handlers prefer unarmored vests, because they are lighter (about a pound/.5kg) than the armored vests (up to 3.5kg/7 pounds), and less constrictive.

When the occasion demands it, the dogs wear body armor. Normally used for sniffing out explosives, crowd control and other police type work, the dogs are also trained to work while wearing the custom made Kevlar body armor.  These vests will protect the dogs from stab wounds, shell fragments and some bullets. While the heaviest Protective Vests weigh about seven pounds, for a 90 pound German Shepard, this is about the same burden as the 17 pound vest worn by soldiers and marines.

The expense of the vests is justified because of the value of the dogs, and the hostility that Arabs have towards dogs (it's a cultural and religious thing.) The dogs take over a year, and some $60,000, to train. So spending some money on life saving equipment for the dogs is a good investment.

At any time, there are hundreds of American trained military dogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are currently some 1,400 dogs in service for the U.S. military. During World War II, some 10,000 dogs were taken into military service, and in the Vietnam war, some 4,000 dogs were trained and sent overseas, where 281 were killed in combat. The marines used 327 dogs in the Pacific during World War II, and 29 died in battle. The marines found the dogs particularly useful for detecting Japanese troops, who were expert at camouflage, and setting up ambushes.

Until 2000, when the law was changed, military dogs were used until they were about ten years old, then killed. It was thought that the retired military dogs could not adapt to family life. But decades of police, and some military experience, with dogs living safely with their handlers and family members, finally caused the policy to be changed. Dog handlers had long urged that retired dogs be allowed to stay with their handlers, or be put up for adoption.

But now, dogs put up for adoption have to be screened for PTSD. Military veterinarians and dog handlers have informally compiled their experiences on handling dogs suffering from PTSD, and the informal �treatment manual� grows thicker and thicker every month. Most dogs recover over time, via special training to help them overcome the fears they acquired in combat. But many of the PTSD dogs are not sent back into combat. There�s still plenty of work for them in non-combat areas, but no one wants to risk a canine meltdown while under fire.


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