Former Marine Cpl. and Purple Heart recipient Megan Leavey and combat dog Sgt. Rex.
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

I recently saw the movie Megan Leavey, a film about the real-life story of Marine Corporal Megan Leavey and her canine military dog, Rex, who worked together in Iraq. The movie focuses on Megan’s journey from boot camp to canine handler where she is assigned Rex. During their training and tour of duty in Iraq they are able to forge a bond which helps them to be successful at detecting weapons and explosives. On one particular mission, they both suffer injuries and are sent back to the United States for treatment and rehabilitation. Meghan, who has elected to not re-enlist, seeks to adopt Rex. Her commanding officer, in a very heartfelt way, reminds her that a dog like Rex may have invisible wounds, just like human veterans, and adoption into civilian life would be difficult. Through two tours of duty in Iraq, Sgt. Rex was by Leavey’s side. The pair worked more than 100 missions searching for roadside bombs, were injured in the line of duty and went through physical therapy together. After five years of waiting for Rex’s service to end and filling out paperwork, Leavey finally won approval to bring the 11-year-old German Shepherd home.

When I heard that dialog, it brought me back to the Dr. Walter Burghardt, DVM, presentation about PTSD in military dogs, “Preliminary Evaluation of Case Series of Military Working Dogs Affected with Canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” at the 2013 American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior symposium. Dr. Burghardt showed video, photo, and interview data of military dogs who displayed behaviors that are similar to PTSD in humans. These behaviors included hyper-vigilance, avoidance, and failure to perform critical tasks after the stressful event(s).

Dr. Walter Burghardt evaluates the behavior of a military working dog Sept. 11, 2010, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Dr. Burghardt is the chief of Behavioral Medicine and Military Working Dog Studies at Lackland’s Daniel E. Holland MWD Hospital.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Robbin Cresswell)

In the study, Dr. Burghardt revealed that, with treatment, 50% of the affected dogs could return to service, and those that could not, were adoptable. One benefit of this study was in 2010, military veterinarians were trained to identify the behavior signs of Canine PTSD. Affected dogs received a standardized treatment plan and were then referred to the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital for continued care and evaluation. Results of the study showed that 50% of the dogs could return to service after 16 weeks of treatment and evaluation. Approximately 5% of all military working dogs are affected by C-PTSD, with a majority of those cases being classified as chronic C-PTSD. While this may seem like a low number, it is the single greatest cause for loss of deployability in military working dogs. The treatment period was set at 16 weeks due to military needs not related to medical care. Many of these dogs received medication, environmental enrichment, counter-conditioning, and desensitization. For the 50% who could not go back into military service, they were employed in other military service areas that lacked triggering events or they were adopted out as a civilian dog, often to past military handlers.

Dr. Burghardt is the Chief of Behavioral Medicine at Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX. In 2007, he and his colleagues began to see clusters of behaviors that they came to identify as canine PTSD (C-PTSD). While canine PTSD may not have the exact same set of behaviors as human PTSD, there is consistent evidence of certain behaviors military dogs exhibit in combat, the implications of the behaviors in combat that affect the dog’s performance, and most importantly ways to treat this. Dr. Burghardt oversees the care of 1,500 military dogs, and has gathered video, photo, and interview data about military dogs on patrols, missions, in transit, and on base. His work has helped adjust the way these heroic dogs are trained, used in combat missions, and evaluated on a regular basis for PTSD in the field, as well as after they return to their home base.

There were other scenes in the movie that resonated with me as a veterinarian and behaviorist. Megan defends her dog’s aggressive behavior during a veterinary exam, reminding the veterinarian that Rex has chronic pain and anxiety from combat trauma. Today, that scene would likely play out differently. Today, military veterinarians are educated in behavior and perform the behavioral and health assessments for these military dogs. I have noticed many military veterinarians at behavior lectures during veterinary conferences and I now know why: Dr. Burghardt continues to research and treat various behavior issues in military dogs.

The movie is a great real-life story of loyalty, bonding, duty, and overcoming life’s challenges. For me, it reminded me of the personal sacrifices that military handlers make side-by-side with their dogs on a daily basis. As our Independence Day draws near, I am reminded that freedom does not come free. It is paid for by all who serve, both 2-legged and 4-legged.

Thank you for your service.

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