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Military Working Dogs: Understanding Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


Military working dogs (MWDs) have served officially in the U.S. military since 1942, although their history of service dates back before then. Their training originally ranged from scouting, messenger, and tactical-type tasks to the present-day installation of law enforcement, detection, and combat-operations tasks. Each of the specializations that a military working dog can obtain has its own set of skills for the dogs to learn before becoming a certified MWD. Bred for a specific set of skills, dogs selected to serve as MWDs are resilient, highly intelligent, and have robust capabilities. Skills that have saved countless lives—neither man nor machine have been able to replicate them.

Despite their genetics and training, due to the nature of the combat environments in which they perform their jobs, military working dogs can be susceptible to canine post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

What Is Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

The condition classified as C-PTSD in U.S. military working dogs was first applied in 2010, after a review of cases that presented with noticeable adverse behaviors associated with dogs who had been or were currently deployed. The adverse behavior “syndromes” documented in those military working dogs correlated with most of the criteria for the human diagnosis of PTSD, so the term canine post-traumatic stress disorder was adopted.

There are currently approximately 1,600 dogs in the military working dog program, with a fluctuating number of those dogs in training or deployed. As of 2017, C-PTSD diagnosis accounted for approximately 68 military working dogs. However, the numbers have decreased since 2013, with only 4.25 percent of the population affected over the last seven years.

When a military working dog displays a noticeable change in behavior, whether in general temperament or working behavior, the handlers and veterinarians working directly with the dogs exhaust all possible reasons for the change. First, a potential medical cause is explored, to ensure no illness or injury has caused a change in the dog’s behavior. If a medical reason is not found, other options are explored, such as a behavioral disorder like C-PTSD.

The difficulty in diagnosing C-PTSD, however, is there is not always an instantaneous or apparent change in the military working dog after an event, or recognition of an event the dog may perceive as traumatic goes unnoticed. The symptoms resulting from an event can be mild or delayed for months, so correlating the behavior back to a specific time or place can be difficult as well. Additionally, to diagnose a military working dog with C-PTSD, the symptoms must be present for longer than what is considered a typical recovery time from a traumatic event, which can vary between dogs.

Common Symptoms of Canine PTSD in Military Working Dogs

As with other disorders related to distress or a traumatic experience, common symptoms of C-PTSD can include: increased or decreased responsiveness to the environment, changes in the relationship with the handler, failure to perform work-related tasks, escape or avoidance behavior, or other general signs of fear, anxiety, or stress. The symptoms seen with C-PTSD can vary widely between individual military working dogs. For example, one MWD may become depressed and uninterested in working, while another MWD may still work well but becomes aggressive and difficult to handle.

Using a behavioral diagnosis, like C-PTSD, is a method for veterinarians to categorize the issues using consistent terminology, but it does not imply that each patient presents in the same manner. We assign the problem a name (i.e., canine post-traumatic stress disorder); however, each patient may present with different symptoms, be in different stages of the disorder, and respond differently to treatment.

Treating Canine PTSD

Military working dogs are bred to be highly resilient. Those genetics, along with the training, preparation, and care they receive, are strategies used to protect against C-PTSD. However, in the event a military working dog has difficulty recovering from a traumatic event, the best treatment is combination therapy. The combination of recommendations caters to the intensity, frequency, and type of symptoms displayed by each individual dog. Medication can help reduce the fear, anxiety, or aggression symptoms, but it is important to avoid triggers for the C-PTSD behavior, such as combat settings or noises, incorporating behavior exercises and training to teach the dog how to cope in stressful situations.

The majority of the military working dogs with C-PTSD are treated and managed successfully. Handlers and veterinarians recognize the importance of identifying any issues and getting treatment initiated as soon as possible. However, there is a difference between curative treatment and successful treatment when treating C-PTSD, or another behavioral disorder. Every animal learns from experience, so treatment is not expected to erase what happened, nor is it the goal to cure them from trauma. Rather, we treat each military working dog so that they can successfully recover and return to work while maintaining good health and welfare. There are some cases where treatment is successful for the dog; but part of the treatment could include retirement from military service.

Recognition of Canine PTSD

The veterinary community does not have a standardized book of behavioral diagnoses like human psychology has. There is always room for debate regarding terminology in diagnoses, even with C-PTSD. Regardless of the term chosen, veterinarians recognize fear, anxiety, and stress, and it is necessary to treat these symptoms for the health and welfare of the patient. There is a difference between pets and military working dogs diagnosed with C-PTSD because MWDs are exposed to combat environments as part of their job requirements. The difficulty in diagnosing C-PTSD in a pet animal is knowing whether there is history of trauma (real or perceived) and if the pet’s current behavior is a result of a failure to cope with previous trauma. Although there may be debate on how and when it is appropriate to diagnose C-PTSD in the pet population, the criteria for diagnosis in military working dogs are specific to the work they perform.

C-PTSD is a rare but recognized problem in military working dogs. Early recognition of the symptoms of distress following a trauma by handlers and veterinarians can lead to prevention or successful treatment of C-PTSD. However, if a military working dog is retired for a medical or behavioral reason (such as C-PTSD), there are many organizations dedicated to assisting the adoptive owners of veteran dogs with medication costs, as well as providing a forum for networking and support.

The History and Evolution of Military Working Dogs

Early History

Dogs have been used in warfare for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans employed dogs for various military purposes, including scouting, tracking, and attacking. During the Middle Ages, European armies used large breeds like mastiffs and bloodhounds for both combat and guarding purposes.

World War I and II

The use of military working dogs became more organized and widespread during the World Wars. In World War I, dogs were used for carrying messages, laying communication wires, and detecting mines. The Soviet Union, Germany, and the United States all developed specialized training programs for military dogs.

World War II saw an even greater use of dogs in military operations. The United States established the Dogs for Defense program, which recruited and trained dogs for various tasks, including sentry duty, messenger service, and detecting enemy forces. The success of these programs laid the groundwork for the formal establishment of military working dog units in the U.S. military.

Post-World War II to Present

After World War II, the role of military working dogs continued to evolve. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, dogs were used extensively for scouting, tracking, and detecting explosives. The success of these dogs in preventing ambushes and detecting enemy forces saved countless lives.

In the modern era, military working dogs are deployed in various capacities, including explosive detection, drug detection, search and rescue, and patrol duties. Advances in training techniques and veterinary care have improved the effectiveness and welfare of these dogs.

The Selection and Training of Military Working Dogs

Selection Process

Military working dogs are selected based on specific criteria, including temperament, intelligence, and physical health. Breeds commonly used include German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherds, and Labrador Retrievers. These breeds are chosen for their trainability, loyalty, and work ethic.

Training Programs

Training programs for military working dogs are rigorous and extensive. Basic training includes obedience, agility, and socialization. Specialized training is tailored to the specific role the dog will perform, such as explosive detection, patrol, or search and rescue.

Handlers play a crucial role in the training process. A strong bond between the handler and the dog is essential for effective communication and teamwork. Handlers undergo extensive training to learn how to work with their dogs and handle various situations that may arise during deployments.

Continuous Training and Assessment

Military working dogs and their handlers undergo continuous training and assessment to maintain their skills and readiness. Regular training sessions, simulations, and real-world exercises ensure that the dogs remain proficient in their tasks. Additionally, ongoing assessments help identify any issues or areas that require further training or intervention.

The Role of Military Working Dogs in Modern Warfare

Explosive Detection

One of the most critical roles of military working dogs in modern warfare is explosive detection. These dogs are trained to detect a wide range of explosives, including improvised explosive devices (IEDs), landmines, and other hazardous materials. Their keen sense of smell allows them to detect explosives that may go unnoticed by human personnel and technological devices.

Patrol and Sentry Duty

Military working dogs also serve as patrol and sentry dogs, providing security and protection for military installations, bases, and personnel. Their presence alone can act as a deterrent to potential threats, and their ability to detect intruders or suspicious activities enhances the overall security of military operations.

Search and Rescue

In addition to their roles in combat and security, military working dogs are trained for search and rescue missions. They can locate and rescue missing or injured personnel in various environments, including urban settings, wilderness areas, and disaster sites. Their agility, endurance, and ability to navigate challenging terrain make them invaluable assets in search and rescue operations.

Detection of Narcotics and Contraband

Military working dogs are also trained to detect narcotics and contraband. Their ability to identify hidden drugs and illegal substances is crucial for maintaining security and preventing illegal activities within military installations and operations.

The Psychological and Emotional Well-Being of Military Working Dogs

Importance of Mental Health

The mental health and emotional well-being of military working dogs are of paramount importance. These dogs are exposed to stressful and potentially traumatic situations, and their psychological health directly impacts their performance and overall welfare.

Signs of Stress and Anxiety

Handlers and veterinarians are trained to recognize signs of stress and anxiety in military working dogs. Common signs include changes in behavior, decreased appetite, excessive panting, and avoidance behaviors. Early recognition of these signs is crucial for providing timely intervention and support.

Support and Interventions

Various support and intervention strategies are employed to promote the mental health and well-being of military working dogs. These may include:

  • Regular Veterinary Care: Routine health check-ups and medical care to address any physical health issues that may contribute to stress or anxiety.

  • Environmental Enrichment: Providing stimulating and engaging environments to reduce boredom and promote mental stimulation.

  • Positive Reinforcement Training: Using positive reinforcement techniques to build confidence and reduce stress.

  • Rest and Recuperation: Ensuring that military working dogs have adequate rest and recuperation periods to recover from the physical and mental demands of their work.

The Role of Handlers in Supporting Mental Health

Handlers play a vital role in supporting the mental health and well-being of military working dogs. Building a strong bond and trust with their dogs allows handlers to provide comfort and reassurance during stressful situations. Handlers are also trained to recognize signs of distress and take appropriate actions to mitigate stressors and provide support.

The Impact of Trauma and Stress on Military Working Dogs

Exposure to Combat and Traumatic Events

Military working dogs are often exposed to combat and traumatic events as part of their duties. These experiences can have a profound impact on their mental health and well-being. Exposure to loud noises, explosions, and life-threatening situations can lead to the development of Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).

Understanding Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD)

Canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a condition that affects military working dogs who have been exposed to traumatic events. The symptoms of C-PTSD can vary widely and may include changes in behavior, increased anxiety, avoidance behaviors, and difficulties performing work-related tasks.

Diagnosis and Recognition of C-PTSD

Diagnosing C-PTSD in military working dogs can be challenging, as the symptoms may not always be immediately apparent. Veterinarians and handlers work together to assess the dog's behavior and determine if C-PTSD is the underlying cause of any changes. Early recognition and diagnosis are essential for providing timely treatment and support.

Treatment and Management of C-PTSD

Treating C-PTSD in military working dogs typically involves a combination of therapies, including:

  • Medication: Medications may be prescribed to help manage anxiety, fear, and aggression.

  • Behavioral Therapy: Behavioral therapy and training exercises are used to help dogs cope with stress and build resilience.

  • Environmental Modifications: Adjusting the dog's environment to reduce exposure to stressors and triggers.

  • Supportive Care: Providing ongoing support and monitoring to ensure the dog's well-being.

The Retirement and Transition of Military Working Dogs

Retirement Process

When a military working dog reaches the end of its service, a retirement process is initiated. The process involves assessing the dog's health, behavior, and overall suitability for retirement. Dogs that are deemed fit for retirement are placed in loving homes, often with their handlers or other experienced caregivers.

Adoption Programs

There are several adoption programs dedicated to finding homes for retired military working dogs. These programs ensure that the dogs are placed in suitable environments where they can enjoy a peaceful and fulfilling retirement. Prospective adopters are carefully screened to ensure they have the necessary experience and resources to care for a retired military working dog.

Support for Adoptive Families

Adopting a retired military working dog comes with its own set of challenges and responsibilities. Support programs are available to assist adoptive families with training, veterinary care, and any behavioral issues that may arise. These programs provide valuable resources and guidance to ensure the successful integration of the retired dog into its new home.

Honoring the Service of Retired Military Working Dogs

Retired military working dogs are honored for their service and contributions. Ceremonies and events are often held to recognize their achievements and dedication. These dogs are celebrated as heroes and valued members of the military community.

The Future of Military Working Dogs

Advances in Training and Technology

Advances in training techniques and technology continue to improve the capabilities and welfare of military working dogs. Innovations in detection equipment, communication tools, and training methods enhance the effectiveness of these dogs in various roles.

Research and Development

Ongoing research and development efforts focus on improving the health, performance, and well-being of military working dogs. Studies on genetics, nutrition, and behavior contribute to a better understanding of how to optimize the training and care of these dogs.

Collaboration and Partnerships

Collaboration and partnerships between military organizations, research institutions, and veterinary professionals are essential for advancing the field of military working dog programs. These partnerships facilitate the sharing of knowledge, resources, and best practices to enhance the capabilities and welfare of military working dogs.

The Evolving Role of Military Working Dogs

The role of military working dogs continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of modern warfare and security. As new threats and challenges emerge, military working dogs will remain indispensable assets in ensuring the safety and success of military operations.


Military working dogs play a vital role in modern warfare and security, providing invaluable services in explosive detection, patrol, search and rescue, and more. Understanding and addressing the mental health and well-being of these dogs are essential for ensuring their effectiveness and welfare. By recognizing the signs of stress and anxiety, providing appropriate support and interventions, and honoring their service, we can ensure that military working dogs continue to be valued and respected members of the military community.

Canine Post-Traumatic Stress
Canine Post-Traumatic Stress


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