For her first two years, Gina was a typically happy German shepherd puppy. She loved going up to people with tail wagging and ears up. As she trained to be a bomb-sniffing dog, Gina enjoyed checking out new sites at her home on Peterson Air Force Base. But all that changed following her six-month tour of duty in Iraq from December 2008 to May of 2009.
“She was really withdrawn, she didn’t want to see anybody,” her longtime trainer and the kennel manager at the base, Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, tells PEOPLEPets.com. “If I brought her in a building she would hide under the desk. When we took her out in public, she would lock up all four feet, to try to prevent herself from going into a building.”
What Haynes discovered from a military veterinarian is that Gina suffers from a canine form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While in Iraq, Gina experienced stunning bursts of light and noise from flash-bang grenades used to disorient insurgents as she went door to door. Once, an explosive hit the vehicle she was riding in, creating a frightening noise and destroying the vehicle behind Gina.
“I knew there was something wrong with her,” says Haynes, “and I knew there would be a lot of work to fix it.”
Dogs and humans are genetically similar, sharing 95 percent of the same DNA, with brains similar in shape, size and structure, says Nicholas Dodman, head of the behavior program at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. In humans as well as animals, when extraordinary stressful moments occur, stress hormones flood the brain, causing the incident to be forever imprinted. “You can have this absolutely awful, paralyzing experience,” Dodman says, “and you’re never the same. When the dog is thrust into some horrendous, life-threatening situation, I am sure the dog is absolutely terrified.”
“So the dog is anxious, pacing, frightened, nervous, hiding, spending the rest of its life trying to never get into that situation again,” he continues. “Is it post traumatic stress? Yes. Is the dog stressed? Yes. You’d have to work very hard not to apply the definition of PTSD to her. “
Since Gina’s return to the base near Colorado Springs, Haynes has worked diligently to help Gina overcome her trauma. At first, as Gina was led down the street, she laid down or tried to run, terrified of noise. She would not play with her toys and let treats just drop to the ground. She didn’t want contact with anyone.
Long Road Ahead
Slowly, with the help of T-Bone treats, Gina’s favorite, Haynes lulled her into a sense of security again. Says Haynes: “She’s doing outstanding to what she was.”
However, he admits Gina still has a long road ahead. “There is still work that needs to be done,” says Haynes, “she is not 100 percent cured by any stretch.”
And she most likely never will be, says Dodman. “I am pleased with what she is learning,” he says. “But I think if they take her back to the theater of war, she’ll melt down. You never forget. Fears once learned are never forgotten.”
Barring another tour of duty, perhaps Gina’s fears will continue to dissipate. “She’s really friendly now, she loves hanging out on the couch, she loves to be petted,” says Haynes. “She is acting like a puppy now. It’s beautiful.”
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