“Canine PTSD” or “Army dogs suffer from Pavlovian conditioning”

McGill University’s Summer Program in Social and Cultural Psychiatry presents wonderful opportunities to share ideas with those who think a lot about culture and mental health, culture in mental health, and, perhaps most interesting, the culture of mental health. Allan Young, whose historical ethnography of posttraumatic stress disorder, The Harmony of Illusions, is a must-read for anyone interested in trauma studies, passed along the following example of PTSD’s exaggerated role in current US culture, from the Army Times:

Dogs bring home war’s stress, too

By Michelle Tan – Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Dec 30, 2010 9:41:04 EST

SAN ANTONIO — Dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress, too.

Years of war and frequent deployments have affected military working dogs just as they have humans, and Dr. Walter Burghardt is trying to do something about it.

Dr. Burghardt explains:

“The dogs that go overseas … we’re starting to see some distress-related issues,” he said. “It results in difficulty doing work. They’re distracted by loud noises. We’re not saying it’s the same as in people, but there are common things.”

That includes hypervigilance or showing interest in escaping or avoiding places in which they used to be comfortable. For example, a dog that used to work at a security checkpoint or gate may try to pull away on his leash when he sees he’s being led to that checkpoint or gate, Burghardt said.

Some of the dogs also become very clingy or more irritable or aggressive, the doctor said.

“Canine PTSD” is either the most extreme example of what Richard McNally calls PTSD’s “bracket creep” or some perhaps nonintentional Pavloivan insight into the nature of stress response. Or perhaps both. If we take the “symptoms” reported in the article as accurate, and I have no reason to doubt the staff writers at the Army Times, then yes, dogs get stressed and want to avoid the sources of their stressors — classical conditioning, a la Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936; Pavlov even demonstrated conditioning using dogs, until they drowned in their cages when the River Neva flooded the basement of his laboratory). But canine posttraumatic stress disorder?

In case you were concerned that the Army veterinarians were not being careful about differential diagnosis, or perhaps even that some dogs might be faking in order to cash in on the generous disability benefits for veterans with PTSD:

[Dr. Burghardt] cautioned, “canine [post-traumatic stress disorder] is only diagnosed if the dog has combat exposure or repeated, prolonged deployments.”

The article continues with a description of the treatment given the dogs to get them right back “in the service”… which is, of course, the goal of treating human PTSD in the military as well.

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