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Out of Service: Working Dogs and PTSD

(Feature Published in Good Dog Journal, September 2013)

Department: Feature

By: Suzanne Johnson

In 1998, after Hurricane Mitch blew through Honduras and killed more than 14,000 people, Harry Oakes and his canine search-and-rescue team spent eight days combing the floodplains and climbing rocky hillsides, searching for bodies. The work was physically demanding and emotionally exhausting for both the dogs and the handlers. “Dogs get very upset by human death,” said Oakes.

Tuning in to the emotional states of his dogs has become second nature to Oakes, CEO and Coordinator for International K9 Search and Rescue Services in Longview, Washington. For more than two decades, Oakes has been training dogs for search and rescue missions (SAR), ranging from tracking down missing persons to finding people trapped in the rubble of natural disasters. He is acutely aware of the stress that these missions can provoke. “We work very hard to keep the dog’s experiences positive, even in trauma situations,” he said.

Whether they are searching for survivors, comforting the ill in hospital settings, guiding the blind through city streets, detecting explosives in a battle zone or performing other essential services, working dogs solve an ever-increasing variety of problems for humans. The dogs’ unique skills help make human lives easier, safer, and less stressful. But what is the cost to the dogs? A growing number of dog trainers, handlers, and researchers suspect that working dogs may harbor stress of their own and the work we ask them to perform can lead to burn out, mental exhaustion, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Staying tuned in to the dogs can help. In Honduras, Oakes said, “We had to find ways to keep [the dogs] motivated to keep searching.” Knowing how much the dogs wanted to rescue living people, he occasionally would ask other rescue workers to hide in the field where the dogs were working. The positive feelings the dogs got from finding a live person would give them dogs the emotional boost they needed to go back to work.

Body language

Oakes has brought the dogs on hundreds of crime-scene investigations to help determine what might have happened at the scene. SAR dogs communicate their findings through their body language, and that same body language indicates the level of stress they feel from their findings. “When we visit a suspected crime scene, the dog tells us immediately what has happened,” said Oakes. If no person was harmed at the scene, the dog’s ears and tail stay up. If the missing person left the scene alive, but under threat, he or she emitted a fear scent. In response to that smell, the dog’s ears lay back and the tail points straight back. If a person was killed at the scene, the death scent sends the dog into unmistakable distress; the dog moves into the “death alert” pose, with ears laid back, tail pointing down, whining and possibly urinating or defecating.

The value of the dogs’ contribution is enormous — in every case that Oakes’ SAR dogs have detected a crime, the perpetrator was convicted. But how does Oakes lift the dogs out of the negative emotions they absorb at a crime scene? He is careful to keep both the training and the search missions more like playing games than like serious work. Affection and ball-time are the best rewards after a job well done, said Oakes, noting “We all crave hugs, kisses and play—dogs and people included.” Oakes has never had a dog retire early due to stress, although two dog handlers on his staff left the team after working at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; the intense emotional trauma of the search for bodies was simply too much. Because handler and dog work as an inseparable team, the SAR dogs left with their handlers. Since then, Oakes has incorporated stress management for handlers into the training regimen, both for their own mental health and to avoid projecting their negative emotions onto the dog.

Just as with humans, the canine response to a perceived threat involves the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, which effectively takes over the thinking part of the brain and puts the body on autopilot. The body prepares for fight, flight, or freeze: Muscles tense, the bladder may empty, and the adrenal glands start pumping out stress hormones, including cortisol.

Cortisol provokes several metabolic changes. It counters insulin, to give the body a rush of blood sugar; it raises blood pressure; and it fires up the hippocampus in the brain, creating a permanent memory of the stressful event. The body requires time to recalibrate after a cortisol reaction. For a working dog, the handler is the one who gauges when a dog has rejuvenated and is ready to work again. Over time, consistently elevated cortisol levels can have cumulative effects such as a lowered immune system, changes in appetite, depression, or an overly aggressive stress response — all changes which can lead to an inability to continue working in the role the dog has been trained to do.

Give them a break

While SAR dogs experience the most intensely dramatic events, no working dog’s life is stress-free. Marcie Davis, co-author of Working Like Dogs (Alpine Publications), has encountered signs of both acute and chronic stress in her service dogs. Davis, a wheelchair user, has had three service dogs and is keenly aware of the need to monitor the emotional health of her dogs.

Service dogs are trained to assist people with limited mobility. They can open doors, turn on light switches, pick up dropped items, and provide physical support for a person who has fallen and needs help getting up. Davis received her most recent dog, Whistle, from Paws with a Cause, a non-profit assistance-dog training center in Wayland, Michigan. Service dogs are provided to clients at no cost, but the actual dollar amount required to raise and train each dog, including trainer salaries, facility costs, transportation, and medical fees, ranges from $40,000 to $50,000.

Training begins in the home of the breeder, as the puppies learn their names and learn to socialize. By eight weeks, they move to a foster family for more intensive training and socialization, and at an average age of two years of age the dogs are ready to be matched to people who needs their help. By this time, the dogs can confidently handle any situation the trainers pose for them. The trainers travel with the dog to its new home, and work with the client to acclimate the dog to its new environment and to facilitate the bond between the client and dog. The home visit by the trainer is key to a low-stress work environment for the dog, as the client learns how to read the dog’s needs, and how to create a happy and healthy work environment

Davis considers the human-dog bond critical. “We know each other intimately. Whistler needs to recognize what it is that I need and whether it is an emergency,” she said. At the same time, Davis needs to recognize the physical cues that signal the dog’s need for down time. When he begins to pant, to scratch excessively at his neck, or when wrinkles appear around his mouth, she knows his stress level is too high. It’s time to take off the work uniform (a service backpack) and let him be just another dog, digging in the backyard and chasing balls. Despite Davis’s busy travel schedule, she keeps Whistle’s working hours to a routine, with off-duty hours each morning, afternoon, and evening. When the schedule is thrown off, Davis says she can see Whistle’s frustration build, but she is careful to mediate the situation — he is just too important to not be a top priority.

Measuring stress in guide dogs

Guide dogs work specifically with the blind and visually impaired, and, like service dogs, they form an incredibly close partnership with their people. While serving as both eyes and navigator, their on-duty schedules may be more demanding than that of average service dogs. According to Professor of Humane Ethics & Animal Welfare James A. Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania, between 10 and 20 percent of guide dogs lose their mental ability to perform their duties, and he suspects that chronic stress may be the cause.

Serpell is the director of the Center for Interaction of Animals and Society at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. He is conducting a three-year study following guide dogs from birth through their career, trying to identify the factors that make a working dog lose motivation and quit working. He aims to “establish which dogs are at risk of an early retirement, which are likely to be successful, and what are the triggers that could push them one way or the other.” That information could prove invaluable, considering the enormous financial, time, and emotional investments needed to establish an effective working dog and handler team.

The study is based on measuring cortisol, the stress hormone released by the adrenal glands. Cortisol can be measured in several ways. In urine and blood, the level provides an instant snapshot of stress at that moment, but as conditions change, the amount will fluctuate. Fortunately for researchers, cortisol is also deposited in the hair or fur, where it creates a longer-term record of how much and how often the stress hormone has been released.

Dogs’ owners and handlers in the study keep detailed data on their animals’ behavior and any possibly significant events. They might notice a change in eating habits, a desire to avoid certain locations, or a sense of apathy. By correlating the cortisol in the fur with the recorded observations, Serpell hopes to find the triggers that cause burnout, and develop early training techniques to desensitize dogs who might be susceptible.

Aggression from other canines may be one stressor. Guide dogs are trained to be unobtrusive, and more dominant dogs can target that passive demeanor. An attack or an aggressive event might correspond to a spike in cortisol levels. Repeated events that show a pattern, or show increasing levels of cortisol, may indicate a trigger. Early training techniques could teach a guide dog how to better handle the situation.

Like Davis, Serpell is concerned about the number of hours a working dog should be on duty, whether it’s a guide dog, a therapy dog, or a service dog. “It’s not a natural thing for a dog to be constantly sociable with complete strangers around them.” How long is too long for dogs to work without a break? Serpell hopes that his study will provide some insights to that question.

Serpell emphasizes that his field of study is still experimental, with potential for misinterpretation on several levels. Dog owners and handlers may not record events consistently or objectively, a factor compounded by the visual disabilities of the dog owners. Just as significantly, cortisol levels may not always indicate fear or distress. Cortisol also rises when the dog gets a lot of exercise, or can result from the dog being ill. Serpell is cautiously optimistic that his study will produce valuable information, but he hesitates to jump to conclusions.

Rehabilitating the stressed dog

Even in extreme cases of debilitating stress, the potential to rehabilitate the dog is strong. Just ask Technical Sgt. Steve Leimer, kennel master at the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Sergeant Leimer oversees the training and wellbeing of 18 military dogs. One of them is slowly but surely recovering from severe PTSD.

Military dogs specialize in skills unique to dangerous situations: sniffing out explosives and narcotics, protecting their handler, and not reacting to gunshots. Their training routine replicates potential battlefield situations, making them into games — whether the task is to find an arms cache or to chase down a perpetrator. In the field, even the most dangerous situation should feel like “just another day of games to the dog” Leimer explained.

Yet even the best training cannot predict every situation. Gina, a German Shepard deployed with her handler to Iraq in 2010, experienced a battle that began with an IED exploding in the vehicle behind her, which left her too emotionally traumatized to function. She became incapacitated by any loud noise, and the sight of body armor would cause her to whine and cringe. The trainers at Peterson have been slowly “remapping her brain to a positive state,” Leimer said. Long walks with lots of positive reinforcement are gradually acclimating her to the noises and sights of a military base, and will eventually move closer to the sounds of the firing range.

After six months, Gina is once again a confident working dog, although her handlers still watch her carefully. The trainers at the base have adapted the training routine for all their dogs to include more unexpected noises and more realistic equipment and body armor, making what could be an intensely stressful situation into just another day of games for the working dog.


International K-9 Search and Rescue


Working Like Dogs


Paws for the Cause


Center for the Interaction of Dogs and Society



Harry Oakes,

505-424-6631 m

360-414-8093 o



Marcie Davis



Technical Sgt Amanda Callahan

Communications for Peterson Air Force Base


Dr. James Serpell