by Monica Mendoza
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — When four-year-old Gina, a 21st Security Forces Squadron military working dog, returned from her five-month tour in the Middle East, she wasn’t the same. She was antisocial. Every sound, even the radio, bothered her. She was jumpy. And, she showed no interest in her work, which was to detect drugs and bombs.
Before she deployed to the war, Gina had been a military working dog for two years. She had trained at the Department of Defense Military Working Dog School at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas and then was assigned to Peterson Air Force Base. Other than the gun fire training with her handler, Gina had never been exposed to the loud booms of improvised explosive devices.
In the war, Gina was riding with her handler when an IED went off in the vehicle behind hers. It spooked her. Then, the constant patrols, flash bangs, the sounds of kicking in doors and the IED booms got to her.
“When Gina came back from the Middle East she was so messed up, she didn’t want to see anybody,” said Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, 21st SFS noncommissioned officer in charge of the military working dog section. “She wouldn’t walk through front doors, she didn’t want to go inside buildings. She was terrified of everything.”
Post traumatic stress disorder is defined by severe anxiety that develops after exposure to a psychological trauma, and the event could have involved a threat of death. A classic sign of PTSD is avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma. Gina was suffering from PTSD.
Military working dogs are valuable partners for warrior Airmen, with thousands of them assigned to military installations and government agencies around the world. This month the Department of Homeland Security announced it would recruit about 600 dogs a year over the next five years to join the elite squadron of working dogs that sniff out bombs and drugs and help hunt for terrorists.
Peterson AFB is home to the second largest group of military working dogs in the continental United States, with 15 slots. Military working dogs typically work 10 years, Sergeant Haynes said. He wasn’t about to give up on Gina, a highly trained German shepherd and valuable member of the squadron.
“I won’t say that I thought she couldn’t be rehabilitated,” he said. “But, I knew it wouldn’t be easy.”
And, so began a long, arduous rehabilitation program that included daily walks through the base exchange and commissary. At first, when a person approached Gina, she tucked her tail in and cowered to the ground. Sergeant Haynes sent a person ahead of him to pass out treats to store clients, who would then give Gina a treat when they approached her.
“She started having confidence,” Sergeant Haynes said. “That is where we started.”
Every day, the pair would walk around the base and into buildings so that Gina could get re-acquainted with the sounds of cars and people. Each week they got a little closer to training areas, where security forces Airmen shot blanks to practice. At the sound of the shots, Gina tried to run.
“The improvement came over time,” Sergeant Haynes said. “She was quite broken. You don’t want to see anyone suffering like that – people or dogs.”
As their rapport built up, Sergeant Haynes moved into a corrective mode with Gina. He would give her commands before someone walked through the door – before she had a chance to get scared. Leading behavioral and cognitive therapists say treatment of PTSD involves changing patterns of thinking. That’s what Sergeant Haynes was doing.
“I’m correcting the behavior at the very beginning of the problem rather than waiting for her to get scared,” Sergeant Haynes said. “I can nip it in the bud before it begins, which makes her mind go to another place.”
Gina has made real progress, Sergeant Haynes said. She’s happy, social and she plays. She enjoys her work and she is no longer terrified to be around people or noise. Two months ago, Gina was assigned to partner with Staff Sgt. Melinda Miller, 21st SFS dog handler. And, on July 1, Gina was re-certified to continue working as a military working dog. She will work patrol, participate in base exercises and continue her detection work.
Gina will continue her rehabilitation regarding gun fire and loud booms. And she likely will not deploy to a frontline base in the Middle East for at least two years, Sergeant Haynes said.
“You don’t want to rush it,” Sergeant Haynes said. “If we take it too far, too fast, we’ll be all the way back to square one.”