PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — When 4-year-old Gina, a 21st Security Forces Squadron military working dog, returned from her five-month tour in Southwest Asia, she wasn’t the same.
She was anti-social, bothered by people’s presence and jumpy. She also showed no interest in her work of detecting drugs and bombs.
Before she deployed, 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 was assigned to Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
Other than the gun-fire training with her handler, Gina had never been exposed to the loud booms of improvised explosive devices.
While deployed, Gina was riding with her handler when an IED went off on a vehicle behind hers.
This plus the constant patrols, the loud flash bangs, and the kicking in of doors got to Gina.
“When Gina came back she was so messed up, she didn’t want to see anybody,” said Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, the 21st Security Forces Squadron noncommissioned officer in charge of the military working dog section.
Post traumatic stress disorder is defined as severe anxiety that develops after exposure to a psychological trauma. This trauma is associated with an event that involved either threat or death. A classic sign of PTSD is avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma.
Haynes wasn’t about to give up on Gina. “I won’t say that I thought she couldn’t be rehabilitated,” he said, “but, I knew it wouldn’t be easy.”
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 in her tail and cowered.
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,” Haynes said. “That is where we started.”
Every day, the pair would walk around the base and into buildings so 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 for practice. At the sound of the shots, Gina tried to run.
“The improvement came over time,” Haynes said. “She was quite broken. You don’t want to see anyone suffering like that — people or dogs.”
As their rapport strengthened, 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 Haynes was doing.
“I’m correcting the behavior at the very beginning of the problem rather than waiting for her to get scared,” 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, Haynes said. She’s happy, social, enjoys her work and is no longer terrified to be around people or noises.
Two months ago, Gina was assigned to partner with Staff Sgt. Melinda Miller, a 21st Security Forces Squadron dog handler. 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 noises. She won’t deploy to a front-line base in Southwest Asia for at least two years.
“You don’t want to rush it,” Haynes said, “If we take it too far, too fast, we’ll be all the way back to square one.”
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