Companions During Wartime: Dogs Adopted During Deployment
Whatever your opinion of military action, there is one thing that is hard to argue with: it is generally accepted that military service is one of the most psychologically difficult jobs a person can undertake. What soldiers experience can have profoundly negative effects on their minds, to say nothing of the beating that their bodies might take while on duty. Companion animals are known to help improve people’s psychological distress and relieve ailments such as depression. Some “normally rule-abiding” soldiers deployed overseas, have taken it upon themselves to go against military regulations and adopt stray animals while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Is there a connection between the psychological quagmire of military service and the adoption of stray animals while deployed?
Breaking the rules on keeping a companion animal while deployed is not a matter to be taken lightly in the U.S. According to the Department of Defence’s General Order-1A prohibiting the keeping of a companion animal while on active duty, there are serious consequences for doing so, ranging from discharge from service to two years confinement. According to this study, some high ranking officers “turn a blind eye” to the practice, while others have “periodically hired contractors to exterminate the animals on base.” Some soldiers have gone to extraordinary lengths to repatriate and adopt their animals, and “a direct consequence of the soldiers’ animal adoptions and repatriations has been the emergence of the conflict zone animal-rescue micro-industry.”
Numerous organizations now exist that are willing to “fly into conflict zones specifically to collect serving soldiers’ adopted animals,” such as Bagdad Pups, Pets of Patriots, and Puppy Rescue Mission. However, repatriation is not always a simple task: “the financial cost to the soldier (approximately $4,000) places it beyond the means of many low-paid personnel.” This means that some adopted animals are turned back onto the streets or euthanized after a soldier’s deployment, and a “growing number of anecdotal accounts” from Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that the bond between soldiers and dogs is so strong that “when they are forced to break it at the end of their deployment periods, the distress this causes soldiers is increasingly considered to be an additional onset trigger for ptsd in soldiers who have predisposing vulnerabilities.”
Often soldiers will go to great lengths to save the dogs they have adopted overseas, and these companion animals are known to help humans on a number of levels, including relieving PTSD. Still, it’s worth noting that “comparatively little is known about the resilience benefits of dog caregiving within the military population. It is hypothesized though that the major contributions dog caregiving make to the health of soldiers are improvements in their psychological and psychosocial functioning.” In other words, we think that companion animals can help soldiers, but there is limited research to show that they do. There have, of course, been a range of media stories discussing military dogs and exploring the help they give, but these are not rigorous studies.
This present study found that “the adopted dog provided the adopting soldier with affection and companionship and the adopting soldier provided the dog with food and shelter, thus fulfilling each other’s most pressing needs at a stressful time in their lives.” The researchers found that “the establishment of mutually beneficial animal-human relationships within the theatre of war fosters nurturance, normalcy, recognition, esteem, and control for adopters.” Importantly, the study highlighted that there are “some aspects of deployed service personnel’s mental health needs that are currently not being fully met.” To this end, the authors note that future research might look at whether adopting dogs in a war situation actually reduces soldiers’ incidence of PTSD after deployment.
This study highlights the difficulty of properly studying this subject when the practice of companion adoption in war situations is so frowned upon. According to the researchers, there needs to be a concerted and serious determination to assess “the contribution dogs make to serving military personnel’s ability to cope and bounce back from experiences of war-related trauma both at the times of their deployments and after deployment.” This study and other anecdotal evidence suggests that this is the case, but according to the authors, “larger studies are now needed to empirically test this finding.” For companion animal advocates wishing to help soldiers coming home from war, this study offers a range of areas to get involved, such as campaigning to reform official military policy, to assisting one of the rescue organizations that brings dogs back from war.