ROUGH ROUGH

03.13.13

My Dog Solha: From Afghanistan, With PTSD

My husband seemed OK when he returned from Afghanistan. It was the dog he brought with him who appeared to have PTSD. By Jessie Knadler.

Around this time last year, I got a new dog. Her name is Solha. Solha is from Kandahar, arguably the most dangerous place on earth. She was rescued by my husband, Army reservist Maj. Jake Wilson, during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2011–12. Solha arrived at our place in  Virginia four days before Jake himself was due to arrive home from his yearlong tour. 

Right away, I could tell there was something different about this dog. She was a mangy, wiry, desperate-looking thing, hopelessly underweight with bags under her eyes and fur that felt bristly and oily to the touch. But it was more than that. There was a hardness behind her eyes. Deprivation and exhaustion were etched upon her face. She was twitchy, feral, and cunning. She intimidated me, even though Jake assured me over email I had nothing to worry about.

I was raising our 1-year-old daughter by myself at the time, so my hands were somewhat full. The day after Solha arrived un-housebroken, I confined her to crate for an hour to introduce the concept of crate training while we went out to run an errand. When we came home, Solha had smashed out of the crate. The crate's door and hinges were made of metal. As I picked up the mangled, bent prongs littering the perimeter, I pondered the super–canine strength she must possess in order to hurl herself out of a small metal enclosure.

I wasn't dealing with Lassie. 

Within three days, Solha had chewed through three leashes—one made of wire—and one harness. She got into two serious dogfights with much larger male dogs, and showed zero signs of playing the female submissive. The only way I could contain her in those first few crazy weeks was to confine her with a chain the size of a python ("the Michael Vick special," my brother-in-law Mark called it). A couple of weeks after Jake got home, Solha scaled a 10-foot-high horse stall and perched atop a wooden divider like a chicken until she could be coaxed down. Then she meticulously chomped four more leashes and left them in a neat little pile like a toddler's plate of broken spaghetti, as if to say, don’t f--k with me, I’m from Afghanistan.

Attention is being paid right now to military dogs coming home from combat exhibiting signs of post traumatic stress disorder. Four-legged PTSD is manifested in behavior like nervous exhaustion, distress, confusion, or forgetting routine commands. I don't doubt that for a moment. Dogs absorb death, deprivation, and random gunfire as acutely as any soldier. Some 50 dogs have come home with symptoms of PTSD, according to researchers at Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.

She chomped four more leashes and left them in a neat little pile like a toddler’s plate of broken spaghetti, as if to say, don’t f--k with me, I’m from Afghanistan.

My experience with Solha has made me wonder if it’s not just dogs on the frontlines who suffer trauma, but the stray animals who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, forgotten casualties of war. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of stray, nonmilitary animals—dogs like Solha, cats, donkeys—caught in the crossfire of war who live a waking nightmare every day of their lives in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. These are countries with little steady food or water supply or basic infrastructure, where land mines are only a paw print away, and, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, where dogs are typically reviled by the local population. Rocks are thrown at them. They're beaten and starved. In a land where resources are scarce, and spay-neuter initiatives are only starting to make inroads, this is not surprising.

Day after day in Kandahar, Jake would see large packs of feral dogs roaming the countryside, as wild and dangerous as wolves. Some lacked tails and ears, a sign they'd been hacked off so they would last longer in a dogfight, still a popular sport among some Afghans in certain back-alley quarters. (The ears and tails are removed to prevent a superficial wound like a gnawed tail or mutilated ear from ending a fight too early; the aim is to kill or be killed.) A feral dog in this condition is likely to have either escaped or been deemed useless and released. Strays tend to loiter around U.S. and NATO military bases seeking handouts, even though U.S. soldiers are often instructed to shoot dogs on sight in the event the animal is carrying rabies (most normal soldiers, reminded of their own pets at home, prefer to look the other way).

It’s not much of a life. As an avowed dog lover, Jake couldn’t stand to see dogs live like this.

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Solha had a hard time adapting to life in Virginia. (Jessie Knadler)

Solha was plucked off the streets of Kandahar City as a puppy by one of Jake's Afghan interpreters. Nobody knows her origins, or what kind of life she’d led before coming to live on base with him. But caring for her was a chance for Jake to feel normal, an opportunity to make one thing about an otherwise futile deployment right.

About a month after her arrival, she was attacked by a pit viper and almost died. A couple of weeks later, she escaped from her dog run and was found barely conscious in a ditch about two miles from base with nasty gashes and bruises running up her legs and across her chest and belly, remnants of a violent dog fight.

Jake was determined to bring her home. He knew that if he left her behind, she’d become another casualty of war. So he teamed up with the animal-rescue charity Nowzad based in Afghanistan, and with the help and generosity of readers of my blog Rurally Screwed, we were able to raise more than $3,000 to fund her transport to the United States.

It’s been almost a year now since Solha’s been home. And I admit there were times in those early days when I regretted our decision. She was too wild, too flighty, too defiant. She leapt over the brand-new white picket fence we built for her in a single bound. She’d never seen grass before. Or trees. She lapsed into spells of manic euphoria running in circles of increasing circumference, ignoring our calls, before disappearing into the woods altogether. It was only by sheer luck we found her. She was prone to fight.  She seemed determined not to take direction, to poop on our rules and routines. She hip-checked our toddler daughter for sport, sending June flying into the bushes, then cantered away victorious.

It seems so obvious to me now, but Solha was processing her survival, adjusting to monumental change not unlike any soldier back from war trying to transition to life back in the United States. All we could give her was time, love, freedom, and lots of exercise and discipline. Is that how to treat canine PTSD? I don’t know. But Solha is a different, calmer dog today than she was a year ago. And she’ll never have to fight another dog again.