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NEWS | Dec. 2, 2010

Behavioral specialist evaluates MWDs

By Mike Joseph 502nd Air Base Wing OL-A Public Affairs

Military working dogs are a special breed. So is a specialist who works with them.

He jokingly calls his specialized career field "an Army of One." But right now there are no others for such a specialized career field throughout the entire Department of Defense.

"I work primarily with military working dogs, with behavioral assessment and behavioral problems," said Dr. Walter Burghardt, the chief of Behavioral Medicine and Military Working Dog Studies at Lackland's Daniel E. Holland MWD Hospital.

Dr. Burghardt is the DOD's only animal behavioral specialist. In addition to being a veterinarian, he holds bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology and a doctorate in bio-psychology, a specialized area that Dr. Burghardt said was "the nuts and bolts way of evaluating animal specific behavior."

He has been doing research, clinical behavioral practice and clinical veterinary medicine for 30 years. He's been chief of behavioral medicine at Lackland since 1995.

"Military working dogs can develop behavioral problems just like a pet dog," but behavioral problems in a MWD are much more serious, Dr. Burghardt said.

"(Behavioral problems) in a military working dog can mean loss of service and (interruption to) critical tasks that they do, like finding explosives." Replacing a dog is also very expensive.

Dr. Burghardt makes in-person assessments at Lackland but the majority of his consultations are done via computer. In addition to referrals from veterinarians around the world, Dr. Burghardt makes assessments for commanders who must decide the best course for a military working dog when its service is completed.

The average dog enters service between ages 2 and 4, and leaves between ages 8 and 10. About 15 percent of the 2,000 military working dog inventory leaves each year, and they must be evaluated for adoptability.

"Most of what I do is looking at video (watching the dogs at work)," Dr. Burghardt said. "My catch phrase is, 'show me how they're broken.'

"I can use the video and the dog's eyes to help me identify what's going on (with the dog). Looking at the patient is really important."

The doctor said dogs often wear their behavioral problems "on their sleeves." The dogs show their distress in body language; the ears and tail are obvious condition signs.

"About 80 percent of what (we) communicate (to each other) is non-verbal, too," Dr. Burghardt said.

He also teaches intensive three-day behavioral short courses for military veterinarians, and the Holland Hospital will be adding a behavioral resident as the military working dog population and the behavioral assessment caseload continues to grow.

In military working dogs, the most common behavioral problem is becoming overly active and not attentive, similar to Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) in humans.

"Some behavioral problems that are common with pet dogs we won't see in a military working dog," Dr. Burghardt said. "Military working dogs bite on command and also have a sense of smell to find explosives or illicit drugs. If the ability to perform those tasks becomes compromised, we've got a behavioral problem."

For more information about work being done at the MWD Hospital, visit the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Veterinary Service website at