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War Dogs: A Brief History of Military Working Dogs

Close up of war dogs in training with their military handlers in combat fatigues

March 13th is K9 Veterans’ Day, honoring all military, police and service dogs who have served honorably, sometimes losing their lives to protect others. In their honor, please read and honor the many ways these dogs have served their country.

The use of canines in war isn’t a new concept – history tells us that the Persians and the Roman Empire used dogs – often outfitted in armor and spiked collars – to attack Calvary units. They were also chained to city walls so that their superior senses could sound the alert when attackers approached.

Modern-Day Military Working Dogs

Today, military working dogs (MWDs) aren’t chained to walls or used to attack enemy lines, but they are used in a variety of other ways. In the United States, MWDs were used during World War II to carry messages from the front lines to headquarters at the rear of fighting. Germany, Belgium and Russia also used military working dogs in this capacity. During WW II, dogs were first used as sentry dogs, often being praised for being more alert than their handlers! They were also used as messengers, sledge dogs and scouts.

In 1943, the War Dogs Program was established, setting forth guidelines for acceptable breeds and standards for MWDs. By the end of July, 1943, over 11,000 dogs were part of the War Dogs Program. Soon there were training centers at Front Royal, Virginia, Fort Robinson, San Carlos, Camp Rimini, Beltsville and Cat Island. *

Military Working Dogs Learn a Variety of Skills

The training program for MWDs during World War II consisted of several categories:

  • Sentry dogs
  • Attack dogs
  • Tactical dogs
  • Silent scout dogs
  • Messenger dogs
  • Casualty dogs
  • Sledge dogs
  • Pack dogs

At the end of World War II, the need for MWDs shrank and the military kept only one platoon active, the 26th Infantry Scout Dog Platoon at Fort Riley, Kansas. Other units were disbanded. During this time, the dogs in the 26th were used to demonstrate the value of War Dogs and were sometimes sent on maneuvers with different infantry divisions.

The Korean War

During the Korean War, MWDs were often used for patrol and sentry duty, with many dogs working one day off and three days off. Intermediate training kept them fresh and eager to continue their duties in between active use so that the dogs didn’t become stale in their training.

Vietnam War

In 1965, the Air Force sent teams of sentry dogs to Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa and Da Nang, Vietnam to determine whether they would function well in tropical conditions. The dogs quickly adjusted and were valuable in protecting U.S. installations in Vietnam, becoming a first line of protection. The dogs were usually deployed at night, when their hearing and sense of smell provided superior protection against the Vietcong. To avoid being detected, enemy forces began coating their bodies with herbs so that sentry dogs would find it more difficult to detect them.

In December, 1966, the first casualties were recorded for MWDs when three were killed and others injured protecting their posts. One injured dog, Nemo, became a hero for protecting his handler even after being shot. From 1965 to 1973, over 4,500 war dogs served in Vietnam. They have since served in nearly every armed conflict in some capacity, including Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Civilian Conditions Prompt Retraining of Sentry Dogs

On U.S. soil, sentry dogs weren’t as practical as they had been in combat situations. Because they were trained to distrust anyone but their handlers, sentries were of limited use during peacetime. But retraining many of them to be patrol dogs rather than sentries proved very successful. These dogs were trained to be just as alert but less aggressive. These dogs could be used to find suspects in crowds, to cease attack when commanded by their handler, and to work in large groups without showing hostility to people or other animals.

Drug & Bomb Sniffing Dogs

German Shepherd sniffing black luggage

German Shepherd dog sniffing luggage for contraband.

In 1971, the military began using MWD’s to sniff out marijuana in order to stop the tide of marijuana use by some in the military, particularly in Southeast Asia. The dogs proved adept at sniffing out marijuana in sealed containers, when mixed with other products and hidden from view or detection by humans. Soon, these drug dogs were also sniffing out cocaine and other illicit drugs. The Air Force also began using dogs to detect bombs and the materials to make them. The dogs proved able to detect concentrations as minute as two parts per billion.

MWDs have also been deployed during the Gulf War, in Iraq and in various overseas military bases and checkpoints. Today, the U.S. Military, Border Patrol, various police forces and airports use specially trained dogs for everything from being a deterrent to criminal activity to sniffing out contraband from foreign countries. While many of these are Military Working Dogs, others have been trained by individual police forces or other organizations. The common thread linking these many heroic dogs is their devotion to their duties and skill in taking on those tasks.

For more information on Military Working Dogs, please read “The Quiet Americans: A History of Military Working Dogs,” an excellent report written by SSgt Tracy L. English. You can download it at www.uswardogs.org. 

You can also visit The United States War Dogs Association, where you can read the Honor Roll of war dogs killed in action and brief biographies of these canine heroes, and K9 History‘s “World History of the Dogs of War.”


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