Man’s Best Friend: Even In Combat

The History of the U.S. K-9 Corps

Man-Best-FriendThis history of dogs in combat roles goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, who created murals that show dogs being unleashed on their enemies. The Greeks also used canines, while the Romans made extensive use of huge mastiffs during their many military campaigns. And during World War I, the Germans used an estimated 30,000 dogs, most of them called Sanitatshunde—or “sanitary dogs” that were trained to carry bottles of alcohol and water to wounded men to provide some small comfort before the men died.

In contrast, most dogs utilized by the US military up to World War I had been used more as a mascot or for morale boosting—with a few notable examples. One such exception was a Pit Bull named Sergeant Stubby. A stray who was found on the campus of Yale while some military men were training, he was assigned to the 102nd Infantry Division and spent 18 months in the trenches in France. He learned to warn his unit of poison gas, and could hear artillery shells before humans could, letting them know to duck for cover. He was injured several times and is the most highly decorated dog for World War I—and the only dog to be promoted to sergeant through combat.

It wasn’t until 13 March, 1942, that the Army Quartermaster Corps established the War Dog program, or “K-9 Corps.” The K-9 Corps initially accepted more than 30 breeds of dogs, but the list was eventually narrowed to seven: German Shepherds, Belgian sheep dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Collies, Siberian Huskies, Malamutes, and Eskimo dogs. Each dog was given basic obedience training for 8 to 12 weeks, and then would go on to specialized programs to prepare them for work as sentry dogs, scout or patrol dogs, messenger dogs, or mine-detection dogs.

wardogU.S. Marines and their dogs starting off for the front lines on Bougainville (ca. December 1943).

The mostly highly decorated dog in World War II was a German Shepherd mix named Chips who served with the 3rd Infantry Division. While pinned down by an Italian machine gun team during the invasion of Sicily, Chips, who was trained as a sentry dog, attacked a machine gun nest, forcing the crewmen to leave the pillbox and surrender to U.S. troops. Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and the Purple Heart (all of which were later revoked due to an Army policy preventing official commendation of animals). His unit unofficially awarded him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for an assault landing, and Battlestars for each of his eight campaigns. He was discharged in December 1945, and returned to his family.

After World War II, the Military Police Corps took over responsibility for training military dogs, and they have served with distinction in many other conflicts. It is estimated that the Army employed 1,500 dogs during the Korean War and 4,000 in the Vietnam War. Currently, the Army has 578 dog teams that have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All military working dogs (MWD) are paired with a single handler after their training, but handler and dog will not stay together for the length of either’s career—only at least a year, and often a bit longer. One fun fact: every military working dog is a noncommissioned officer and, out of tradition, is usually one rank higher than his or her handler. (Some say the custom was to prevent handlers from mistreating their dogs.)

Traditionally, after their military service concludes, MWDs are retired from military service and are returned home to former owners, or are adopted out as pets. Some go on to be used as therapy dogs for people with PTSD. Regardless of their roles, the courage and loyalty of these dogs have continued to save lives and prevent injuries. 

For more information about adopting a military work dog or dogs for veterans affected by PTSD visit the following sites.


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