Celebrating National Dog Day
Military Working Dogs and the Challenges They Face
August 26, 2014 by Jake Butler
The title of man’s best friend is no exaggeration. Historically, humans and dogs have relied on each other for tens of thousands of years. We played a pivotal role in their evolution and they played an equally important role in our survival in prehistoric times, offering protection, help with hunting, and unconditional loyalty through thick and thin.
Their involvement in military matters is no different. Persians, Greeks, Babylonians, and many other ancient civilizations all used dogs in battle – from Attila the Hun to Napoleon, to the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan today, working dogs have played a key role for millennia.
Tuesday is National Dog Day, so we take pause to celebrate our four-legged friends and the impact they’ve had on military matters in this country for nearly 100 years.
From Humble Beginnings
The first notable American working dog was Sergeant Stubby, a bull terrier mutt smuggled aboard the S.S. Minnesota headed for France’s western coast during World War I. At the time, dogs were forbidden from battle, but his handler brought him along anyway. Once found out, Stubby earned the admiration of the crew and was allowed to stay. He became the unofficial mascot of the 102nd Infantry.
But Stubby was more than just a mascot. He also participated on the frontlines; locating injured soldiers and helping them get the attention of the medics. Legend has it he once aided in the capture of a German spy. He was twice injured in battle and later became the first dog ever assigned a rank and decorated by the U.S. military. He even got to meet three presidents – Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge, on three separate trips to the White House.
Stubby passed away on March 16, 1926, and his remains are currently preserved at the Smithsonian Institution. His efforts helped pave the way for other working dogs on the battlefield.
World War II Through Vietnam
The U.S. Army didn’t start keeping records on dogs until 1968 so it’s not entirely clear how many were involved in wartime efforts before that. However, we do know what dogs were used for:
- Sentry dogs were essentially used as patrolling guards. They were trained to growl and bark at unknown presences sneaking up to secure areas like a camp or base. Dobermans Pinschers were used most commonly for this purpose.
- Messengers helped runners deliver communications between the trenches. Being faster and more nimble than their human counterparts, they were able to dodge enemy fire more effectively and never flinched in the face of danger.
- Mascots offered psychological comfort and companionship to service members facing the harsh realities of war.
- Casualty dogs or mercy dogs were often used to locate wounded men and either attract the attention of medics or bring them first aid supplies.
- Scouts were highly disciplined and well-trained dogs used to sniff out approaching enemies from up to 1,000 yards away, well before they were visible, which gave troops on the ground the advantage and often prevented sneak attacks.
The most decorated dog from WWII was a Shepherd, Collie, and Husky mix named Chips. He served as a sentry dog with the 3rd Infantry Division as they toured all over Europe. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart for his efforts. His unit also unofficially awarded him a Theater Ribbon and Battlestars for each of his eight campaigns.
Dogs continued to serve with distinction in Vietnam and Korea. With selective breeding, better training programs, and more advanced specializations, dogs became more and more common in the military as time went on.
Today, military working dogs continue to serve as sentries, scouts, mascots, and trackers, but they also now play a vital role in search and rescue operations as well as scouting ahead for IEDs and other kinds of explosives as troops make their way across dangerous terrain. They can detect even trace amounts of explosive materials and have very high success rates when it comes to sniffing out bombs. They’ve saved countless lives in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent conflicts.
There is also now a concerted effort to bring working dogs home safely once they’ve reached retirement age and fulfilled their deployment duties. Just last month, a group of veteran handlers and representatives from the American Humane Association spoke at a Congressional briefing on Capitol Hill to address the situation.
Often times, a handler’s tour of duty will end well before their dog’s, so they are frequently forced to part ways. Many end up reuniting down the road, but lots are separated permanently. Worse yet, if a dog is retired overseas in a non-combat zone, that dog becomes a civilian and, by law, cannot travel home on military transport. They are sometimes left behind with locals in the region. Organizations like Mission K9 Rescue work to find them homes, but adopting families are often left to wade through a mess of regulations and pay for transportation costs out of pocket, which can add up to thousands of dollars.
These dogs deserve a hero’s welcome home just the same as any other veteran, and they’ve earned the right to retire in peace with a loving family. The group is pleading with Congress and the DoD to adjust the laws to ensure all service dogs are brought home and treated with the respect they deserve.
There are also many dog-related nonprofit organizations out there – both civilian and military – that desperately need donations. Chief among them are Warrior Dog Foundation, Pets For Vets, Dogs on Deployment, and many others. Visit their websites to find out how you can help.