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Dogs in warfare have a long history starting in ancient times. From 'war dogs' trained in combat to their use as scouts, sentries and trackers, their uses have been varied and some continue to exist in modern military usage.


War dogs were used by the Egyptians, Greeks, Persiansmarker, Britons, and the Romans.The Molossian 'Canis Molossus' dog of Epirus was the strongest known to the Romans, and was specifically trained for battle.However, when fought against the broad-mouthed, powerful mastiff of Britannia, they were outmatched. The Romans exported many of this breed of mastiff to Rome and then disseminated them over the known world. Often war dogs would be sent into battle with large protective spiked metal collars and coats of chain mail. The Romans had attack formations made entirely of dogs. Native American also used dogs, though not on this scale.

During the Late Antiquity, Atilla the Hun used giant Molosser dogs in his campaigns. Gifts of war dog breeding stock between European royalty were seen as suitable tokens for exchange throughout the Middle Ages. Other civilizations used armored dogs to defend caravans or attack enemies. The Spanish conquistadors used armoured dogs that had been trained to kill and disembowel when they invaded the land controlled by South American natives.The British used dogs when they attacked the Irishmarker and the Irish in turn used Irish Wolfhounds to attack invading Norman knights on horseback. Two wolfhounds, or even a single one were often capable of taking a mounted man in armour off his horse, where the lightly armed handler would finish him off if necessary.

Later on, Frederick the Great used dogs as messengers during the Seven Years' War in Russia. Napoleon would also use dogs during his campaigns. Dogs were used up until 1770 to guard naval installations in France.

The first official use of dogs for military purposes in the United States was during the Seminole Warsmarker. Dogs were used in the American Civil War to protect, send messages, and as mascots.

Historical examples

The use of dogs in warfare has been common even in many early civilizations. As warfare has progressed, their purposes have changed greatly. Some examples are:
  • 628 BC - The Lydians deployed a separate battalion of fighting dogs.
  • 525 BC - Kambyses used huge fighting dogs against Egyptian spearmen and archers.
  • 490 BC - Battle of Marathonmarker - A brave fighting dog was immortalized in a mural.
  • 385 BC - Siege of Mantineiamarker - Fighting dogs cut off enemy reinforcements.
  • 101 BC - Battle of Vercellae - Large Kimber dogs led by women defend their laagers.
  • 101 - The Romans employ one fighting dog company per legion.
  • 1525 - Henry VIII exports 400 mastiffs to support Spain.
  • 1580 - Elizabeth I sends 800 fighting dogs to fight in the Desmond Rebellions.
  • 1799 - Napoleon assembles large numbers of fighting dogs in front of his reserves.
  • 1914 - The Belgian Army use carabiniers, strong-muscled Bouvier des Flandres to haul heavy machine guns to the front.
  • 1914-1918 - Dogs are used by international forces to deliver vital messages.
  • 1941-1945 - The Soviet Unionmarker used dogs strapped with explosives to destroy invading German tanks.
  • 1943-1945 - The United States Marine Corps used dogs, donated by their American owners, in the Pacific theater to help take islands back from Japanese occupying forces. During this period the Doberman Pinscher became the official dog of the U.S.M.C.; however, all breeds of dogs were eligible to train to be 'war dogs of the Pacific'. These dogs were to be returned to their original owners after WWII ended, however, if the dogs could not be 'de-militarized' or re-trained to be companion animals again, they were destroyed.
  • 1966-1973 - Approximately 5,000 US War Dogs served in the Vietnam War (the US Army did not retain records prior to 1968); About 10,000 US servicemen served as dog-handlers during the war, and the K9 units are estimated to have saved over 10,000 human lives. 43 military working dogs and 73 US servicemen working as "dog handlers" were killed in action during the war. US military regulations required destruction or transfer of military working dogs in combat zones, and no known Vietnam War dogs returned home (US).
  • 1979-1988 - The Soviet Union again uses dogs, this time in the Soviet war in Afghanistan.


Army SP4 Bealock and scout dog "Chief" on patrol in Vietnam.
Dogs have been used for many different purposes. Different breeds were used for different things, but always met the demands of the handlers. Many roles for dogs in war are obsolete and no longer practiced.


Anti-tank warfare

During World War II, the Soviet Unionmarker trained anti-tank dogs. These dogs were taught to find food under tanks. They were then starved until a battle occurred, during which they would be released to seek food. The dogs wore a pouched canvas overcoat in which high explosives were placed. When they ducked under a tank in search of food, the explosives were actuated by means of a tilt fuse on the dog's back, which when bent or broken set off the explosives in the dog's overcoat, with the hope of destroying the tank. Obviously, a by-product of this practice was the death of the unsuspecting wardog.

These dogs were apparently successful at damaging many German tanks, reportedly disabling eleven armoured fighting vehicles in a single battle.They were considered dangerous enough by the Germans that Panzergrenadiers were ordered to shoot all dogs on sight. However, the dogs were unable to distinguish allied from enemy tanks, and were also easily scared away from battle, and from moving tanks, despite their hunger. The project was eventually abandoned.


In ancient times, dogs, often large ancient mastiff type breeds, would be strapped with armor and spiked collars, and sent into battle to attack the enemy. This strategy was used by various civilizations, such as the Romans and the Greeks. This approach has been largely abandoned in modern day militaries due to the fact that modern weapons would allow the dogs to be destroyed almost immediately, as on Okinawa when U.S. soldiers quickly eliminated a platoon of Japanese soldiers and their dogs.

Another interesting program attempted during World War II was suggested by a Swiss citizen living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. William A. Prestre proposed using large dogs to kill Japanese soldiers. He convinced the military to lease an entire island in the Mississippi to house the training facilities. There the army hoped to train as many as two million dogs. The idea was to begin island invasions with landing craft releasing thousands of dogs against the Japanese defenders, then followed up by troops as the Japanese defenders scattered in confusion. One of the biggest problems encountered was getting Japanese soldiers to train the dogs with as few Japanese soldiers were being captured. Eventually, Japanese-American soldiers volunteered for the training. The biggest problem was the dogs, either they were too docile, did not respond to training teaching them to rush across beaches, or were terrified by shellfire. After millions of dollars were spent, the program was abandoned.

Logistics & communication

About the time World War I broke out, many Europeans used dogs to pull small carts.Many European armies adapted the process for military use.The Belgian Army used dogs to pull their Maxim Guns and other supplies or wounded in their carts. The French had 250 dogs at the start of World War I. The Dutchmarker army copied the idea and had hundreds of dogs trained and ready by the end of World War I (the Netherlands remained neutral). The Soviet army also used dogs to drag wounded men to aid stations during WWII. The dogs were well-suited to transporting loads over snow and through craters.

Dogs were often used to carry messages in battle. They would be turned loose to move silently to a second handler. This required a dog which was very loyal to two masters, otherwise the dog would not deliver the message on time, or at all. Some messenger dogs also performed other communication jobs, such as pulling telephone lines from one location to another.


Dogs were often used as unit mascots for military units. The dog in question might be an officer's dog, an animal that the unit chose to adopt, or one of their canines employed in another role as a working dog. Some units also chose to employ a particular breed of dog as their standard mascot, with new dogs replacing the old when it died or was retired. The presence of a mascot was designed to uplift morale, and many were used to this effect in the trenches of World War I.

Medical research

Medical researchers, and their allies in the armed forces, awarded military-style medals to animals in laboratories to emphasize the martial significance of animal experimentation.
Here, Army Surgeon General Major General Norman T.
Kirk, on behalf of the Friends of Medical Research, bestows medals upon research dogs Trixie and Josie "for outstanding services to humanity."

In World War II, dogs took on a new role in medical experimentation, as the primary animals chosen for medical research. The animal experimentation allowed doctors to test new medicine without risking human lives, though these practices came under more scrutiny after the war. The United States' government responded by proclaiming these dogs as heroes.

The Cold War sparked a heated debate over the ethics of animal experimentation in the U.S., particularly aimed at how canines were treated in World War II.In 1966, major reforms came to this field with the adoption of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act.

Detection & tracking

Many dogs were used to locate mine. They did not prove to be very effective under combat conditions. Marine mine detecting dogs were trained using bare electric wires beneath the ground surface. The wires shocked the dogs, teaching them that danger lurked under the dirt. Once the dog's focus was properly directed, dummy mines were planted and the dogs were trained to signal their presence. While the dogs effectively found the mines, the task proved so stressful for the dogs they were only able to work between 20 and 30 minutes at a time. The mine detecting war dogs anticipated random shocks from the heretofore friendly earth, making them extremely nervous. The useful service life of the dogs was not long. Experiments with lab rats show that this trend can be very extreme, in some tests rats even huddled in the corner to the point of starvation to avoid electric shock.

Dogs have historically also been used in many cases to track fugitives and enemy troops, overlapping partly into the duties of a scout dog, but use their olfactory skill in tracking a scent, rather than warning a handler at the initial presentation of a scent.


Some dogs are trained to silently locate booby traps and concealed enemies such as snipers. The dog's keen senses of smell and hearing would make them far more effective at detecting these dangers than humans. The best scout dogs are described as having a disposition intermediate to docile tracking dogs and aggressive attack dogs.

Scout dogs were used in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam by the United States to detect ambushes, weapon caches, or enemy fighters hiding underwater, with only reed breathing straws showing above the waterline. The US operated a number of scout dog platoons (assigned on a handler-and-dog team basis to individual patrols) and had a dedicated dog training school in Fort Benningmarker, Georgia.


One of the earliest military-related uses, sentry dogs were used to defend camps or other priority areas at night and sometimes during the day. They would bark or growl to alert guards of a stranger's presence. During the Cold War, the American military used sentry dog teams outside of nuclear weapons storage areas. A test program was conducted in Vietnam to test sentry dogs, launched two days after a successful Vietcong attack on Da Nang Air Basemarker (July 1, 1965). Forty dog teams were deployed to Vietnam for a four month test period, with teams placed on the perimeter in front of machine gun towers/bunkers. The detection of intruders resulted in a rapid deployment of reinforcements. The test was successful, so the handlers returned to the US while the dogs were reassigned to new handlers. The Air Force immediately started to ship dog teams to all the bases in Vietnam and Thailand.

The buildup of American forces in Vietnam created large dog sections at USAF Southeast Asia (SEA) bases. 467 dogs were eventually assigned to Bien Hoa, Bien Thuy, Cam Ranh Bay, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Tuy Hoa, Phu Cat, Phan Rang, Tan Son Nhut, and Pleiku Air Bases. Within a year of deployment, attacks on several bases had been stopped when the enemy forces were detected by dog teams. Captured Vietcong told of the fear and respect that they had for the dogs. The Vietcong even placed a bounty on lives of handlers and dogs. The success of sentry dogs was determined by the lack of successful penetrations of bases in Vietnam and Thailand. It is estimated by the United States War Dogs Association that war dogs saved over 10,000 U.S. lives in Vietnam. Sentry Dogs were also used by the Army, Navy, and Marines to protect the perimeter of large bases.

Modern uses

Contemporary dogs in military roles are also often referred to as police dogs, or in the United States as a Military Working Dog (MWD), or K-9. Their roles are nearly as varied as their ancient cousins, though they tend to be more rarely used in front-line formations.

Traditionally, the most common breed for these police-type operations has been the German Shepherd; in recent years there has been a shift to smaller dogs with keener senses of smell for detection work, and more resilient breeds such as the Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherd for patrolling and law enforcement. All MWDs in use today are paired with a single individual after their training. This person is called a handler. While a handler usually won't stay with one dog for the length of either's career, usually a handler will stay partnered with a dog for at least a year, and sometimes much longer.

In the 1970s the US Air Force used over 1600 dogs worldwide. Today, personnel cutbacks have reduced USAF dog teams to approximately 530, stationed throughout the world. Many dogs that operate in these roles are trained at Lackland Air Force Basemarker, the only United States facility that currently trains dogs for military use.

Change has also come in legislature for the benefit of the canines. Prior to 2000, older war dogs were required to be euthanized. Thanks to a new law, retired military dogs may now be adopted, the first of which was Lex, a working dog whose handler was killed in Iraq.

There are numerous memorials dedicated to war dogs, including
 at March Field Air Museummarker in Riverside, Californiamarker, at The Infantry School, Ft.marker Benningmarker, Georgia; at the Naval Facility, Guam, with replicas at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville and the Alfred M. Gray Marine Corps Research Center in Quantico, Virginiamarker. 

Law enforcement

As a partner in everyday military police work, dogs have proved versatile and loyal officers. Police dogs can chase suspects, track them if they are hidden, and guard them when they are caught. They are trained to respond viciously if their handler is attacked, and otherwise not to react at all unless they are commanded to do so by their handler. Many police dogs are also trained in detection as well.

Drug and explosives detection

Both MWDs and their civilian counterparts provide service in drug detection, sniffing out a broad range of psychoactive substances despite efforts at concealment. Provided they have been trained to detect it, MWDs can smell small traces of nearly any substance, even if it is in a sealed container. Dogs trained in drug detection are normally used at ports of embarkation such as airports, checkpoints, and other places where there is high security and a need for anti-contraband measures.

MWDs can also be trained to detect explosives. As with narcotics, trained MWDs can detect minuscule amounts of a wide range of explosives, making them useful for searching entry points, patrolling within secure installations, and at checkpoints. These dogs are capable of achieving over a 98% success rate in bomb detection.


The use of Military Working Dogs on prisoners by the United States during recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been very controversial.

War in Iraq: The U.S. has used dogs to intimidate prisoners in Iraqi prisons. In court testimony following the revelations of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, it was stated that Col. Thomas M. Pappas approved the use of dogs for interrogations. Pvt. Ivan L. Frederick testified that interrogators were authorized to use dogs and that a civilian contract interrogator left him lists of the cells he wanted dog handlers to visit. "They were allowed to use them to ... intimidate inmates", Frederick stated. Two soldiers, Sgt. Santos A. Cardona and Sgt. Michael J. Smith, were then charged with maltreatment of detainees, for allegedly encouraging and permitting unmuzzled working dogs to threaten and attack them. Prosecutors have focused on an incident caught in published photographs, when the two men allegedly cornered a naked detainee and allowed the dogs to bite him on each thigh as he cowered in fear.

Guantanamo Bay: It is believed that the use of dogs on prisoners in Iraq was learned from practices at Guantanamo Bay Naval Basemarker. The use of dogs on prisoners by regular U.S. forces in Guantanamo Bay Naval Basemarker was prohibited by Donald Rumsfeld in April 2003. A few months later following revelations of abuses at Abu Ghraib prisonmarker, including use of dogs to terrify naked prisoners; Rumsfeld then issued a further order prohibiting their use by the regular U.S. forces in Iraq.

Other roles

Military Working dogs continue to serve as sentries, trackers, Search and rescue, scouts, and mascots. Retired working dogs are often adopted as pets or Therapy dogs.


Image:Iraq dog.jpg|A U.S.marker soldier and his dog wait before conducting an assault against insurgents in Buhrizmarker, Iraqmarker on April 10, 2007.Image:K-9 Unit.jpg|U.S. Naval Security Force K-9 Unit training.Image:Working dog in Afghanistan, wearing a bulletproof vest, clears a building.jpg|U.S. Army working dog wearing body armor clears a building in Afghanistanmarker.Image:World war 2 cartoon dog.jpg|Post WWII cartoon emphasizing the importance of canines in medical research.File:Ambulance Dog.JPG|Ambulance dogs search for wounded men through scent and hearing.File:Belgian dogs trained to draw quick-firing guns.JPG|Belgian dogs trained to draw quick-firing guns

See also


  1. Putney, William. (2001) Always Faithful: A Memoir of the Marine Dogs of World War II, New York: Simon & Schuster Inc. ISBN 0-7432-0198-1

Further reading

External links

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