The history of war dogs is as old as history itself. The dogs of King Alyattes of Lydia killed some of his Cimmerian adversaries and routed the rest around 600BC, permanently driving the invader from Asia Minor in the earliest known use of war dogs in battle.
King Molossus of Epirus, grandson of the mighty Achilles, used a large, powerfully built breed specifically trained for battle. Today, “molosser” describes a body type more than any specific breed. Modern molossers include the Mastiff, Bernese Mountain Dog, Newfoundland and Saint Bernard.
Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians often used dogs as sentries or on patrol. In late antiquity, Xerxes I, the Persian King who faced the Spartan King Leonidas across the pass at Thermopylae, was accompanied by a pack of Indian hounds.
Attila the Hun went to war with a pack of hounds, as did the Spanish Conquistadors of the 1500s.
A Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Sallie “joined up” in 1861, serving the rest of the Civil War with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. At Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania, Sallie would take her position alongside the colors, barking ferociously at the adversary.
Abraham Lincoln spotted Sallie from a reviewing stand in 1863, and tipped his hat.
Sallie was killed at Hatcher’s Run in February 1865. Several of “her” men laid down their arms then and there to bury her, despite being under Confederate fire.
Dogs performed a variety of roles in WWI, from ratters in the trenches, to sentries, scouts and runners. “Mercy” dogs were trained to seek out the wounded on the battlefield, carrying medical supplies with which the stricken could treat themselves.
Sometimes, these dogs simply provided the comfort of another living soul, so that the gravely wounded should not die alone.
By the end of the “Great War”, France, Great Britain and Belgium had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, Imperial Germany over 30,000. Some sources report that over a million dogs served over the course of the war.
The famous Rin Tin Tin canine movie star of the 1920s was rescued as a puppy, from the bombed out remains of a German Army kennel, in 1917. (Read more about him, Here).
GHQ of the American Expeditionary Force recommended using dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918, however the war was over before US forces put together any kind of a War Dog program.
America’s first war dog, “Sgt. Stubby”, went “Over There” by accident, serving 18 months on the Western Front before coming home to a well-earned retirement.
On March 13, 1942, the Quartermaster Corps began training dogs for the US Army “K-9 Corps.” In the beginning, the owners of healthy dogs were encouraged to “loan” their dogs to the Quartermaster Corps, where they were trained for service with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
The program initially accepted over 30 breeds of dog, but the list soon narrowed to German Shepherds, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Collies, Siberian Huskies, Malamutes and Eskimo Dogs.
WWII-era Military Working Dogs (MWDs) served on sentry, scout and patrol missions, in addition to performing messenger and mine-detection work. The keen senses of scout dogs saved countless lives, by alerting to the approach of enemy forces, incoming fire, and hidden booby traps & mines.
The most famous MWD of WWII was “Chips”, a German Shepherd assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy. Trained as a sentry dog, Chips broke away from his handler and attacked an enemy machine gun nest. Wounded in the process, his singed fur demonstrated the point-blank fire with which the enemy fought back. To no avail. Chips single-handedly forced the surrender of the entire gun crew.
Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and Purple Heart, the honors later revoked due to an Army policy against the commendation of animals. It makes me wonder if the author of such a policy ever saw service beyond his own desk.
Of the 549 dogs who returned from service in WWII, all but four were able to return to civilian life.
Over 500 dogs died on the battlefields of Vietnam, of injuries, illnesses, and combat wounds. 10,000 servicemen served as dog handlers during the war, with an estimated 4,000 Military Working Dogs. 261 handlers paid the ultimate price. K9 units are estimated to have saved over 10,000 human lives.
It’s only a guess, but, having an MWD handler in the family, I believe I’m right: hell would freeze before any handler walked away from his dog. The military bureaucracy, is another matter. The vast majority of MWDs were left behind during the Vietnam era. Only about 200 dogs survived the war to be assigned to other bases. The remaining dogs were either euthanized or left behind as “surplus equipment”.
In 2011, a Belgian Malinois named “Cairo” accompanied the Navy SEAL “Neptune Spear” operation that took out Osama bin Laden.
Today there are about 2,500 dogs in active service. Approximately 700 deployed overseas. The American Humane Association estimates that each MWD saves an average 150-200 human lives over the course of its career.
NPR’s “Here & Now” broadcast an excellent segment out of their Boston affiliate WBUR in 2014, when our son-in-law Nate was reunited with “Zino”, the Tactical Explosives Detection Dog (TEDD) with whom he served in Afghanistan.
Their story ends well, but that isn’t always the case. Many have been left behind, no longer qualified to travel on military transport after being “retired” on foreign soil.
In 2015, Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced language in their respective bodies, mandating that MWDs be returned to American soil upon retirement, and that their handlers and/or handlers’ families be given first right of adoption.
LoBiondo’s & McCaskill’s language became law on November 25, when the President signed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It’s a small step in recognizing what we owe to those who have stepped up in defense of our nation, both two legged and four.
Boston’s NPR Station WBUR broadcast a segment on Nate & Zino’s reunion, if you’re interested in listening to it. It’s a great story.