Man’s best friend has been used in warfare since ancient times; and today, thanks to specialized training, these canine combatants are taking on crucial military roles and have become, in effect, guardians of national security. Debbie Kandoll, who founded Military Working Dog Adoptions, reckons that your typical war dog can save the lives of 150 human comrades-in-arms throughout its service in the military. US representative Walter Jones says, “Those who have been to war tell me that the dogs are invaluable.” He adds, “They are just as much a part of a unit as a soldier or marine.” Here’s a look at ten of the most incredible security roles military canines have fulfilled over the years.
10. Gun Pulling
Dogs pulling carts might look unusual today, but this was a common occurrence in Belgium and Holland in the 19th and early 20th century. Milkmen used dogs to transport their goods in every Belgian town, so it wasn’t all that big a leap to deploy the canines in warfare as well. The dogs proved reliable and were easier to keep concealed and safe in the trenches than horses or other larger animals. The Belgian army used mastiffs, which have strong legs and wide chests, making them ideal for pulling. In fact, one of these animals could haul a machine gun carriage with extra ammunition – weighing as much as 200 pounds in total – over a substantial distance. The mastiffs proved so capable that the Belgian army appointed 36 dogs to each battalion.
Roman attack dogs coated in armor with metal spikes were so fierce that they supposedly wouldn’t back off even though threatened with a sword. Nowadays, attack dogs are often trained to hold a particular defensive position. If the position is threatened, they chase down intruders and pin them in place, injure them or even kill them. Attack dogs are commonly used by police forces in dangerous situations, often to run after and hold down suspects until they can be taken into custody. Training includes teaching the dogs to interpret various scenarios and react appropriately. The most common attack dogs are German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, although other breeds, including giant schnauzers, Rottweilers and Dobermans, have been used as well.
8. Red Cross
Red Cross dogs – also known as mercy or ambulance dogs – played an important role in World War I, as they were trained to locate wounded soldiers and bring back help. Injured WWI troops were known to crawl into thickets and concealed areas, which made it difficult for medics to locate them. Owing to their excellent sense of smell and keen hearing, dogs were able to find these wounded soldiers and alert their masters. During the war, it was often only possible to carry wounded soldiers out at night, so Red Cross dogs proved especially effective. The Germans, Italians, French, Russians and British all used ambulance dogs during the Great War. In fact, in his book Scout, Red Cross and Army Dogs, American writer Theo Jager estimated that there were around 10,000 Red Cross dogs in use by the end of the war.
7. Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Detection
From 2006 to 2012, the Pentagon reportedly spent more than $18 billion on improvised explosive device (IED) detection and neutralization. These roadside bombs are the primary cause of death among US troops serving in Afghanistan. However, the task of detecting IEDs has not been given to expensive new technology but to dogs, which go through an intensive training period of up to several months for this purpose. Marines were initially skeptical about the plan but have since been won over by the dogs’ efficiency and ability to sniff out dangerous explosives. Thirteen IED detection Labrador retrievers were sent over to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007. As of 2012, that number has increased to around 600.
Soviet forces used anti-tank dogs, also known as dog-mines, during World War II. These unfortunate canines were reportedly starved during training so that they would learn to look for food underneath tanks. Once the dogs were suitably conditioned, explosive devices were attached to them. They were then deployed against German tanks. When the dogs ran beneath a tank, they tripped a lever that stuck out from the packs on their backs, thereby detonating the explosive. According to The Cambodia Herald, anti-tank dogs successfully blew up roughly 300 German tanks during the war. Drawbacks to this method were that the dogs died in the resulting explosions, some dogs simply ran away, and others attacked Soviet rather than German forces.
Dogs have long been valued as sentries and guards. Huge hounds were used to guard the camps of Rome, while Napoleon stationed dogs to keep watch around Alexandria. In his book Dogs of all Nations, W.E. Mason reported that canine guards were quite successful in preventing the Japanese from crossing the Manchurian Railway during the Russo-Japanese War. And the US Air Force employed sentry dogs as early as the 1940s, during World War II. These watchdogs were placed around nuclear weapons storage areas at the time of the Cold War, and they were used during the 1960s to protect missile bases from intruders, which earned them the nickname “Guardians of the Night.” Sentry dogs are often trained as attack dogs as well.
World War II saw dogs parachute out of aircraft alongside human troops, which allowed the dogs to be on hand immediately after landing. They acted as guards, went on patrol, found mines, and proved to be invaluable when it came to giving their masters early warnings in the face of danger. During WWII, the UK’s 13th Parachute Battalion included five para dogs, most of which were German shepherds. Some of these canines made jumps into Normandy in 1944 and over the Rhine in 1945. A border collie also parachuted with the British Special Airborne Service (SAS) into Italy and North Africa.
Today, US combat dogs deployed in Afghanistan are also trained to parachute. Among the missions undertaken, in 2010 British Special Forces parachuted into Taliban strongholds accompanied by dogs, outfitted with cameras, which scouted the immediate areas, providing much-needed surveillance. The dog pictured above is wearing a muzzle to apparently prevent it from accidentally biting its tongue.
The US Armed Forces employed scout dogs during World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. These animals were specially trained to spot weapons stores, enemy fighters and ambushes. The German shepherd scout dog teams led units through enemy territory and gave their handlers a silent warning if they detected danger. During the Vietnam War, these silent alerts varied depending on the dog. One dog, named Major, crossed his ears when on high alert. Another dog, Eric, walked on his back legs to alert his handlers. Scout dogs were highly effective when it came to warning troops about surprise attacks, giving soldiers enough time to establish a life-saving defensive position. Such dogs were even able to discern enemies hiding underwater. “A dog is as good as a weapon,” affirmed Vietnam-era dog handler Sergeant Gordon Moen, of Meskegon, Michigan, whose canine’s hair used to stand up when it detected something.
2. Black Ops
Special and black ops combat dogs are the apex of the canine military elite. Outfitted in special assault vests capable of deflecting shrapnel and knives, these dogs run at double the speed of humans and can discover and recognize explosives, search buildings, and provide intelligence via camera link. Special equipment includes “canine tactical assault vests,” and “doggles” (dog goggles) with night vision and infrared capabilities that enable the dogs to “see” through concrete walls and spot human heat forms. In May 2011, Cairo, a German Malinois with the Navy SEALs, was part of the team that entered Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad, Pakistan during Operation Neptune Spear. Like their human SEAL counterparts, these unique animals are rigorously trained.
Although being a mascot is a more traditional role for man’s best friend, the little dog pictured above proves that even the humblest of canines can play an important role in warfare. Smoky was a Yorkshire terrier discovered in a foxhole in New Guinea in 1944. The dog soon became inseparable from her owner, Corporal William Wynne, and accompanied him through thick and thin. The trusty little pooch survived 150 air raids, a typhoon and 12 combat missions. Smoky even apparently saved Wynne’s life on a combat vessel by alerting him to incoming enemy fire that took out eight unlucky soldiers standing nearby. She also did the crucial work of running a telegraph wire through an eight-inch wide, 70 foot-long pipe; the entire operation took just minutes, whereas it would have taken a construction detail three hazardous days to complete. Smoky also entertained troops and comforted the wounded in hospitals from Korea to Australia. Proof, if it were needed, that dogs of war serve many purposes.