Our troops aren’t alone when they leave their families and ship out across the sea to serve. In every American war since the beginning, military working dogs, or war dogs, have been trained to assist troops in the battlefield. They did not gain official recognition for this service until World War II, but war dogs have always played a unique and valuable role in preserving freedom.
Using animals in war to boost morale and participate in communications or espionage dates back to ancient times. A variety of animals have been used historically, namely pigeons, bats, sea lions, insects, cats, dolphins, chickens, pigs, camels, rats, horses, and even elephants. Some of these animals are still used today in militaries around the world, but man’s best friend, the dog, has served the longest of them all. Dogs’ superior senses and unfailing loyalty make them valuable assets to troops navigating treacherous and unpredictable war zones.
The Military Working Dog (MWD)
As of 2015, there were 2,500 war dogs or MWDs in active duty. Approximately 700 of these are deployed overseas. These dogs fulfill a variety of roles on and off the battlefield, including fighting, transportation and location, keeping morale high, detection and tracking, scouting, and acting as sentries.
Most military dogs are German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois. But these aren’t the only breeds fit for military service: Labradors, Doberman Pinschers, Giant Schnauzers, Sheepdogs, and Collies are among the most preferred breeds, while many others have served gallantly in the past.
Like their human comrades, war dogs are equipped with top-of-the-line get-ups, including bullet and knife-proof vests, GPS trackers, night-vision cameras, and “doggles” (goggles built especially for dogs to protect their eyes from dust and debris).
Since the beginning of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Defense has spent nearly one million dollars on training and maintaining military working dogs. Clearly they see the great service these dogs are doing and think it well worth their investments.
Official Status as Equipment
Even though war dogs do many things soldiers do, like jump out of airplanes, participate in combat, and save lives, they’re currently classified as equipment of the military, not canine members. Legislation has been proposed to change this, but so far it hasn’t become law. Many trainers and handlers are very passionate about war dogs receiving due consideration as members of the armed forces and not as objects like desks or computers.
Despite their being classified as equipment, it’s been a long time since war dogs were treated like equipment. Many inhumane practices of the past have been discontinued, and today, war dogs are raised, respected, and cared for like the heroes they are.
Depending on their individual aptitudes, war dogs are trained to attack, hold down, and incapacitate the enemy. They aren’t trained to kill as some myths may suggest; rather, the most handlers train their dogs to do is latch onto an enemy’s arm or leg and prevent them from escaping. Top military breeds like German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois are particularly athletic and are selected by trainers for their aggressive natures.
U.S. Special Operations forces will often employ dogs during raids. These fighter dogs chase down and restrain fugitives or prisoners. But while not all dogs are cut out for raids, it’s imperative that all receive training in controlled aggressiveness: they must be able to attack on command and defend their handler at will without command.
Dogs in Transportation
In the past, dogs were used by the military to haul supplies, transport weaponry, and carry messages. Many times, dogs have sought out wounded troops, retrieved medical help by barking, or dragged the wounded to safety themselves. Almost 10,000 dogs were used for these purposes during World War I.
Keeping Morale High
Dogs have a history as regiment mascots to help preserve morale among the troops. But even dogs who aren’t mascots have a healing effect on soldiers. The bond between handler and war dog is strong; many war dogs give their lives for their handlers or comrades. Such an emotional connection is good for morale and gives soldiers a sense of companionship and belonging. Even though war dogs are highly trained, they’re still dogs: playtime and snuggles are a part of everyday life and help distract troops from current stressors and mentally rejuvenate them.
One example of dogs boosting morale is found in Rex, a German shepherd whose gentle nature got him transferred from aggressive training to bomb sniffing. Over time, Rex’s presence in the regiment became comforting and even therapeutic to the troops. They noticed that he was naturally drawn to those struggling or feeling down. He would coax them into playing with him by hitting or nudging them with a water bottle.
Dogs have also worked in therapy settings to help human veterans with PTSD. Their unconditionally loving natures make them excellent sources of emotional support and companionship for the psychologically distressed. PTSD service dogs help veterans feel safe in their homes and have even brought many back from thoughts of suicide.
Detection and Tracking
At one time, dogs were trained to detect land mines, but the stress of combat situations and the fear of unstable ground eventually rendered them ineffective. But they have excelled at sniffing out bombs, drugs, weapons, and enemy troops. Today, most dogs are trained in either IED or narcotics detection, but never both. The reasoning for this is simple: the more specialized the dog, the better the results. Plus, if a dog were trained to sniff for anything and everything, his barking wouldn’t communicate much: it would be hard to determine exactly what he’d found or which team to call in response.
Hidden explosives are the greatest threat to these sniffer dogs, killing almost twenty dogs since 2007.
Some military working dogs are trained as scout dogs. Scout dogs are trained to smell and listen for threats located as far as 1,000 feet away and even through dark tunnels. They have reportedly sensed the presence of weapon cashes, ambushes, and enemy platoons hiding underwater, saving many lives.
In perhaps their most time-honored role, dogs are used in the military to guard camps, storage areas, bunkers, and gun towers during the night. Their superior eyesight and hearing allows them to detect intruders faster than a human might, and they warn sleeping troops by barking or growling. These sentry dogs were particularly numerous in the Vietnam War, preventing the loss of many crucial locations. Vietcong prisoners reportedly expressed great fear and admiration for the canine sentries and even put bounties on them and their handlers.
Training Military Working Dogs
The Department of Defense has set up several Military Working Dog programs, including an MWD Veterinary Service and an MWD Breeding Program. Today, the 341st Training Squadron at the Lackland Air Force base is dedicated to training war dogs and their handlers. It currently has more than 1,000 dogs in training, and has trained tens of thousands more since it opened in 1958. It is the largest military dog school in the world. Trainers come from nearly every branch of the military and have extensive experience with combat situations. They are able to use this experience to assess and nurture a dog’s combat readiness and natural ability.
While some breeds do respond better to military training than others, war dogs are selected on an individual basis. Dogs fit for the military are as physically healthy as possible, exceptionally brave, fiercely loyal, and reward-motivated. They must possess calm dispositions overall, but also have the right amount of excitability in order to be assertive in emergency situations. Only about half of all potential war dogs are able to complete their training. Many are unable to handle the stress of even simulated combat: some puppies are especially distressed at the idea of having to bite a human and are pulled from training as a result.
For the most part, training revolves around the dog’s personal drive. The military needs highly motivated dogs who seek out treats or toys with determination and focus. Training programs also develop the dog’s obedience, mental stability in changing environments, and the strength and effectiveness of their biting grip.
While the Department of Defense handles most of the procuring and training of war dogs, a select number of exceptionally high-drive dogs are supplied by military contractors. Such dogs are known as multi-purpose canines, or MPCs. These are the ones who parachute out of airplanes, rappel from helicopters, and work with Special Ops teams like the Navy SEALs.
Throughout training and tours, military working dogs and their handlers form profound bonds. In the event of a handler’s death, the dogs are known to mourn and have trouble adjusting to new partnerships.
Adopting and Caring for Veteran War Dogs
We’ve talked about military working dogs, or MWDs, before in a sister article, explaining what they are, how they’re trained, and what they do in the military. Like human soldiers, war dogs give life and limb to protect us, receiving awards for their service, and sometimes coming home from war only to face debilitating after-effects like PTSD. Here’s how we as civilians can continue to care for and support our war dogs after they come home.
Notable War Dog Veterans
Many war dogs have received recognition for their heroic deeds in battle. One recent example is Cairo, the Belgian Malinois who served with the Navy SEAL team responsible for killing bin Laden. Four other war dogs, Matty, Fieldy, Bond, and Isky, were each awarded the Medal of Courage this year for their service in Afghanistan. Eli, another bomb sniffer, was granted early retirement after using his body to shield the late Pfc. Colton Rusk from sniper fire.
Many dogs have received the Dickin Medal for their service, including Lucca, a German Shepherd who detected 40 explosives in her military career and retired after losing one of her front legs. Sergeant Stubby, a Pit Bull Terrier from World War I, also received the Dickin Medal and remains one of the most decorated war dogs in history, having served in seventeen battles. His heroic accomplishments include warning his regiment of mustard gas attacks, catching a German soldier by his pants, and locating wounded men whom he then comforted while waiting for help to arrive.
Other decorated dogs include Rags, a mixed-breed terrier who rescued his unit from ambush by calling reinforcements; Smoky, a Yorkshire terrier who parachuted on occasion and warned a soldier of falling shells; and Chips, a German Shepherd-Collie-Husky mix who leapt into a pillbox and terrified several soldiers into surrender. All these dogs received awards for their service during the World Wars.
PTSD in War Dogs
Of the hundreds of war dogs deployed at a given time, about 5 percent develop post-traumatic stress disorder. The military has only just started investigating canine PTSD, which differs from dog to dog just as in humans, but advancements are being made every day. Veterinary services are available on site for physically wounded dogs, and now canine psychologists are becoming accessible as well. Many dogs are able to heal and return to active duty after receiving the proper care.
Symptoms of PTSD in dogs include: a heightened startle response, a tendency to flee or hide, bodily indicators of fear or anxiety, social withdrawal, hypervigilance, failure to perform simple tasks, and fluctuation in rapport with handlers.
Memorials and Charities for Military Working Dogs
As a way to memorialize these brave dogs for their service, several monuments, cemeteries, and memorials exist across the county that anyone can visit. Just a few include the National War Dog Cemetery, the Michigan War Dog Memorial, and the West Coast War Dog Memorial. Here’s a list of others.
In addition to these memorials, many charities around the country have been established for the sole purpose of tending to war dogs. The Warrior Dog Foundation was built by Mike Ritland, a Navy SEAL who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ritland’s vision for the foundation is to ensure a smooth transition from deployment to kennel life for all retired war dogs. The Warrior Dog Foundation is equipped with an excellent kennel facility built for nurturing and rehabilitating war dogs for the remainder of their lives. But the foundation doesn’t want to stop there: they have plans to open a war dog museum, set up a scholarship fund for fallen or wounded handlers’ families, and construct a living memorial to all war dogs.
Adopt a Veteran
Before the year 2000 and the passing of Robby’s Law, war dogs were put down after their time in the military. The popular belief was that these dogs wouldn’t be able to adjust to civilian life after what they’d seen and done overseas. Robby, a war dog, was euthanized after his deployment despite every effort made by his handler to adopt him. The story spread, and now, Robby’s Law states that all retired military dogs are eligible for adoption. First pick for adoption goes to the dog’s handler and the handler’s family. After that, the dog is offered to law enforcement. If not adopted into law enforcement, these dogs can be adopted by civilian families after the family undergoes a thorough evaluation.
There are many online charities and adoption agencies that work to provide these canine veterans with loving, stable homes. Some of these are Save A Vet, Pets for Patriots, the Puppy Rescue Mission, the Warrior Dog Foundation, the Military Working Dog Foundation, and Mission K9 Rescue.
At Low VA Rates military mortgage center, we salute all soldiers, whether they have two legs or four legs, and thank them for their incredible bravery and service. Our mission is to give back to those who have given their all for us. if you know any former or current military working dogs, please give them a big hug for us!
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There are currently ~1,600 dogs serving the military. Their missions span across the land, air, and sea! Military dogs are trained for specific jobs. They may patrol, search and rescue, detect, track, and attack.
Good article! Thanks for the great explanation of what military dogs do.