Dogs Of War – A History of Military Dogs
Dogs have certain attributes and physiological traits that make them more than suitable for certain jobs. Intelligence is the most important trait that any working dog must possess. Add affection, loyalty and empathy to the mix and you’ve got the makings of a great therapy or service dog. But when those virtues are combined with alertness, courage and tenacity, you get one of the canine elite, a military or “war dog”—a dog that is in the service.
Dogs have been used in war since ancient times. The earliest known account of dogs being taken into battle is from the Kingdom of Lydia, which is in modern-day Turkey, around 600 BC. Lydian soldiers were ordered to sic packs of attack dogs on advancing Cimmerian troops, effectively breaking the momentum of the invaders.
Many other fighting forces followed suit regularly deploying war dogs, including the Romans who specifically bred a dog called the Molossian for combat. Starting in the late 15th century, Spanish explorers used dogs to secure their stronghold in the Americas. Instead of using purebred dogs, these conquistadors preferred to use a vicious combination of the Deerhound and Mastiff to frighten native warriors and rebellious slaves.
Since then, war dogs have been a staple of forces in the U.S. and all over the world. During World War I, canines served as sentries, stretcher-bearers, and pack animals, instead of in combat roles. They also made excellent trench dogs, working to expose enemy surveillance teams and foiling surprise attacks.
Another important role they assumed was that of front line messengers, running through treacherous, battle-scarred terrain that was all but impossible for human runners to navigate—and since they were considerably smaller than human soldiers, they were hard for enemy snipers to hit.
These canine messengers proved so effective, that the Germans and French sent thousands of them into battle, and the British army even set up a training facility to prepare them for action in the trenches.
During World War II, the United States waged a campaign urging citizens to enlist their dogs. More than 10,000 dogs were voluntarily sent to the front lines, and only about 3,000 of these courageous “volunteers” returned to their families. As in World War I, these “military mutts” were used as sentries and messengers, but they were also used in a new capacity—to sniff out bombs.
Most war dogs go unrecognized, but there are a few four-legged U.S. soldiers that have become famous for their valor and courage under fire.
World War I’s most celebrated four-legged foot soldier was an American pup called Seargant Stubby. Stubby was a stray Bull Terrier mix that endeared himself to the 26th (Yankee) Division shortly before they deployed to France in 1917. For 18 months, he was an invaluable member of the division, boosting morale, and participating in 17 conflicts on the Western Front. During those battles, he located and comforted the wounded, caught and detained a German soldier who had infiltrated Allied trenches, warned his compatriots of a surprise mustard gas attack and was wounded in a grenade attack.
In light of his accomplishments, Stubby was ultimately made a sergeant, and on his return to the states, he was the most famous dog in America. He even met three U.S. presidents, and in his later years became the mascot for the Georgetown Hoyas football team. After Stubby’s death in 1926, his remains were preserved and are now housed at the Smithsonian Institute.
World War II ushered in a new era in warfare and a new canine hero named Chips—a German Shepherd, Husky, and Collie mix enlisted by a family in New York State. Chips served tours in North Africa and Europe, during which he charged a machine gun nest in the invasion of Sicily in 1943, forcing four enemy soldiers out of their concealed post to await capture. The fearless war dog was wounded and burned in the skirmish, but helped capture ten more soldiers later that day. For his bravery and tenacity, Chips was awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Service Star, and Purple Heart, but they were all rescinded due to a military stipulation that required anyone receiving a medal to be human. After the war, he returned to a quiet life with his family.
In recent years, there have been two noteworthy war dogs whose names will go down in down in the annals of history: Cairo and Conan.
Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, was part of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six that raided Osama Bin Laden’s safe house on May 2, 2011. The four-legged team member sniffed out bombs, detected hidden enemies, revealed secret panels and tunnels, and helped guard the area around the compound. After a successful operation, during which Bin Laden was found and killed, the members of SEAL Team Six met President Barack Obama—and Cairo was front and center.
The most recently revered military dog is Conan, another Belgian Malinois who in October 2019, took part in a raid that ended with the demise of the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Conan, who was injured during the operation, trailed al-Baghdadi into a tunnel where he detonated a suicide vest. Currently, there is increasing support for Conan to receive the Purple Heart, but the President would be required to reverse policy on awarding medals to non-humans.
Like human soldiers, military dogs make sacrifices that most members of their species wouldn’t have the strength and audacity to withstand. But these canine soldiers have the advantage of being born with certain traits that are core characteristics of mercenaries—traits inherent to virtually every one of man’s best friends. We should all be thankful for their service.
What do you think about using dogs in war? Let us know in the comments.