Decades before dogs were utilized in a working capacity within the various branches of the United States military, they were used as mascots. In 1861, a Bull Terrier who was subsequently named “Jack” served with the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteers Regiment, Washington Infantry. For almost four years, Jack gave moral support to his men, even spending six months as a POW. He was eventually retrieved when the Union traded a Confederate soldier for his safe return. And while Jack was lending his men much-needed moral support, another Bull Terrier named Sallie was doing the same for her own regiment. Sallie was presented to the captain of Company I of the Eleventh Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers in May of 1861 when she was only four weeks old. A year into the war, Sallie received a doffed-hat acknowledgement from then-President Abraham Lincoln and later survived being shot in the neck by an enemy soldier. The Minie ball could not be retrieved by the head surgeon who treated her and was instead left to work its way out over time, leaving behind an ugly battle scar. Both Jack and Sallie were killed by the enemy after having devoted their lives to the Union soldiers they literally fought to protect. Jack’s image can be found at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall Museum at Fifth and Bigelow in Pittsburgh while Sallie’s bronze and granite monument can be seen at the Gettysburg National Military Park in south-central Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the most famous dog of World War I was Stubby, a stray described as a Bull Terrier mix who was smuggled onto a ship departing Connecticut for France by Pvt. Robert Conroy. The men in Stubby’s unit quickly learned to head his warning of incoming artillery shells because his sensitive canine ears could detect them long before theirs could. Stubby achieved the rank of Sergeant, making him the highest-ranked dog ever in the United States military. During his time overseas he took down a German spy and fought alongside his men in seventeen battles and four offensives.
But it was not until 1942 – World War II – that dogs were officially used in a working capacity by the military. The Germans had been using dogs rather extensively for some time, including in World War I, to carry out a wide range of services including pulling two-wheeled carts and the impressively trained Sanitatshundes. Translated as “sanitary dogs”, the Sanitatshundes were trained to locate wounded men among the dead in the more dangerous parts of the battlefield. The dogs ventured into the no-man’s-land carrying water, alcohol and packs meant to comfort or save the fallen soldiers. More impressively, the dogs would retrieve identifying objects from wounded soldiers to take back to their handlers, later leading them back to the men for rescue. The Americans had a lot to learn from the German’s use of War Dogs, but in the end it took civilians to make it happen.
It was in the late 1930’s that a group of prominent breeders decided to take matters into their own hands for working dogs in the military. Although there were multiple groups, “Dogs for Defense” (DFD) was perhaps the most influential. The group came into being immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor and although it was initially comprised of breeders and trainers, civilians also began volunteering their dogs to be trained for military needs. At first, the military was skeptical of using civilian resources for their canine interests. But in July of 1942 when the Secretary of War, Harold Stimson, issued a directive ordering dogs to be trained for work beyond simple on-base sentry duty, every branch of the military was forced to examine their options. DFD, which had the political and financial backing of the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the large-scale involvement of professional and amateur breeders as well as the assistance of skilled trainers, was the obvious answer.
The U.S. Army had already begun using DFD to supply dogs for sentry duty, which made it a natural transition for them to use the DFD for its War Dogs. It didn’t take long for the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard to follow suit. In order to meet the military’s massive needs, the DFD began asking for dogs to be donated by civilians. They could not promise the dogs would be returned unless they failed to meet military standards, but even so, they received forty thousand dogs in the first two years. Of those dogs only eighteen thousand made it through the screening process and only ten thousand made it to active duty. Considering that the DFD was an all-volunteer group whose only goal was to assist the war effort, they were impressive numbers. There were, however, problems in the way the program was being run. The military failed to make personnel available which meant men were not being trained to handle the dogs, which was a serious problem. In addition, the dogs weren’t being trained around loud noises which became evident on D-Day when the dogs were terrified by the booming of the artillery that surrounded them.
Eventually oversight of the procurement of dogs was transferred to the Remount Division which was previously responsible for obtaining horses and donkeys for the military. Although they were well-suited to the task, it was still the DFD that obtained the majority of the dogs in the early years. The financial strain on DFD was much larger, and in 1943, the War Dog program was created to alleviate some of that burden. It was an incredibly popular program in its day because donations gave the dogs honorary ranks such as seaman or private although even bigger donations would give them greater ranks.
In 1943, there were eight areas of training for military working dogs (MWD’s): sentry, attack, tactical, silent scout, messenger, casualty, sledge, and pack dogs. Initially the military had a list of thirty-two breeds it felt were suitable either as purebreds or crossbred with one another. That first list included Dalmations, Standard Poodles and Briards as well as bracheocephalic breeds like Boxers and Bull Mastiffs. Reality was that dogs such as Dalmations tended to be too high-strung as well as standing out like beacons with their snow white coats and dogs like Boxers couldn’t handle extreme temperatures or excessive physical work due to their shortened nasal passages. It didn’t take long for the military to realize they needed to narrow it down even further to only seven breeds: German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Collies, Belgian Sheepdogs – not to be mistaken with Malinois, Siberian Huskies, Eskimo Dogs and Malamutes. Further narrowing of the list did not come until decades later.
It wasn’t until March of 1944 that the War Department made the move to official Quartermaster War Dogs platoons. Seven War Dog platoons were deployed to Europe while eight were sent to the Pacific. Throughout World War II the dogs worked with infantry units in combat areas although the soldiers did try to keep their dogs safe. For example, when a dog on patrol at the head of a unit alerted to an approaching enemy, the dog and its handler were sent to the rear of the unit for protection while the unit dealt with the threat. Failure to move to the rear often resulted in death, so most teams were quick to follow protocol.
One interesting detail to take note of is that during this timeframe when War Dogs were a new and unknown quantity, there was a brief foray into mine detection training. But only one mine detection dog was deployed with the canine platoons and after a brief time not even that one was sent. Trial runs performed in North Africa led the military to believe that these dogs were unnecessary and ineffective, so they discontinued mine detection training altogether. The reality was that the trainers appointed to teach the dogs to detect mines used a system of electrical shocks in the ground to make the dogs associate fear and pain with mines. But instead of making the dogs see the mines as a threat they should alert to, they became nervous and frightened as a result of constantly anticipating those training jolts under their paws. Decades would pass before bomb and explosives specialty dogs would become valuable members of the military.
Although accurate records are hard to come by, at least one dog received the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart while overseas during World War II. The Army later revoked such commendations saying they did not give such recognition to animals. Not much later, in January 1944, the War Department decided to allow publication of some commendations within individual units. Eventually, the Quartermaster General was also granted the power to issue certificates to the donors of the dogs if the dog had been unusually useful during combat. The first eight were issued in recognition of dogs within the very first unit in the Pacific. One of those dogs is known to many history buffs and even has his own Disney movie now: Chips, a mixed-breed Shepherd, who was donated by Edward J. Wren of Pleasantville, NY. During the invasion of Sicily, Chips and his handler, Pvt. John P. Rowell, were pinned down by enemy fire on a beach. Breaking free from Pvt. Rowell, Chips leapt into the pillbox where the Italian gunners were ensconced, attacking them and forcing their surrender to American troops. That same day he was instrumental in the taking of ten Italians prisoner despite his receiving a serious scalp wound and powder burns during his attack on the four gunners. It was Chips whose commendations were taken away by the Army although the men in his unit unofficially gave him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead and Battlestars for each of his eight campaigns. At the end of his service, Chips was returned home to his family in New York.
By the time the Korean War came along, the War Dogs platoons had shrunk down to just six and of those only the 26 Infantry Scout Dog platoon remained active at Fort Riley, Kansas. Dogs not left on active duty were returned to their families. It may have been the Korean War that was the true turning point when it came to using dogs in combat. The regimental commander where the 26th War Dogs had been sent remarked that after using the dogs for some time, patrols did not want to go out without them. As a result of the meritorious actions of the 26th War Dogs, the military decided to deploy scout dog platoons for every Division, but the war came to an end before the dogs could arrive. One again, dogs not remaining on active duty were returned to their owners, a practice which came to a disturbing halt in the next war: Vietnam.
Vietnam saw the broadening of the use of dogs in combat through continued scouting and sentry work but also water detection and tracking. Water detection referred to the Navy’s use of dogs to detect human presence in and under water which provided valuable protection to ships and personnel. It was also at this time that the dogs went from being referred to as War Dogs to being labeled Military Working Dogs (MWD’s). The trial run to find out whether the dogs could handle the humid weather of Vietnam was called Top Dog 45 and was an unmitigated success. The forty dog-and-handler teams were assembled at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB), which has since become the military’s center for canine procurement and training. The idea was that the dogs would be deployed for 120 days on a trial basis, but, of course, the dogs ended up being used throughout the war although their original handlers were sent home. At first, dogs were sent to Da Nang, Tan Son Nhut, and Bien Hoa. Soldiers who were unused to the presence of dogs in combat quickly discovered just how important the dogs were to their survival.
On December 4, 1966, a team of Vietcong (VC) managed to penetrate the outer defensive boundary at Tan Son Nhut AFB. It was at the second defensive layer where the VC were spotted as they tried to slip past the second sentry dog. During the fight that followed, the sentry dogs suffered their first Vietnam casualties. Three dogs and one handler were killed outright while another dog proved the heroism of MWD’s everywhere through his actions that night. He was a German Shepherd named Nemo A534. Nemo lost one eye and was shot in the face during the struggle while his handler, Airman Robert Throneburg, was repeatedly wounded and shot until he passed out on the ground, though not before killing two VC himself. Before passing out Airman Throneburg was able to radio in his location and that of the VC, the remaining of which were killed by other American troops. Nemo threw himself over the fallen body of his handler and protected him from attack until medical help arrived. It took the arrival of the base vet to move Nemo away from Airman Throneburg. To this day, his kennel and a stone statue at Lackland AFB remain as a memorial to his courage. Another dog, Scratch, stood sentry with his handler one night and listened as his Marine gave him the briefing he himself had received earlier that night. Only minutes passed before Scratch sounded the alert, warning the men of an attack by a North Vietnamese (NVA) battalion. The Marines prevailed that night, killing or wounded the attacking NVA, and their heads-up had come from Scratch.
Despite the clear bravery and repeated life-saving actions of MWD’s in Vietnam, the military made a major change from their actions in previous wars. Before, dogs were flown home and if they were no longer to remain on active duty, they were returned to the families that had donated them. Dogs were not left behind. But in Vietnam, American soldiers were given no choice but to release their dogs into the jungle and hope for the best or, in some cases, to turn them over to the South Vietnamese Army. Other dogs were simply euthanized by various means. Although the soldiers who fought alongside the MWD’s saw the dogs as their teammates and wanted them brought home, the military did not share their sentiment. One veteran, Rick Claggett, remembers the tears in his fellow handler’s eyes as they watched their dogs being taken away. Of the estimated 4,900 MWD’s sent to Vietnam, only 204 are known to have returned to the States.
From Vietnam onward, MWD’s have been considered equipment and are not returned home. Whatever country the dog is in when their service ends, that is where they stay. The military does not pay to have them flown back and the charge to the organizations that facilitate adoptions averages $2,000 per dog. Even those adoptions were not allowed to take place until 2000, when a law was finally signed into effect allowing MWD’s to be adopted by their handlers, law enforcement and civilians. But even though you can now adopt an MWD, you also have to be able to pay to get them home, which is no small fee. Organizations such as Debbie Kandoll’s Military Working Dog Adoptions act as a sort of go-between trying to ensure as many dogs as possible are brought back to the States for loving “furever” homes.
Bomb-sniffing dogs saw a resurgence in 1971 when the Air Force began training dogs once again to detect explosives. But it really wasn’t until the 1990’s that canine bomb detection experienced more widespread military usage, and it wasn’t until 2011 that a special all-Labrador IED-detection team was used during the second Iraq war. Of course, the enemy has also long since used dogs for many things. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, insurgents used dogs as unwilling suicide bombers. Interestingly, the Iraqi people took serious offense at the strapping of explosives onto dogs even though dogs are seen as unclean animals according to Islam. Dogs also were not nearly as effective as the insurgents other choice – donkeys – and so it was donkeys that ended up being used with greater frequency to wander near American soldiers before their bomb-laden packs were detonated. And then there was the terrorist plot that came to light in 2010 but was reported to have taken place in 2008. Terrorists caught a pair of stray dogs on the streets of Iraq, sewed bombs inside their bodies, and booked them on a flight heading to the United States. The procedure was so poorly done both dogs died before they could be loaded onto the plane, leaving the explosive cause of their deaths to be discovered during their necropsies.
For almost a century, MWD’s have officially saved the lives of countless American soldiers. And when they started out as mascots over 150 years ago, the dogs, typically described and pictured as Bull Terriers, provided more than moral support. They entered battle with their men, with many accounts given of mascots ferociously and selflessly attacking enemy troops or spotting the enemy before human eyes were able. Dogs have continued to flourish in the military, proving their worth time and again both on and off the battlefield. Not only do soldiers survive combat thanks to the help of their dogs but they also find life-saving solace from dogs later as veterans when flashbacks and PTSD threaten to exact their highest price. Would it really be asking too much to change the classification of MWD’s so they are no longer equipment in the eyes of the military?
Apparently that is asking too much, because attempts to reclassify dogs as “canine members of the Armed Forces” have repeatedly failed. Most recently, Senator John McCain was instrumental in its failure. When the Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act was introduced to Congress in the fall of 2012, it included the simplification of the adoption process, veterinary care for retired dogs at no cost to taxpayers and, of course, reclassification. But before the bill was turned over to the President for his signature, McCain had the reclassification provision removed. McCain, who is himself a Vietnam veteran who knows firsthand the value of MWD’s, made it quite clear he wanted nothing to do with a bill that allowed dogs to be seen as living, breathing members of the Armed Forces. And although pieces of the legislation did pass, there is a massive amount of misinformation being circulated about its success or lack thereof. For example, the provision requiring the military to provide transport back to the States for retired MWD’s does not require them to pay for it, meaning organizations such as Military Working Dog Adoptions must continue to come up with the thousands of dollars it takes to bring each dog home. And although there is also a provision that the military must allow frequent fliers miles to be donated to help cover MWD’s transport home, there is no telling how much time will pass before it actually happens. The reason the reclassification is so important is because if dogs are no longer seen as equipment, they cannot be left behind in the country of their most recent service when they are retired. Also with reclassification they could also be given ranks and commendations, much as Stubby the Bull Terrier and Chips the German Shepherd were rewarded in years past. As it stands now, MWD’s are treated with the same respect as an M1A1 Abrams tank: not worth flying back to the States, may as well leave it. At least, as of 2000, the dogs are no longer simply destroyed. The fact that it took until the year 2000 for the military to stop destroying dogs simply because they were no longer useful, regardless of age or health, is a disheartening sign of the military’s attitude towards MWD’s. In fact, Lackland AFB spokesperson Gerry Proctor blatantly compared MWD’s to trucks practically in the same breath as claiming the dogs are respected. Yes, the dogs are respected – by the soldiers and sailors serving alongside them – but it is people like Proctor who feel comparing an MWD to a truck in need of an oil change is an acceptable analogy who are the heart of the problem.
However, just because many of the powers-that-be see MWD’s as disposable as a used Kleenex does not mean that the men and women who make up the military feel the same way. The majority of soldiers and sailors who have contact with MWD’s, whether as handlers, a member of a unit with an MWD attached or simply someone whose life has been saved by one of the selfless dogs, see MWD’s as their fellow soldiers. Not only do the dogs fight alongside them and alert them to approaching danger and explosives, they provide respite from an otherwise immeasurably high-stress life. And when one of the dogs is killed while serving, their body is treated with respect much like human soldiers: placed in a body bag, draped with an American flag and honored with a memorial service.
Although there have been significant improvements for MWD’s in the past thirteen years, one important detail continues to be shot down by those in power: making MWD’s canine members of the Armed Forces, not equipment. They are living, breathing creatures who bleed, lose limbs, and die while serving the United States military. Why not return just a fraction of their loyalty by reclassifying them? Would it really be so hard to officially acknowledge that they are not machines? Perhaps it all comes down to one thing: money. Complaining about the cost of flying MWD’s back to the States and the cost of their veterinary care, much of which is the result of the strain of their service, is a common refrain among opponents of reclassification. It would appear that the military simply does not want to take responsibility for the dogs once they feel they have outlived their usefulness. Sound familiar? As of June 2013, an estimated 851,000 veterans awaited VA disability benefits for injuries received in combat. More than two-thirds of those veterans have far surpassed the 125-day period President Obama claims is the longest any veteran should wait for results. Worse yet, those numbers are actually an improvement over spring of 2013.
While the solution to these problems may not be straightforward, the answer is: support those who have sacrificed so much for this country. Leaving soldiers without help, whether human or canine, is unacceptable. Considering the huge number of mostly-empty cargo planes flown back and forth by the military on a regular basis, there is simply no excuse not to include MWD’s on those flights. And failing to provide medical treatment or benefits to soldiers once they are no longer on active duty is an atrocity that cannot continue to go unanswered. It is high time the military steps up and takes care of its soldiers, whether two or four-legged. Again I ask, can they truly ignore their veterans in need? And from the politicians and our current government, their answer is clear: yes we can.