Poodles Against Hitler: A Canine Unit for World War II
Despite the success that European countries had with the dogs used during World War I, the U.S. government had never proceeded with organizing a canine unit for the military. When the country heard the news of what happened at Pearl Harbor, one woman was galvanized to take action.
Alene Stern Erlanger (1894-1969) was a well-respected dog expert and the owner Pillicoc Kennels, specializing in poodle breeding. Erlanger immediately contacted Arthur Kilbon, a writer at the New York Sun who frequently wrote about dogs, saying: “The dog must play a game in this thing. Other countries have used dogs in their Armies for years and ours has not. Just think what dogs can do guarding forts, munition plants, and other such places.”
That was just the beginning of her involvement. She soon enlisted the backing of the American Kennel Club, which gave both verbal and financial support to Dogs for Defense, the organization she formed.
Erlanger quickly involved Henry Stoecker, who was a second generation dog trainer who had emigrated from Germany in the 1920’s. In Germany, his family had trained dogs for military and police work. After arriving in the U.S., he bought a poodle from Pillicoc, so Erlanger was able to observe what he accomplished with her dog. She soon hired him to be her kennel manager.
Dogs for Defense had promised 25,000 dogs to the Army, and Mrs. Erlanger put Stoecker in charge of some of the early dogs donated. (Nine of her own poodles were placed with the military, but her champion dog, Rumpelstiltskin, did not serve; he was deemed too temperamental.)
A key element of the training involved working with the men who were going to be with the dogs, so when Stoecker started the training school at Erlanger’s Pillicoc Kennels, military police were the among the first to be assigned to attend classes and learn to work with the dogs. The men were initially skeptical of “the ‘exotic breeds,’ particularly the Poodles, these men soon learned that even such ‘Park Avenue’ pets were he-men at heart,” reported The Saturday Evening Post (September 5, 1942).
Poodles during the War
A few weeks after the training had commenced, eight show dogs were turned over to Brigadier General Phillip S. Gage, who was in charge of harbor defenses of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Though private companies manufacturing war supplies had taken early graduates of the canine program this was the first group to go to a military installation. The dogs were presented by Alene Erlanger and consisted of “three black poodles, two Dalmatians, an Airedale, a German shepherd and an Afghan hound.”
Poodles were instrumental in getting the Dogs for Defense program started. They were primarily used in sentry positions in the United States rather than being placed on the battlefield overseas. “This breed has unusual ability to learn and retain and keen senses. A drawback is a rapidly-growing coat, [they] never shed, and it requires constant cutting to prevent its becoming matted.” It was also noted that they were essentially a friendly dog, which could be problematic. (For an incredible amount of information about poodles in history, please refer to The Poodle History project.) And for more specifics on poodles during World War II, please see: “Poodles in WWII,” by Suzanne Carter Isaacson.
While today this may seem like a less important job, at the time, it was considered absolutely vital to home security. Two groups of German spies had been captured within the United States (one group on Long Island, the other in Florida) and these incidents, in addition to Pearl Harbor, meant that citizens were very concerned about homeland safety.
Erlanger Serves as a Civilian Consultant
As a civilian consultant to the Quartermaster General, 1942-45, Erlanger laid the groundwork for the K-9 corps, wrote training manuals, and supervised dog training programs. She was awarded the “Exceptional Civilian Service Award” by the government in 1945.
In addition to being considered one of the world’s leading judges of dogs of all breeds, she was also the author of Pet Poodle, a manual (1954). She was co-owner, with her husband textile manufacturer Milton Erlanger, of Woodside Stables and also had a large aviary. She was treasurer of the International Council on Bird Preservation and active in other conservation groups.
Alene Erlanger died on June 26, 1969.