American Dogs in the Military

The news that a dog had been an important member of the team that brought down Osama Bin Laden in the spring of 2011 highlighted the vital role dogs have played in our military. Dogs have saved countless lives, and they have been an important addition to U.S. fighting strategies. Over the remaining weeks of the “Dog Days of Summer,” I will profile several of these heroic animals, but today I want to take a look back.

As it happens, the American military did not have an official program to put dogs to use until World War II when a training program was started by the marines. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t dogs on the battlefield in earlier conflicts involving Americans.

Throughout history, people the world over had used dogs in various capacities. Some were trained to attack; others served as sentries; some were used to pull small or mid-sized carts; and some were taught to carry messages. Later on, dogs became important in tracking explosives.

During World War I, Americans witnessed countless uses of dogs by other nations. Trench warfare, used during the Great War, made dogs particularly helpful to military units. The dogs worked as sentries, messengers, and “mercy dogs.”

Because the soldiers were assigned to trenches and this was before radio communication, those behind the lines did not necessarily know how the men were faring. The Red Cross used Casualty Dogs, called “mercy dogs” to help both with news and with rescue. If a soldier was wounded, a dog might carry back an item from the solider to let those behind know that help was needed. Dogs were also used to pull conveyances carrying wounded soldiers. (Dogs were easier to keep and to feed than horses, and because they were smaller, they were less likely to be a target.)

For the casualty dog program, the Red Cross accepted many breeds of dogs–bulldogs, retrievers, Airedale terriers, sheepdogs, and German shepherds. Mixed breeds as well as purebreds were just as helpful. According to Michael G. Lemish’s excellent book, War Dogs, A History of Loyalty and Heroism, the Red Cross wrote that it was about the character of the dog, not the breed.

Dogs Carrying Messages
A foot runner with a message was in a high-risk position of being captured or killed, so using dogs for carrying messages held a lot of promise. Dogs were four to five times faster than a foot soldier, and they could travel with less likelihood of being spotted. Some dogs carried “saddle bags” containing carrier pigeons that could then travel back with a return message. Others wore canisters in which messages could be placed for delivery.

Training a dog for canister-carrying involved identifying a dog who could be loyal to two masters. The dog would be expected to leave one master and search out the other master, delivering the message to the new location. (By World War II, radio communications had made messenger dogs less necessary, although they were still used occasionally in remote areas.)

The Americans were so impressed by how canines were used by other countries during the war years that the oldest memorial to war dogs dates to 1923 and was built to honor the dogs of World War I. The memorial is located in the pet cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Next week we will read about Sergeant Stubby, a pit bull who became a U.S. mascot for soldiers during World War I.

To read about the Marine program to train dogs for the military, see “Memorial Day: Remember All Who Have Served.”

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