Dogs are commonly called “man’s best friend,” so it’s not surprising that they are great companions for U.S. service members on the battlefield. In light of National Dog Day, now is the perfect time to learn more about the history of military working dogs (MWD).
During World War II, a group called Dogs for Defense was established after the attack on Pearl Harbor to train dogs for service in the U.S. Army, Navy, and Coast Guard. Over 10,000 dogs were trained, with many dogs donated by their owners. Since 1958, the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas has been tasked with training MWDs. These specially trained dogs provide assistance to our service members in patrol, drug and explosive detection, and specialized mission functions for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. Today, approximately 2,500 MWDs are in active service, with about 700 deployed overseas.
The canine sense of smell is uniquely suited for a dog to detect faint odors and identify slight differences in chemical composition. This ability makes dogs ideal for tracking, detection of explosives or narcotics, locating the wounded and search and rescue missions.
Some of the most common roles for MWDs include:
Early on in World War II, MWDs came from as many 30 different breeds but were later narrowed down to German Shepherds, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Farm Collies (short coat) and Giant Schnauzers. Now, MWDs are typically German and Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinois because of their aggressiveness, intellect, loyalty and athletic ability. Exceptions to the rule are Retrievers, which are used for odor detection, and Alaskan Malamutes and Huskies, which are trained for arctic duty as sled dogs.
Perhaps the most famous MWD was an American Pit Bull Terrier named Stubby — the only dog ever given the rank of sergeant. Found on the York campus in 1917 and brought to France during World War I, Stubby participated in 17 battles and served in various functions, including warning his unit of poison gas attacks and incoming artillery fire. His exemplary senses helped find wounded soldiers on the battlefield and spies in the trenches.
During World War II, a Collie–German Shepherd–Siberian Husky mix named Chips participated in combat in Germany, France, North Africa and Sicily. Chips was the most decorated dog of that war and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart and Silver Star. Unfortunately, military policy kept Chips from actually receiving these commendations. Chips most notable feats were an assault on an Italian machine-gun nest and taking captive 10 enemy Italian soldiers.
In more recent history, a dog made headlines as the only member of the super-secret SEAL DevGru unit to be identified by name after taking part in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, played a key role as the four-man SEAL team secured the perimeter and six other members of the SEAL team entered the location in Abbottabad, according to a story in The New Yorker that detailed the event.
After a MWD has completed its service, the dog is sometimes made available for adoption. According to Title 10 U.S. Code 2583, priority for adoption is given first to civilian law enforcement agencies, then to prior handlers and finally to the general public. Most MWDs are adopted by their last handler. However, there are some dogs that are eligible to be adopted by the general public.