Military Dogs: From Warrior to Specialist


War Dog Photo Album

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jorge Davila and his military working dog Kibo at a traffic control point in Tikrit, Iraq in 2006. Photo by U.S. Army Spc. Teddy Wade.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jorge Davila and working dog Kibo at a traffic control point in Tikrit, Iraq in 2006 while attached to the 101st Airborne Division. Photo by U.S. Army Spc. Teddy Wade.

Throughout history, dogs have been used as front-line attackers, scouts, sentries, trackers, messengers, unit mascots, and much more. Whereas some were once bred for fighting – the now extinct Molossus dog may have been specifically trained for battle – modern weapons have relegated canines to support roles where their keen senses can assist accompanying troops.

According to this Mirror article on the 16 million animals that served in World War I, about 20,000 dogs spent the war pulling equipment, standing guard, and carrying messages. Of these, Rags – a French stray adopted as a messenger dog and mascot of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division – and Sgt. Stubby – the mascot of the U.S. 102nd Infantry Regiment and the most decorated dog of the war – are the most well-known.

Dogs continued to be used during World War II as armies on both sides employed them in a variety of ways.

There were reports of the Japanese Army using attack dogs during the Battle of Okinawa, and the U.S. used dog teams to perform many tasks, including laying communication wires, detecting mines, and pulling sleds. The Germans had a strong affinity for dogs and research by Dr. Jan Bondeson published in 2011 shows the Nazis attempted to train dogs to talk, read, and spell at the Hundesprechschule Asra (dog speaking school of Asra).

The Soviet Union in 1924 approved the use of dogs in war, and while Soviet dogs (like those used elsewhere) served a number of purposes, it was their role as anti-tank weapons that gained the most notoriety.

A display of a dog with a backpack mine. It was expected to pull the cord next to its mouth and drop the bomb before returning to its handler.

A display of a dog with a backpack mine. It was expected to pull the cord next to its mouth and drop the timed or remote-controlled explosive before returning to its handler.

According to this article, anti-tank mines are weak and inefficient because they are passive – they must wait for a tank to drive over them. Large minefields got better results, but were expensive and prevented any movement through the area – friend or foe.

So, the Soviets experimented with mobile mines.

At first, mines were chained together and given to soldiers who would attempt to pull them under tanks from a safe distance. While these soldiers could be easily killed by infantry during an attack, the article notes that this strategy was useful in ambushes.

The Russians then attempted to train dogs to carry explosives to an enemy tank or other target, pull a cord next to their mouth that would drop the timed bomb, then return to be reequipped. The article says that while this initially worked, as soon as the target changed or began to move, the dogs became confused and sometimes brought the explosives back to their handlers.

Scrapping the idea of multi-use anti-tank dogs, the Soviets developed a dog-portable backpack mine with a stick trigger, then trained dogs to run under tanks to find food. In battle, the dogs’ instinct for self-preservation won out over the need for food and they refused to run beneath moving tanks, some choosing to follow alongside them in the hope that they’d stop. Most of these were shot by the Germans. Others, terrified, hid, were lost, or returned to the Russians, where they were shot before they could accidentally detonate the mine.

A dog with a stick-trigger mine faces down a running Russian tank, presumably as part of its training.

A dog with a stick-trigger mine faces down a running Russian tank, presumably as part of its training. Using dogs in this way was not successful, but Russians trained them until 1996.

Though some of these dogs did manage to destroy or damage German tanks, the Soviets found them more useful for finding mines rather than laying them, with skilled dog teams capable of detecting every mine in a given area.

Failed dog programs with questionable ethics was not only a Soviet thing; the U.S. briefly tried to create a “dog army” that failed with no success and millions in wasted money.

According to Winston Groom‘s book “1942: The Year That Tried Men’s Souls,” William A. Prestre, a Swiss refugee living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, proposed using dogs to flush Japanese soldiers out of the numerous Pacific islands they controlled.

Declassified files of the U.S. Army Ground Forces in the U.S. National Archives show that Prestre requested at least 12 Japanese-Americans to be used as “bait” so the dogs could learn to attack only Japanese men (he at least requested that every precaution be taken to ensure the safety of these men).

Groom says that 25 Japanese-American enlisted men were selected and sent to Cat Island off the coast of Mississippi to assist with dog training. It was found that many dogs were terrified of gunfire and could not be controlled under battle conditions, while others were docile and didn’t want to attack. The program was scrapped.

The declassified documents emphasize complete secrecy because of the belief that using Japanese-Americans, even enlisted men, in such a fashion would cause “adverse public sentiment,” or result in poor treatment of American prisoners held by the Japanese. As such, Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair recommended against the use of Japanese-Americans, and if this was not possible, abandonment or simplification of the program.

A dog observes Lt. Mike Powell through a window in the Trondheim naval base.

A dog observes Lt. Mike Powell through a window in the Trondheim naval base.

In Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, guard dogs that appear to be German Shepherds (a breed used by many armed forces) are encountered during a number of missions. They’re typically posted with sentries (like those in Trondheim and along the Schmerzen railroad), but are at least once used in pursuit of Lt. Mike Powell.

They’re obviously much faster and smaller than enemy soldiers, which makes them hard to hit with anything other than an automatic weapon, and they deal heavy damage while attacking. They can see or hear Powell from long distances and often can’t be heard until they’re about to bite.

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~ by John on January 26, 2015.

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