The earliest recorded use of canines in combat was by Alyattes of Lydia against the Cimmerians around 600 BC.
Moreover, war dogs were used extensively by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and Atilla the Hun even used giant dogs in his campaigns.
Perhaps that’s why it comes as no surprise that military working dogs (MWD) play a vital role in the U.S. military, and as warfare has evolved, so has the their role.
Modern war dogs are trained to sniff out bombs and drugs, track people and even attack when necessary. They’re like living, four-legged Swiss Army knives…
But that’s not all:
#23 – There are about 2,500 war dogs in service today, with about 700 serving at any given time overseas.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kevin Reese and his military working dog Grek wait at a safe house before conducting an assault against insurgents in Buhriz, Iraq, April 10, 2007. (Photo: Stacy Pearsall)
#22 – Dogs have fought alongside American forces in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, but only officially since WWII.
Photo: Marine Corps University
Although the practice of using dogs to augment military forces dates back to ancient Greece, no military in history has used them as extensively, or as effectively as the United States.
Dogs have served in combat alongside US soldiers during every major conflict since the birth of the nation, but they were not officially recognized until World War II.
Dogs were mostly used as message carriers and sentries during the first few conflicts but nowadays, they’re trained to perform a wide-range of highly-specialized tasks.
#21 – Puppy development specialist is a real job.
The U.S. military actually has puppy development specialists.
They work with the carefully-selected puppies from the time they’re born until they begin their training at around 6-7 months of age.
They help them develop basic social skills and help get the puppies ready for the jobs they will perform later in life.
Not a bad gig, right?
#20 – During WWII, the USMC planned to use dogs to invade Japan
PFC John Kleeman and his MWD Caesar of the1st Marine War Dog Platoon.
The United States Marine Corps officially began its war dog program in 1942 and during WWII, the Marine Corps trained and fielded the experimental dog units across the Pacific theater.
There was even a program that aimed to train a battalion of dogs to lead Marines in a possible amphibious assault on the Japanese mainland.
#19 – Many MWD’s have also been honored for their heroism
The most decorated war dog of World War II was a German Shepherd mix named Chips who saw action in Germany, France, North Africa, and Sicily, with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.
Trained as a sentry dog, Chips broke away from his handlers and attacked an enemy machine gun nest in Italy and forced ten enemy soldiers to surrender.
Chips was wounded in the fight and was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and the Purple Heart, all of which were later revoked due to an Army policy preventing official commendation of animals.
#18 – Some even became celebrities
In WWI, a pitbull named Stubby, who started his life as a stray, became the most decorated War Dog in history by saving an entire company from a serin gas attack.
Sergeant Stubby fought in several campaigns, was wounded twice, and saved countless lives.
He went to the White House twice, met three presidents, and in 1921, American General “Black Jack” Pershing personally pinned a medal on the dog’s jacket.
Sergeant Stubby’s remains are still on display at the Smithsonian.
#17 – And some defected
Rin Tin Tin and his owner Lee Duncan
Rin Tin Tin was another famous working dog from WWI.
You may know Rin Tin Tin from his illustrious movie career, but the German shepherd started off as a German war dog, before being rescued from the battlefield by an American soldier named Lee Duncan.
Duncan adopted the abandoned German shepherd and after the war, brought Rin Tin Tin back to the U.S., where the canine became a famous movie star.
#16 – The Marine Corps’ first official mascot was also the USMC’s highest-ranking war dog
The first mascot of the USMC was an English Bulldog named Jiggs.
Jiggs enlisted in the Marines in 1922 and quickly climbed through the ranks, attaining the rank of Sergeant Major in 1925.
Sgt. Maj. Jiggs died in 1928 and his death was mourned throughout the Marine Corps.
#15 – 85% of military working dogs are purchased from Germany and the Netherlands
The vast majority of military working dogs are purchased from countries like Germany and the Netherlands where dogs have been purposely-bred for military service for hundreds of years.
This practice has allowed breeders to select ideal traits, such as the appropriate balance of aggressiveness, playfulness, intelligent disobedience and tenacity and breed world-famous working canine lines.
#14 – An average career for a MWD spans 8-9 years
#13 – Over 90% of retired MWD’s are adopted by their former handlers
LCPL Jared Heine and his MWD “Spike”. The pair was separated when Heine was injured by an IED in 2011 but three years later, they were reunited. (Photo: CertaPet)
When a MWD retires, the canine’s handler is given the option to adopt.
If the handler is unable or unwilling to take the animal in, the Department of Defense helps the dogs find willing families, and between 2012-2014, the DoD adopted out 1,312 dogs to individuals and 252 to law enforcement agencies..
#12 – They aren’t all German Shepherds
When we think about military dogs, muscular German Shepherds tend to come to mind. But several different breeds have shown patriotic heroism over the years.
Many branches use the highly trainable Labrador Retriever. The elite US Navy SEALS use the Belgian Malinois, a breed similar to the German Shepherd, but smaller.
These dogs are incredibly compact and fast with a sense of smell 40 times greater than that of a human. Their small stature make them ideal for parachuting and repelling missions with their handlers.
#11 – Only about 50% make it through training.
Military working dog candidates must undergo a very thorough and selective assessment before being chosen.
It’s true that working dogs need to have an extremely keen sense of smell, but they must also be highly reward-motivated and must also be free of physical issues like hip dysplasia.
Suitable dogs for military service must also be able to attack on command. In fact, many puppies have been disqualified from the program due to exhibiting extreme stress at having to bite a human.
Military dogs must have a fine balance of aggression and excitability.
#10 – They do it all for the Kong
War dogs are selected for military service based in part on their love of a ball or a Kong dog toy, which can be hidden to simulate a bomb or drugs.
A miltary working dog has to really, really want the Kong in order to be selected because this reward is going to be part of their “paycheck” for years to come (a handler’s heartfelt praise is the other half).
The dog’s love of the Kong is absolutely crucial in motivating the animal to work as hard as it needs to in order to save lives in combat.
#9 – They’re the ultimate psychiatrists.
They study us, observe us, and they smell even minute changes in our very chemistry.
They learn to predict us. And they seem to know when their people are having a bad day.
There’s a saying among handlers of military working dogs:
“Everything runs down-leash.”
#8 – The dogs, like their military counterparts, often find service in law enforcement after retiring from military service
Photo: Bedford PD
#7 – They mourn the loss of their handler and vice versa
Staff Sgt. Thomas Sager carries the body of Dinomt, a dog killed by an IED while on patrol in Kandahar. His death spared the lives of nearby soldiers. “It’s like losing a teammate,” says Major Hux (at left). (Photo: Adam Ferguson)
In her book War Dogs, Rebecca Frankel illustrates the unspeakable bond that develops between a working dogs and their handlers.
One such pair was Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Ashley and his canine Sirius.
They were the number one team during their initial training but tragically, LCPL Ashley was killed by an IED just two months after deploying to Afghanistan.
Sirius refused to take commands from his new handler and showed significant signs of agitation at the loss of his partner.
Such stories are all too common among canine and handler teams.
If a dog of war is lost in combat, he or she is honored by the entire squad. Feeding dishes are symbolically placed upside down and a poem called Guardians of the Night is read in their honor.
#6 – They can get PTSD.
A black Lab named Eli comforts Kathy Rusk at the Texas gravesite of her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Colton Rusk, killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Colton and Eli worked together in IED detection. Kathy and her husband later adopted Eli and put a small statue of a Lab on the grave. (Photo: Adam Ferguson)
Just like our human veterans, military working dogs are susceptible to the horrors of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Until last year, Canine PTSD wasn’t officially recognized by the military, but now that it is, it’s being taken very seriously.
Symptoms of Canine PTSD include hypervigilance, increased startle response, attempts to run away or escape, withdrawal, changes in rapport with a handler, and problems performing trained tasks – like a bomb dog who just can’t focus on sniffing out bombs any more.
As with humans, some dogs can go to hell and back and simply shrug it off, whereas others are profoundly affected by less.
#5 – They’re extremely valuable, and not just for their service.
Rangers from 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment and a multi-purpose canine pause during a nighttime combat mission in Afghanistan.
According to retired Air Force K9 Handler, Louis Robinson, a fully-trained bomb detection canine is likely worth over $150,000.
With an average of 98% accuracy in detecting bombs and drugs, others would argue that these animals are priceless.
#4 – Some dogs are trained to jump from planes and rappel from helicopters
These extremely resilient, super-high-drive dogs are specially procured and trained by military contractors, not the DOD’s Military Working Dog program.
Some join their human partners in parachute jumps from planes, others rappel with their handlers from helicopters.
#3 – Some even fight alongside elite Special Operations units
Specially-trained military working dogs called Multi-Purpose Canines (MPCs) are use in elite Special Operations teams, such as the Navy Seals.
Although they’re only a tiny subset of military dogs, MPCs serve extremely important roles, such as Cairo, the Belgian Malinois who accompanied SEALTeam Six in their raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound.
#2 – Until November 2000, military working dogs were euthanized or abandoned after retirement
Before President Clinton passed “Robby’s Law” in 2000, military working dogs were considered “military surplus equipment” and deemed unfit to adjust to civilian life.
This meant that once the military could no longer use a canine, it was either released or euthanized instead of honored.
After “Robby’s Law” was passed, handlers and their families got first dibs at adopting military animals at the completion of their service.
#1 – Every military working dog is a noncommissioned officer – in tradition at least.
Some say the custom was to prevent handlers from mistreating their dogs; hence, a dog is always one rank higher than its handler.
We offer a sincere thank you to all of nation’s veterans, both two and four-legged alike!
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