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War Dogs' devoted service spans globe, history, hearts

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Brandon L. Rizzo
  • 916th Air Refueling Wing
"He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion."
-- Author Unknown

Many scientists believe wild wolves were first domesticated in Southwest Asia approximately 12-15,000 years ago. Since then, the fundamental role played by canines in human society has only increased.

Societies spanning the globe throughout history have adopted dogs as guides, sentries, messengers, scouts, companions and heroes. In more recent times, they have even been television stars. The names "Old Yeller" and "Lassie" have been staples in American homes for generations and have come to symbolize the love and devotion of "man's best friend."

When you combine these details with the fact that dogs' auditory and olfactory senses are thousands of times superior to those of humans, it makes sense that any soldier would want a dog by his side in a high-risk environment.

Military working dogs have served faithfully as sentries, scouts and patrol dogs. They've done mine, bomb and narcotics detection. They have been messenger dogs and casualty dogs in combat zones all over the world. They have even been trained for parachute landings.

They have been attributed with saving countless lives by locating casualties on the battlefield where minutes and seconds could mean the difference between life and death. Their keen sense of smell has been credited with detecting enemy presences as far as 1,000 yards away; thwarting countless potential ambushes.

A deer will not catch the scent of a hunter in a tree stand, but dogs have saved numerous men on combat patrols by warning them of well-camouflaged snipers perched high above ground, among the foliage of the trees.

Stories have been told about communication lines being severed, and these faithful, four-legged soldiers coming to the rescue by transporting critical messages between units. They were even used to carry wires from one post to another, allowing units to reestablish communication. Their swiftness and ability to use cover made them hard targets.

"War Dogs, America's Forgotten Heroes," a Discovery Channel documentary, speaks of dogs detecting and warning soldiers of booby traps when the trip wires were barely - if at all - visible to the naked eye. In fact, these War Dogs were so effective in defense against the enemy, that the North Vietnamese Army put a price on their heads.

Though dogs have been used in combat for thousands of years, the "official" saga of the American military working dog began on March 13, 1942. The Under Secretary of War, the Honorable Robert P. Patterson, signed an official authorization letter allowing the Army Quartermaster Corps to begin training canine recruits. These dogs were officially known as "War Dogs." Though the term was used for decades, it can be argued that it did not create an accurate depiction of the assortment duties the dogs assumed in and out of combat.

A more commonly known term, "K-9," is believed to have been coined around this same time. Due to a combination of its phonetic likeness to "canine" and the military practice of labeling departments with letters and numbers, such as S-1 or G-2, the term was generally accepted. It has since become the official title for many American military and law enforcement canine units.

Initially, it was thought that only about 200 dogs would be needed for the War Dog training program. However, by the end of 1942, the program was expanded to acquire and train dogs for the Navy and Coast Guard as well. By 1945, approximately 10,000 dogs had been trained for duty.

The need for military working dogs during World War II became so crucial that American citizens were encouraged to loan their own family pets as a means of contributing to the war effort.

Initially, more than 30 breeds were accepted into the program. Eventually, it was narrowed down to German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Farm Collies and Giant Schnauzers, according to the Quartermaster War Dog Program website. A greater variety of breeds is used today due to the increased diversity of the military's needs.

Following WWII, many of the War Dogs were rehabilitated to adapt back to civilian life and were returned to their original owners with honorable discharges.

This was not the case following the Vietnam War, however. Despite having prevented an estimated 10,000 casualties during the war, most of the dogs were declared nothing more than "surplus armaments" upon their return from combat, according to the website. They were subsequently euthanized by the U.S. government.

Veteran dog handlers voiced a chorus of disapproval and demanded recognition for the unwavering service of their canine counterparts.

Since then, a number of War Dog memorials have been constructed. In 1994, a memorial was dedicated at the U.S. Marine Corps War Dog Cemetery in the Territory of Guam, an island in the Western Pacific Ocean. This memorial honors a Doberman Pinscher named Kurt, and 25 other Dobermans who sacrificed their lives in the battle for Guam. Kurt saved the lives of 250 Marines when he warned them of the presence of Japanese troops. The University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine has an exact replica of this memorial.

Other War Dog memorials include one located at March Air Force Base, Calif., and another at Fort Benning, Ga. Each memorial is a 19-foot tall bronze statue portraying a dog and its handler, wearing Vietnam-era combat gear. The inscription reads, "They protected us on the field of battle. They watch over our eternal rest. We are grateful."

Military working dogs have performed various selfless duties for the U.S. military in countless peacetime operations, as well as every major conflict from WWII to the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They continue to faithfully serve and help to protect military police and other security forces. 

More than 400 military dogs have been killed in action since WWII.