The Impact of America’s War Dogs

May marked two important holidays for the United States military: Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day. So that got us thinking about America’s rich military history, and how our four-legged friends have remained man’s best friend, even while serving their country in dog-sized camo-colored uniforms.  

While the United States Armed Forces got its start defending a juvenile nation against the British Empire in 1775, it has progressed to intervening against ISIL (or ISIS) in the Middle East. In fact, military strategy and defense has evolved so much that it now depends on our canine companions to carry out important tasks, even in the trenches of war. Today, there are roughly 2,500 military dogs stationed around the world, according to the U.S. War Dogs Association (WDA), and dogs and their handlers act as scouts, messengers, trackers, rescuers, and booby-trap detectors, among other duties, and have been deployed to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Korea, Kosovo, Panama, Persian Gulf, and Vietnam.

Clearly, military working dogs have had an enormous impact in modern warfare. “These dogs are among our most effective counter measures against terrorists and explosives,” said Dr. Stewart Hilliard, chief of military war dog evaluation and breeding at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas—the training ground for all new pups—reports a November 2013 article in San Antonio Magazine.

But how did military dogs get their start? Historians say that militaries have used them since the Greek and Roman eras, when intimidating breeds, such as Molossus dogs (a Mastiff ancestor) were adorned in full armor and spiked collars before being sent into battle in attack formations, according to Even Attila the Hun (fifth century A.D.) used Molossus dogs to strike fear into his enemies. Other cultures, like the Irish used Irish Wolfhounds to unseat Norman invaders on horseback (12th century A.D.), while Frederick the Great used dogs as messengers during the Seven Years’ War (1756 to 1763).

In the U.S., dogs have been assisting the military since World War I, adds the WDA. One of the first doggy American heroes was a Boston bull terrier named Stubby. Among his many heroics, Stubby located wounded men between the trenches and barked until paramedics would arrive, and once he even caught a German spy by biting him on his legs until he tripped and fell, notes the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. For capturing the spy, he was the first dog to become a Sergeant in the U.S. Armed Forces. By the end of the war, Sergeant Stubby had been in 17 battles.

More recently, a Belgian Malinois named Cairo assisted the United States Navy SEALs in Operation Neptune Spear, in which Osama bin Laden was killed. Cairo helped secure bin Laden’s compound during the mission, notes a May 2011 article in The Seattle Times.

To honor the service and sacrifice of all military dogs, including the likes of Stubby and Cairo, Lackland’s  Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program, which is the world’s largest military dog training program, constructed a U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument in October 2013. The granite and bronze monument features the military’s four prominent dog breeds, Doberman pinscher, German shepherd, Labrador retriever, and Belgian Malinois, accompanied by a soldier to honor the military dog handlers as well.

"As a nation we owe our war dogs a tremendous debt of gratitude," said John Burnam, a former Vietnam scout dog handler and author of two military working dogs books, in a press release. "Their selfless service, loyalty and sacrifices to our country must never be forgotten. The U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument is a treasure for us all to ensure they are honored and remembered forever."

We couldn’t agree more. Thank you to all of our service members, past and present, two- and four-legged and everything in between.