• Exploring American History

Not all war heroes are human

From biblical times to the present, dogs have proven to be man’s best friend in numerous ways. They offer companionship to the lonely, provide eyes for the blind and ears for the deaf, herd sheep, sniff out game birds and go to war.


Giant Molossian dogs from which the mastiff would descend, and Talbots, forerunners of the bloodhound, were used by Atilla the Hun in his campaigns. Napoleon posted dogs at the gates of Alexandria in Egypt as sentries. The French Navy used attack dogs in the early part of the 14th century to guard naval docks. During the Civil War, dogs acted as mascots, messengers and guards.


Since World War I, American soldiers have taken their best friends with them into the heat of battle and as a result, survived in many situations where they would have otherwise perished were it not for their beloved canine companions. During the Vietnam conflict, it is believed between 3,747 and 4,900 dogs served in the military. 204 came home. Of the dogs who served in Vietnam: 65% served with the Army, 26% Air Force, 7% Marine Corps and 2% were with the Navy. Military estimates believe the dogs and handlers saved over 10,000 lives.


When dogs first began to be used in the military, a diverse selection of breeds played a part in serving their country. In time though, the breeds were scaled back to the German Shepherd Dog (GSD) and the Doberman. Labradors were later added to the group and eventually nuzzled out the Doberman. The GSD remained the most popular; so much so they are immediately thought of when the term ‘war dog’ is heard (though the true term is ‘military dog’).


Military dogs normally serve in one of four different specialties: 1) scout, 2) combat tracker, 3) sentry and 4) mine/booby/tunnel.


Scout dogs are normally GSDs, teamed with a handler. When requested, the team joins with an infantry unit and become the unit’s “eyes and ears.” The pair will walk “point” (out in front) on the lookout for booby traps, wires, ambushes, snipers, etc.


First breed choice of a combat tracker team is the Labrador Retriever, though GSDs rank second. This team consists of the dog, his handler, a cover man, visual tracker and team leader. Tracker teams mimic the behavior of old Indian Scouts, except the Indians normally did not have a dog. They are sent out to find missing personnel such as downed pilots or wounded GIs, along with the enemy.


During the Vietnam conflict, sentry dogs were found within all branches of the U.S. military and were connected with the military police units. The teams, composed of a GSD and handler, “walk the wire” with the handler notifying base when the dog is alerted to a situation. 99% of the sentry’s work is accomplished after dark, with the mission statement, Detect, Detain and Destroy.


A mine dog team consists of a GSD and handler connected with the Marine Corps or Army and supports both infantry and combat engineer operations. This team searches out bobby-traps, tripwires, mines and tunnels, along with any other casualty producing device. They also search for enemy stockpiles of arms and supplies.


On September 15, 1918, Corporal Lee Duncan was stationed in Lorraine, France. As he and his battalion checked out a war dog kennel which was recently bombed, the only survivors found were a GSD named Betty des Flandres and her litter of five puppies, sired by Fritz de la Chasse Royale. Corporal Duncan chose a male and female puppy for himself, with the mother and remaining pups taken to battalion headquarters. In the end, the pups adopted by Duncan were the only survivors. Duncan named his puppies after tiny French puppets which were given to American soldiers for good luck. He named the male Rintintin and the female Nenette.


After the war, Duncan was able to make arrangements to ship the dogs to the United States. During the 15-day voyage to New York, Nenette became ill with distemper and later died. Rinny went on to become a famous film star that saved a fledgling movie studio belonging to the Warner Brothers from bankruptcy. After Rin Tin Tin died, Duncan returned him to France for burial in the Cimetiere des Chiens, a renowned pet cemetery in the Parisian suburb of Asieres sur Seine.


Chips, assigned to the 3d Military Police Platoon, 3d Infantry Division, was one of the first dogs to serve overseas during World War II with the military police (MPs). He was a mixed breed with his bloodline donations coming from Shepherds, Collies and Huskies. The assignments he completed included sentry duty, tank guard dog, POW guard and patrolling with the infantry. All total, he served in eight separate campaigns across Europe.


Smokey was probably the smallest military dog. A little four-pound Yorkie Doodle Dandy, Smoky was found by Ed Downey in a foxhole in the New Guinea jungle. Ed, not a dog fancier himself, gave Smoky to Sgt. Dare. Sgt. Dare then sold Smoky to Bill Wynne for two Australian pounds ($6.44 American) to raise money for the local poker game. Smoky became Wynne’s constant companion and served in 12 combat missions, for which she was awarded eight battle stars and named by YANK magazine as “Champion Mascot of the Southwest Pacific Area in 1944.”


According to General David H. Petraeus, war dogs of today not only bring to the table their keen sensory perception, they also offer an ability to fight in a way that cannot be replicated by either machine or man. The dogs which team with the US Navy SEALs are equipped with a special weapon all their own – ‘titanium fangs’. At a cost of approximately $2,000/tooth, these fangs are capable of ripping through an enemy’s protective armor.


When the SEALs teamed with the 160th SOAR Night Stalkers to go after Osama bin Laden, a four-legged warrior went with them. Trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX, the Belgian Malinois was strapped to one of the SEALs and lowered from the hovering helicopter. The dogs used by the SEALs are trained in one of three ways – patrol, explosives and combat tracker.


As with soldiers, dogs who survive their enlistment eventually need to retire from military service. In the past, a good many of these brave beasts were euthanized when they were unable to continue with their duties due to age or disabilities. Nowadays, the adoption demands for retired military dogs far surpass the number of dogs available at any one time. Many of those still capable of working go into law enforcement with various police and sheriff K-9 units. A number of the dogs belonging to handlers leaving the military have been adopted by the handlers if the dog is also ready for retirement.

Following the end of World War I, public opinion rapidly grew in favor of having a monument constructed to recognize the brave efforts of some 7,000 canines who served during the war.

The first of these was erected at Hartsdale Canine Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Sculpted by Robert Caterson, the monument was designed by Walter A. Buttendorf, who modeled the figure from a dog who passed by his office on a daily basis with his owner. Casterson used 10 tons of granite from his own Vermont quarry for the base and topped it with the bronze statue of a handsome German Shepherd Dog with a Red Cross blanket draped over his back. Erected in 1923, the monument’s unveiling was attended by representatives from every nation who had fought in the Great War.

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