K9 CorpsUpdated: March 31, 2020
Dogs and soldiers have long been associated with one another and the United States military is no exception. Such partnerships have traditionally included both companionship and mission-related work for both humans and canines, but it wasn’t until the Second World War that this partnership become official.
What is this special relationship between dogs and service members and how have dogs become more than mascots and protectors for our troops?
A Brief Worldwide History Of Military Dogs
Soldiers have partnered with dogs for combat purposes as early as 7 B.C. when it was recorded that Ephesians fighting against Magnesia employed war dogs to break enemy ranks before launching an attack with horsemen and spearmen.
Polyaenus writes about dogs used as psychological warfare in Stratagems; dogs were used against the Egyptians specifically because of their reverence for animals in general. In at least one case, dogs were used as a fighting force without any human support at all; Bituito, king of the Arverni, is said to have attacked a group of Roman soldiers using only dogs in the offensive.
There are many other instances of troops and dogs working together, but among the most significant? The World War One era. According to a published report by The Guardian, Germany alone used roughly 30,000 dogs in the World War. Dogs were used to deliver messages, medicine, and even to comfort dying troops.
All of this was, at least until the 20th century onward, subject to varying degrees of formality. World War Two would bring dogs into a more formal position within the military. Companions and helpers they have always been, but official recognition of service dogs would happen thanks to the start of WW2.
A History Of American Military Service Dogs
The World War Two era saw the United States military contemplating a partnership with a civilian organization known as Dogs For Defense. In 1942, this private group formed thanks to the efforts of members belonging to the American Kennel Club and similar interests.
One Lieutenant Colonel Clifford C. Smith, got word of this, and called a meeting with his boss at the Plant Protection Branch, Inspection Division, Quartermaster Corps, to discuss the idea of the U.S. Army using dogs trained by the Kennel Club as sentry dogs at U.S. supply depots. The result of this meeting? The creation of an experimental K-9 Corps to train and deploy dogs for the first time in a formal way.
Come August 1942, the nation had a variety of dog training centers established by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps:
- Front Royal, VA
- Fort Robinson, NE
- Cat Island, MS
- Camp Rimini, MT
- San Carlos, CA
The program began training more than 30 breeds, but in two years time the list was pared down to seven dog breeds:
- German Shepherds
- Doberman Pinschers
- Belgian Sheep Dogs
- Siberian Huskies
- Farm Collies
- “Eskimo dogs”
The dogs would be screened for training by the Dogs For Defense group. Ten thousand of 18,000 candidate dogs failed the screening for reasons that include sensitivity to gunfire, poor temperament or socialization, or poor vision/hearing/sense of smell.
Dogs weren’t the only ones getting training from the Quartermaster Corps. Handlers had to be educated in the ways of military working dogs. By March of 1944, there were war dog platoons deploying to the Europe and Pacific theaters.
There were experimental efforts to use K-9 dogs to retrieve wounded soldiers, K9 dogs led patrols and recon missions, and further wartime uses and advantages of military dogs were explored.
One military working dog even earned some of the highest military awards–briefly. A dog named Chips served in the Army 3rd Infantry Division. Chips attacked an enemy machine gun position in Italy, forcing the gunner crew to surrender. Chips was wounded in battle, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
These were later revoked due to official policy forbidding issuing such awards to animals.
The Quartermaster Corps would ultimately hand off responsibility for what later became known as K9 Corps dogs, K-9 Working Dogs, or simply military working dogs. Security Forces would take over responsibility for the dogs and since have served in many major conflicts including Vietnam, Korea, and the raid which killed terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden.
Military Working Dogs In Modern Times
The military working dog plays an important role in contemporary warfare, especially where individual units and troops are concerned about unexploded ordnance, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), drug interdiction, and other missions that need keen sniffers.
The official site for the American Kennel Club includes an article from 2018 quoting from the work of Army Public Affairs representative Jon Michael Connor, who interviewed William Cronin, director for the American K9 for Afghanistan and Mali, West Africa.
Cronin says, “There’s no substitute for the detection of a dog. There’s no machine built yet that can reciprocate what a dog can do.”
But military working dogs in the 21st century have not been used without controversy. There have been issues and concerns raised by the use of military dogs as an intimidation tactic when interviewing or interrogating prisoners of war in Abu Grhraib and Guantanamo Bay (and elsewhere), and then there is the final disposition of the dogs once they are done with military duty.
Some sources report that at one time military working dogs were thought of as “expendable equipment” and may have been euthanized once their service was complete. Some military dogs sent on duty to Vietnam during the war era never came home for this reason.
Fortunately, veteran dog handlers managed to successfully lobby Congress to pass legislation permitting the adoption of military working dogs instead. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the bill allowing the adoption of military working dogs, ending questions about past practices and giving future military working dogs a clear career and life cycle that ends with loving homes for those who adopt these hard-working animals.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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