“The guard dog was incorruptible; the police dog dependable; the messenger dog reliable. The human watchman might be bought; not so the dog. The soldier sentinel might fall asleep; never the dog. The battlefield runner might fail … but not the dog, to his last breath would follow the line of duty.”
-Ernest Harold Baynes, Animal Heroes of the Great War
A Military War Dog, or Military Working Dog (MWD), is a canine that has been trained to protect humans in dangerous situations, and March 13 has been unofficially designated as a day to honor these unique members of the military.
K9 Veterans Day will be observed on Sunday, March 13th, 2022.
A Brief History of Military Working Dogs
Dogs have been part of military campaigns for centuries. Documentation of their use during wartime dates as far back as the mid-7th century BCE.
During WWI, the US military began to utilize dogs for message delivery between troops. The need for military dogs became so great that American families began to donate their dogs to the war effort. It has been estimated that approximately 1,000,000 dogs were killed in action during the war. During the war, dogs were reported to have performed acts of bravery and heroism during combat. One such dog was Sergeant Stubby.
Sergeant Stubby was purported to be both the most decorated war dog of WWI, and the only dog to be nominated and promoted to the rank of sergeant through combat. Stubby was smuggled overseas by Corporal Robert Conroy. He served with Corporal Conroy and the 102nd Infantry Regiment for a total of 18 months.
During this time, Stubby participated in four offensives and 17 battles. Though he was injured several times, Stubby always managed to recover and return to the front lines to help the regiment.
One such injury was the result of a mustard gas attack. After Stubby recovered, he was outfitted with a specially designed gas mask so he could return to the trenches and rejoin his regiment. Stubby also learned to help his unit and warn them of impending danger.
He was able to give warning of poison gas attacks, locate wounded soldiers, and alert his unit to incoming artillery shells.
The feat that supposedly earned Stubby the rank of sergeant occurred when he captured a German spy and held him by the seat of his pants until US soldiers arrived. Although there is no official documentary evidence for this claim, Stubby’s display at the Smithsonian Institution promotes the story as true.
With the creation of the United States K9 Corps on March 13, 1942, dogs were officially adopted into US military ranks during WWII. The Army’s Dogs for Defense program trained 10,000 dogs who were again donated to the war effort by American families.
Upon completion of training, MWDs were deployed to several places both at home and abroad:
- The USMC used MWDs in the Pacific theater to recapture islands overrun by Japanese forces
- The Coast Guard used MWDs at home to patrol the coastline
- The Navy use MWDs to guard shipyards
During the Vietnam War, about 5,000 MWDs served in-country, and roughly 10,000 servicemen served as dog handlers. Scout dogs were reported to have saved about 10,000 lives, and MWDs were so successful at their jobs that bounties of up to $20,000 were placed on their heads. It was also reported that 232 MWDs and 295 dog handlers were killed in action.
Lack of Protections for K9 Veterans
Prior to 2000, there were no protections in place to ensure MWDs could have a safe life after military service. For example, of the approximately 5,000 MWDs the United States used in Vietnam, roughly 2,700 were left in South Vietnam, 1,600 of which were euthanized. MWDs were viewed as “surplus equipment,” with no value beyond the military purpose they were trained to carry out.
This changed when the story of an MWD named Robby entered public awareness. Robby’s former handler petitioned to adopt him after he was retired from service as an MWD. This request was denied for unspecified reasons, and Robby was euthanized.
On Sept. 27, 2000, Representative Roscoe Bartlet introduced a bill to help change the fate of MWDs like Robby. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law in November of 2000. Robby’s Law required that all MWDs deemed to be suitable for adoption should be available for placement after retirement from service.
The law also gave priority for adoption of retired MWDs to law enforcement agencies or former handlers, and then “other persons capable of humanely caring for these dogs.”
On June 1, 2015, the Military Dog Retirement Bill, a bill sponsored by Representative Walter Jones, Senator Richard Blumenthal, and the US War Dog Association was introduced. It passed by both the Senate and the House, and was signed into law by President Barack Obama. This law stipulates that MWDs may no longer be deemed “equipment.”
It requires the Department of Defense to arrange and “…pay for transportation of trained military dogs back to the United States,” when they retire from service while deployed abroad.
Military Working Dog Training and Specialties of Today
Today, there are approximately 3,000 MWDs deployed all over the globe and work in a variety of law enforcement capacities, including the military, US Customs, Border Patrol, police K9 units, and federal law enforcement.
Today, K9 units are used for sniffing out improvised explosive devices, locating weapons caches down-range, and guarding against the entry of illegal narcotics or substances into military installations. With their superior sense of smell, K9s can also be used as “scouts” to track down suspects in an open area, saving law enforcement personnel much time and energy during operations.
Dogs that are part of the Military War Dog program train with the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Candidate dogs must undergo intensive screening and training in order to serve.
They are exposed to a variety of simulated war scenarios that include explosions, fires, machine gun and rifle fire. Candidate dogs must also scale walls, navigate underground tunnels, and climb ladders without show of hesitation or distress. Once chosen and screened, each MWD is then given a specialty based on specific abilities and strengths. Once assigned a specialty, the 341st then ships MWDs to military installations worldwide.
MWDs are trained to perform a wide variety of critical, and often dangerous, specialties:
- Sledge dogs find downed airmen in snow and inaccessible regions
- Pack dogs transport up to 40 lb. loads of supplies between field units, including guns, ammo, and food
- Tracker dogs track and find
- Mine and bomb detector dogs find explosives
- Tunnel and trap detector dogs find tunnels, booby traps, and mines
- Sentry dogs assist with guard duty and warn of trespassers
- Attack dogs are used to apprehend suspects
- Tactical dogs are trained for combat situations
- Silent scout dogs warn handlers of proximity to enemy troops without barking or growling during recon
- Messenger dogs deliver messages during combat
- Casualty dogs find wounded persons either on the battlefield or in debris
Celebrate K9 Veterans Day
K9 Veterans Day was created by Joe White of Jacksonville, Florida. Mr. White was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He was also a K9 handler and trainer. Because the US K9 Corps was created on March 13, 1942, Mr. White chose this as the day to recognize and celebrate the contributions MWDs have made to the military over the decades.
After his death on Oct. 24, 2009, his wife, Sally, continued the effort to make this an official national holiday. It is hoped by advocates that the day might be celebrated at military war dog memorials across the U.S. to commemorate these special veterans.
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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