Types of War Dogs

Updated: August 10, 2020

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    What are the different types of war dogs? There are two basic classifications to start with–the actual breed of dog preferred by troops in the field, and the type of job the war dog must do–there are bomb disposal dogs, sentry dogs, and many others.

    Types of War Dogs War dogs are complicated–not every animal is cut out to serve alongside those in uniform. Some are too sensitive to loud noises, some can’t handle the pressure of the training program, and others simply don’t have the right temperament.

    Certain breeds do better than others, and you will become very familiar with the sturdy types of canines trainers and troops love.

    Types Of War Dog Jobs

    What kinds of jobs have dogs performed in a military capacity? Today the war dog is referred to by their handlers as “working dogs” or “military working dogs” and there is an entire culture and community dedicated to these hardworking animals including an adoption program for American war dogs about to be retired from military service (see below).

    War Dogs From Ancient History And Onward

    From some of the earliest written records of military history we learn that dogs likely began partnering with soldiers in ancient Greece and Rome as companion animals.

    It wouldn’t be long before sentry dog roles evolved; there is evidence that Celts used sentry dogs and messenger dogs, and from the sixth century on we have evidence that war dogs were used to attack mounted troops.

    From history we see an evolution–not just of the partnership between man and dog, but also in the appreciation of a dog’s many skills. From a simple companionship role, war dogs have grown to be irreplaceable in some military operations including bomb detection and drug interdiction.

    War dogs have been used throughout history in the following ways:

    • Mascots and sentries (from at least 500 B.C.)
    • Messengers (circa mid-4th century)
    • Lead assault force against mounted troops (6th century and beyond)
    • Law enforcement (1800s and beyond)
    • Trackers and machine gun haulers (1910 and beyond)

    The Right Dog For The Right Job

    War dogs are preferred for drug and bomb detection because of their unique sense of smell. Some sources report that bomb and drug dogs may actually sometimes wind up working in such environments because they were deemed unsuitable as guide dogs.

    The liability of an individual canine in that context (animals who are easily distracted by smells) makes the dog far more valuable for contraband detection.

    That may come as a surprise to some, but it’s also a good example of how flexible dogs are when it comes to what type of job they may be suitable for–war dog tasks are never a one-size-fits-all proposition.

    Like humans, some are better at some jobs than others. That applies to both the personality of the individual dog as well as the breed.


    Types Of War Dogs: Preferred Breeds

    The United States military today uses a limited range of animals that has included:

    • German Shepherds
    • Belgian Malinois
    • Labrador Retriever
    • German Shorthaired Pointer

    There are other types of war dogs that have been used throughout history (in combat, law enforcement, and for other purposes) which include the previously mentioned animals, but also:

    • Mastiffs
    • Dutch Shepherds
    • Alsatians
    • Wolfhounds
    • Belgian Sheepdogs
    • Doberman Pinschers
    • Farm Collies
    • Giant Schnauzers

    Military War Dog Programs

    The United States still actively breeds and trains military dogs, drug and bomb-detecting dogs, and sentries. The Department of Defense Military Working Dog program is responsible for training both dogs and handlers at Joint Base Lackland, San Antonio.

    The U.S. Air Force operates the DoD program which covers everything a dog and handler must know, including training the handlers in animal first aid.

    Two of the most significant parts of this program for dog lovers living in the San Antonio area (and it is a very large military community) are the military dog foster program and a similar program for adopting military working dogs who are retiring.

    How Today’s War Dogs Work

    Today’s military working dog jobs–at least for American working dogs–includes the following:

    • Patrol Drug Detector Dog
    • Patrol Explosive Detector Dog (PEDD) handler
    • Law and Order searches
    • Installation Force Protection support
    • Law and Order support
    • VIP support
    • Customs support

    Dogs may be trained to work on or off-leash, responding to commands from their handler. Dogs may be trained to do one or more of the above support operations but they may also be given specific training as an IED sniffer or a human target tracker.

    Military working dogs have career arcs–they are retired if they become injured or otherwise can’t perform as trained. Working dogs, like their human handlers, can return from deployments with evidence of PTSD; such animals are retired from duty with their physically injured counterparts.

    At one time, military dogs were euthanized rather than retired. This regrettable practice has long since ended and it is possible to adopt a military working dog if the applicant and animal are a good match and the potential owner meets adoption program specifications. You can learn more about this program at the Joint Base Lackland 37th Training Wing official site.


    About The AuthorJoe 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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