How War Dogs Work

Rexo and many other military working dogs have a long and storied history in warfare. See more dog pictures.
Rexo and many other military working dogs have a long and storied history in warfare. See more dog pictures.
Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Mike Meares

We read the numbers:

We also heard the details surrounding those numbers. One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and the world's most wanted man. Both of the helicopters touched down as quietly as cat's paws, but only one made it back into the air. The soldiers destroyed it so the enemy wouldn't have a free peek at top-secret technology. As it turned out, the chopper was the only American casualty in the riskiest military mission in recent history.


The most extraordinary detail, however, has been the revelation that one of the commandos went into battle with a dog trained for just such a mission. By some accounts, a Belgian Malinois named Cairo may have been the first "American" to encounter bin Laden. He was almost certainly the first to hear and smell the al-Qaida leader as the squad entered the compound.

This story of canine courage captured the public's attention, but it would be wrong to think a dog's presence in Pakistan represents an innovation fetched fresh from the halls of the Pentagon. War dogs have been fighting alongside U.S. troops since World War II and have served other armies since the dawn of recorded history. Unlike other animals made obsolete by technology, such as horses, dogs have become increasingly valuable in modern warfare. In fact, their ability to detect improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, remains far superior to any device or machine invented by military engineers. In addition, dogs are strong, intelligent, adaptable and loyal -- traits that make military commanders salivate.

So let's dig a little deeper into the topic of war dogs or, as they're known officially, military working dogs. To appreciate why they make good soldiers, we need to understand what makes them tick. And to do that, we have to take a refresher course in beagle biology.


Anatomy of a Canine Combatant

It's a little hard to see the resemblance between this gray wolf and, say, a poodle, but it's there -- somewhere.
It's a little hard to see the resemblance between this gray wolf and, say, a poodle, but it's there -- somewhere.
Daniel J. Cox/Getty Images

The domestic dog -- Canis lupus familiaris -- bears only a vague resemblance to its wolflike ancestor. It's hard to imagine that Chihuahuas and pit bulls can call themselves relatives. But despite the dizzying array of dog breeds, every Fido on Earth possesses the spirit and basic morphology of an animal similar to the gray wolves still roaming the world today. Let's dive under the hood to see what makes the dog design so special.

Everything starts with the canine skeleton, which evolution has shaped for running and leaping. The rear legs are rigid and sturdy, the front legs loose and flexible. Unlike humans, dogs lack a collarbone. Its absence increases how far the front limbs can extend relative to the torso, enabling a much longer stride. Look at the gallop of a greyhound, and you'll see evidence of this built-for-running skeleton. You'll also see that each leg of the dog ends in a small, compact foot with four toes armed with claws. Dogs walk on these toes and, like all speedy mammals, can accelerate rapidly by remaining on the balls of their feet. A fifth claw, the dewclaw, is the vestige of a thumb, which may or may not touch the ground, depending on the breed.


All of the major organs lie within the protective shell of the bones and muscles. Dogs possess the same bodily systems as humans, though some are tweaked for performance. The cardiovascular system, for example, supports both sprinting and endurance. Many breeds have running characteristics reminiscent of their gray wolf cousins, which can reach speeds up to 34 to 43 miles per hour (55 to 70 kilometers per hour) for short bursts, but can also travel up to 124 miles (200 kilometers) a day at a pace of 5 miles per hour (8 kilometers per hour) [source: Dewey].

Even more impressive are the canine sense organs, especially the nose and ears. A dog's nose contains 225 million olfactory receptors, making it a very sensitive and nuanced sensory receptor [source: Frankel]. Humans, by comparison, boast a meager 5 million olfactory receptors [source: Correa]. Rescue dogs and other long-nosed breeds are able to identify people accurately even after a considerable passage of time, while hunting dogs can distinguish one variety of bird from another. Dogs also possess an acute sense of hearing. Their ears have an audible range up to 35,000 hertz, whereas humans max out at only 20,000 hertz [source: Vanacore]. Dogs can even move their ears independently, which helps them to focus sounds

These anatomical traits alone make dogs ideal military participants. Throw in their loyalty and their desire to please, and it's easy to see why they're in high demand on the battlefield today. Surprisingly, the U.S. was slow to recognize the benefits of canine combatants, as we'll see next.

Dogs Trot From the Home Front to the Battlefront

1939: A French officer scribbles a message while a dog stands by ready to deliver it. The dogs acted as couriers to scattered posts in the French zone.
1939: A French officer scribbles a message while a dog stands by ready to deliver it. The dogs acted as couriers to scattered posts in the French zone.
Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Humans domesticated dogs 12,000 years ago and have, ever since, involved the animals in their activities and pursuits, including war. The ancient Persians, Greeks, Assyrians and Babylonians all used dogs to great effect against their enemies.

Fast-forward a bunch of centuries to the American colonies, Benjamin Franklin is trying to garner support for building a canine military corps (in all his free time), but no formal program ever takes hold. Throughout the Revolutionary and Civil wars, a small number of family pets made it to the battlefield, and a few made it into the history books. At the Battle of Antietam, September 1862, Capt. Werner Von Bachelle of Company F, 6th Wisconsin Infantry, fought bravely alongside his canine companion, a Newfoundland. When a Confederate bullet killed the captain, his dog stayed by his side until it too succumbed [source: Dawes].


These stories of heroism were touching, but rare. As the United States entered World War I, the military still had no formal war dog program. This stood in stark contrast to nations like Germany, which, by the start of the conflict, had 30,000 dogs serving the military in a variety of roles [source: Fisher]. The European armies used the animals extensively for medical assistance, draft duty and as messengers. In the former situation, dogs roamed the no-man's-land between trenches, searching for wounded soldiers. Upon finding a fallen man, the animal would deliver water and medical supplies; some were even trained to pick up the soldier's helmet and deliver it to his handler, who would dispatch a litter. As draft animals, they carried ammunition and other supplies, often along railroad tracks. And no human soldier could move as efficiently as a dog through the labyrinthine trenches to deliver messages.

When the U.S. entered World War II, military officers, despite seeing the usefulness of dogs in France, remained ambivalent about establishing an official war dog program. But as American forces in the Pacific faced the guerrilla-like tactics of Japanese soldiers, officials finally decided they needed a better way to sniff out the enemy.

In early 1942, a call went out to dog owners to donate quality animals to the cause. Nearly 20,000 dogs "enlisted" in the new War Dog program, or K-9 Corps, traveling from farms and backyards to facilities managed by the Quartermaster Corps [source: Born]. The first of these was located in Front Royal, Va., but others quickly came online. The Marines opened separate facilities at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Training began in earnest at these reception centers. Most dogs were trained for sentry duty to patrol the coasts and civilian war plants. By early 1944, the emphasis shifted to supplying dogs for combat. Up next, we'll see how war dogs proved their mettle in World War II and beyond.

The Real Dogfights

1969: Muzzled sentry dogs and their handlers head back to the base after patrolling the perimeter of a U.S. Naval outpost in Da Nang, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War.
1969: Muzzled sentry dogs and their handlers head back to the base after patrolling the perimeter of a U.S. Naval outpost in Da Nang, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War.
R. A. Elder/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In March 1944, the War Department activated 15 war dog platoons and dispatched seven to Europe, eight to the Pacific. Most of these dogs were trained as scouts: animals that depended on smell and hearing to detect the enemy. When the dogs and their handlers arrived on Guam in July 1944 -- the first real testing ground of the K-9 Corps concept -- they were greeted with laughs and jeers [source: Done].

That skepticism turned quickly to admiration as troops witnessed the impact dogs could have. The animals could hear stealth attacks long before their human companions, and they became so adept at sniffing out ambushes that dogs took the point of almost every patrol. Commanders also relied on the animals extensively for solo reconnaissance.


The war dogs proved so useful on Guam that, when the battle ended successfully in August, War Department officials decided every Marine platoon should receive its own canines for subsequent island invasions. This enthusiasm continued to the end of the war, encouraging U.S. military officials to extend the War Dog program even after victory had been secured in Europe and the Pacific. In 1948, dog training within the Army transferred to the jurisdiction of Army Field Forces and then, in 1951, to the Military Police Corps.

Through all of this change, dogs continued to serve with distinction in American conflicts. In the Korean War, the Army used about 1,500 dogs, mostly for sentry duty. This number surged to 4,000 in Vietnam, where intense jungle fighting once again demanded the special skills of scout dogs [source: Born]. Protecting air bases and other military installations was another high priority. In fact, it was a Vietcong raid against the Da Nang air base in July 1965 that prompted Air Force officials to post sentry dogs at all major facilities in Vietnam [source: Lemish].

The dogs serving "in country" for the Air Force completed their basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Currently, many of the animals working in Iraq and Afghanistan graduate from the same facilities. Their role, however, has evolved. In 2007, the Marines piloted a program with nine bomb-sniffing dogs after it was demonstrated that canine noses could detect improvised exploding devices, or IEDs, better than even the most advanced technology. Some are even able to detect the scent of explosive devices being carried by suicide bombers moving through a crowded street -- what scientists refer to as a "vapor wake." As a result, the number of dogs sniffing Middle Eastern sand and soil has grown to 350, bringing the total number of dogs on active duty to almost 3,000 [source: Frankel]. One of those animals, sent to detect hidden bombs or hidden terrorists, accompanied the team of Navy SEALs dispatched to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

A Breed Apart

Up close with a Belgian Malinois, a popular military working dog.
Up close with a Belgian Malinois, a popular military working dog.
Beth Dixon/Getty Images

So far, we've talked generally about dogs without focusing on any particular variety, but clearly some of the 400 breeds make better soldiers than others. In ancient armies, commanders preferred mastiff-type dogs because of their size and power. Big dogs, however, weren't the best choice for every mission. In World War I, Jack Russell Terriers -- small dogs with a penchant for hunting rats -- patrolled the trenches to keep vermin away from soldiers and supplies. The YMCA also used small terriers to distribute free cigarettes to the troops. Known as "cigarette dogs," the animals favored soldiers who were about to go "over the top" to face the horrors of enemy machine-gun fire.

By the time World War II started, two breeds had become synonymous with war dog. The first was the German shepherd, a breed developed in the late 1800s in Karlsruhe, Germany, by Capt. Max von Stephanitz and others. Shepherds descended from herding and farm dogs, but selective breeding accentuated the traits that make them such fine military animals -- their high trainability and extreme loyalty and commitment. The other iconic war dog was the Doberman pinscher, a breed that originated in Germany around 1900 and possesses great endurance and speed. More importantly, they are highly intelligent and could absorb and retain training better than other dogs.


U.S. officials trying to establish the fledgling War Dog program were perfectly willing to learn from European success stories. Both German shepherds and Doberman pinschers became mainstays of the American military. In fact, the Marine Corps adopted the Doberman as the official dog of its branch, and the breed saw action throughout the Pacific theater. The U.S. military also used German shepherds extensively, both as scout and sentry dogs. In all, the War Dog program experimented with 30 different breeds throughout World War II. The most useful, in addition to Dobermans and shepherds, were Belgian sheep dogs, farm collies and giant schnauzers [source: Born].

Today, German shepherds remain popular at U.S. military bases around the world. Defense officials also rely heavily on Labrador retrievers and Malinois dogs. Labs earned their reputation as diligent workers on docks and wharves in Newfoundland, where they worked alongside fishermen to pull in nets and catch escaped fish, but their even temperament and trainability make them ideal military working dogs. The Malinois, a breed developed in the Belgian city of Mechelen (Malines in French), looks like a German shepherd, but has a slighter build. Its smaller size makes it no less valuable, however. It's a strong, agile dog with an impeccable work ethic and an obedient disposition.

Of course, having a trainable breed is just the beginning. It still takes a great deal of effort to transform a raw canine recruit into a war-ready soldier. Next, we'll look at what it takes to train the typical war dog.

Training and Deployment of War Dogs

Many countries rely on military working dogs, including China. Here, one leaping canine trains at a Chinese base. The base provides military working dogs for army, police, custom, airport and other facilities and institutions.
Many countries rely on military working dogs, including China. Here, one leaping canine trains at a Chinese base. The base provides military working dogs for army, police, custom, airport and other facilities and institutions.
China Photos/Getty Images

It's one thing to teach a dog to sit, heel and roll over. It's another thing entirely to train an animal not to bark in a combat situation, which might reveal your location to the enemy. And yet war dogs must master the basic commands we drill into our pets before they can move on to more difficult, military-focused tasks. The job of taking a dog on this journey falls to someone known as a handler. At the outbreak of World War II, defense officials didn't necessarily apply a rigorous process when selecting handlers. Some of the earliest canine companions were young men who lived on farms or owned pets before they enlisted [source: Done].

As soon as they were paired up, a dog and his handler would take a week to become familiar with each other. They would hang together in camp, go on hikes and participate in exercises. When the dog felt comfortable with his partner and the new routine, formal obedience training would begin. This phase consisted of teaching dogs to respond to both basic verbal commands and hand signals. Handlers would also work with their animals to suppress barking, which they would need to do in situations calling for combat silence. The final component of basic training was a once-a-week demolition exercise in which dogs were exposed to small arms fire, as well as exploding shells.


Not all dogs rose to the challenges of military life. Of the 19,000 dogs procured between 1942 and 1945, about 45 percent failed to pass basic training [source: Born]. Those that did moved on to more intensive training -- and the opportunity to acquire specialized skills. Many learned how to perform sentry duty. Others learned to become scouts or how to sniff out mines and bombs. Although most were not out-and-out attack dogs, all received instruction in what the military calls "controlled aggressiveness," which requires a dog to attack an enemy soldier upon command and to attack, without command, someone threatening its handler.

Modern war dogs follow a similar regimen. The biggest difference today is the price tag to get a dog prepared for battle. The cost of training a single animal can be $20,000 to $40,000, depending on its specialization [source: Bumiller]. Regardless of its assignment after training, dogs and handlers travel together to their target destination, using the conveyance of choice for their specific branch of the military. For example, U.S. Air Force dogs often jump in tandem with their handlers, while Marine canines are more likely to travel aboard ships and then, to get from ship to shore, aboard amphibious assault vehicles.

With so much time, effort and money spent on war dogs, you can bet the Department of Defense likes to take care of them. Up next, we'll explore how these animals receive care and what happens to them when their military careers come to an end.

From Veterinarians to Veterans

Brady Rusk, 12, hugs Eli, the bomb-sniffing military working dog his older brother Marine Pfc. Colton Rusk, worked with before being killed in action in Afghanistan.
Brady Rusk, 12, hugs Eli, the bomb-sniffing military working dog his older brother Marine Pfc. Colton Rusk, worked with before being killed in action in Afghanistan.
Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason." In ancient conflicts, dogs wounded or killed in action probably gave some truth to Hemingway's observation. Even as dogs proved their value in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, some officials viewed them no differently than they viewed weapons, tanks and other inanimate objects. In Vietnam, the Defense Department listed 281 dogs officially killed in action [source: Born]. Those that survived were classified as "surplus equipment" and left behind [source: Frankel].

The U.S. military treats war dogs much differently these days. A unit embraces a canine companion as a fellow warrior that deserves the same attention and respect as any human soldier. This extends to medical care, both on the field and in the hospital. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the biggest threat to dogs is the explosive devices they are trying to sniff out. According to military sources, approximately 20 Labs have been killed by homemade bomb explosions since the Marines started their bomb-sniffing canine program in 2007 [source: Bumiller]. The scorching heat also takes its toll, leading to a dangerous stomach condition known as bloat. A dog's handler, trained in veterinary first aid, can provide some basic assistance in the field. Dogs with serious injuries, however, must take a ride on a medevac helicopter to one of several military veterinary centers located around the world.


Dogs with long-term injuries -- physical or psychological -- might be sent back to the Holland Working Dog Veterinary Hospital in San Antonio, Texas. There, they can receive physical therapy or, if they're suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a few sessions with a canine psychologist. Most dogs return to action after their wounds have healed. After four or five deployments, usually when a dog is eight or nine years old, it is eligible for retirement.

After World War II, the Army euthanized its animals for fear that they would be too aggressive for civilian life [source: Done]. The Marines, however, learned that dogs could be "de-trained" and returned to their original owners or put up for adoption. Family homes aren't the only logical destination for war dogs. Many go to work for police departments or security companies. The Military Working Dog Foundation is an organization that can help those interested in adopting a military working dog. It works with law enforcement agencies and individuals to help find a suitable home for canine veterans.

Sometimes, a handler will adopt the dog he trained. Considering the deep bonds that form between the two, this seems like a fitting conclusion for everyone involved.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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