Military Working Dogs

This new section contains information on military working dogs and their use in the US armed forces, from World War II through today. As materials are scanned or otherwise digitized, they will be posted to this section and with this, made available to researchers and others interested in military history. If you are a VMPA member and have interesting war dog items in your collection, please send images and text to our webmaster for inclusion on this site.
World War II

The United States armed forces are a relative late comer in the history of military working dogs, having had no war dog program during the First World War, when many other nations, such as Germany and Great Britain, made heavy use of dogs trained to deliver messages or act as sentries in the trenches. It was not until after the attack on Pearl Harbor that the groundwork began to establish a war dog program.

Two things happened almost at the same time: Lieutenant Colonel Clifford Smith approached General Gregory of the Quartermaster Corps regarding training and using dogs as sentries to protect Quartermaster supply depots; and a civilian group, later to be called Dogs for Defense, Inc. was founded by a group of dog breeders, trainers, and fanciers, to help the war effort. The two came together. The War Department appointed Dogs for Defense as the official procurement agency, and the Quartermaster corps would handle the dogs training  once they entered the military.

And so, on 13 March 1942, the K-9 Corps was officially born.

At first, more than 30 breeds were accepted into the program, but later, this list was narrowed to German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Collies, and Giant Schnauzers. In all, just over 19,000 dogs were procured between 1942 and 1945. Dogs for Defense recruited dogs from all over the United States: dogs were donated through kennel clubs; by police agencies (such as four tracking Bloodhounds donated by the New York State Police), by Hollywood stars (such as Mary Pickford's German Shepherd, Silver), and by average families, both rich and poor. The owners who donated their dogs surrendered them unconditionally, without any claim to the dogs after the war. However, most of the dogs who survived the war went through retraining and were offered back to their original owners.

During the Second World War, the US military used dogs to carry messages, act as sentries on bases and along coastlines, act as scouts on combat patrols, find wounded soldiers on the battlefield, as mine dogs to locate landmines, and for purposes of transportation, such as pack or sled dog teams. Of the 10,425 dogs trained, 9,300 were used for sentry duties, which were sent to hundreds of military installations: coastal fortifications, harbor defenses, arsenals, ammunition dumps, airfields, depots, and even industrial plants.


World War II Dog Training

US Military working dogs were originally trained by civilian trainers who volunteered their services and time. When the program grew larger, the Quartermaster Remount Branch became responsible for working dogs and standardized their training. The first War Dog Reception and Training Center was set up at Front Royal, Virginia in 1942. All in all, there were five training centers by the end of the war. Small training centers for mine dogs were set up in addition to those at Beltsville, MD and Fort Belvoir, VA.

Training for working dogs took between eight and twelve weeks, depending on what the dogs were used for. All training began with "basic training" during which dogs learned basic obedience commands such as sit, down, and stay. After their basic training, dogs went on to train for the specific purposes they would be used for. Dogs were trained as sentry dogs, patrol dogs, messenger dogs, and mine dogs. Nearly 90% of all dogs used in the US armed forces were trained as sentry dogs. The dogs also had to get used to muzzles, gas masks, riding in military vehicles, and being safe around gunfire.

Sentry Dogs

Sentry Dogs were taught to alert to the presence of strangers by barking, growling, or otherwise alerting their handlers. The majority of US Sentry Dogs was used by Coast Guard shore patrols.

Patrol Dogs

Patrol Dogs were trained much in the same way Sentry Dogs were, except that they were taught to alert to someone's presence quietly so that they would not give away their handler's position to enemy troops. Patrol dogs were used by Axis troops as well as Allied troops on the battlefield.

Messenger Dogs

Messenger dogs were trained to work with two handlers. One handler would go to a forward position with the dog, while the other handler stayed behind in the rear. When a message was to be sent, the dog would run to the rear to his second handler and deliver the message. Messages were usually sent in a metal tube attached to the dog's collar.

Mine Dogs

Mine dogs in the US military were trained to detect landmines, booby traps and tripwires. These dogs were deployed to North Africa, where it turned out that they had a hard time working under combat conditions, and the mine dog project was eventually disbanded. In later conflicts, the mine dog concept returned, however, to work outside combat conditions to locate booby traps and mines away from enemy fire.


After World War II

After the end of World War II, most war dogs were returned to their civilian owners. In the United States, the dogs had to first undergo retraining during which they were taught to see all humans as friends again. They were also tested extensively to make sure they would not react negatively to loud noises, people on bicycles, running children, and other normal situations they might encounter back in civilian life. Very few dogs were found to be unsuitable to return to civilian life. Those that were, were put to sleep.

Once a dog passed the testing, he was given a final vet checkup and was then shipped back to his original owners at government expensive. If the owners did not want the dog returned, the dog was sold to a new owner through Dogs for Defense, Inc.

Scout Dogs in Korea

The Army had dismantled most of its working dog program at the end of World War II, and found itself with only one Scout Dog platoon at the outbreak of the Korean War.

The 26th Scout Dog platoon was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, and its main purpose had been to participate in public events and to go on maneuvers. At the beginning of the Korean War, the unit did not even have a full complement of trained dogs and handlers. In May 1951, the 26th Scout Dog platoon was ordered to Korea and attached to the Second Infantry Division. It quickly became apparent that more Sentry Dogs were needed in Korea immediately, and by March 1952, the Army activated a War Dog Receiving and Holding Station at Cameron Station in Alexandria, VA to meet this need. Here, dogs were purchased from their civilian owners, examined by a vet, and then shipped to Fort Carson, CO to be trained.

In the Korean War, dogs were primarily used on night patrols where the dogs' sense of smell alerted the patrol to the presence of enemy soldiers. Dogs were trained to alert silently, meaning without barking or growling, by a change in body posture or behavior. It was therefore very important that the handler knew his dog's behavior very well and paid close attention to even the slightest change. If he didn't, the dog's alert could well go unnoticed.

Scout Dogs were considered ready for patrol work every four days. After a patrol, the dog was given a day's rest before his normal schedule of training and daily exercise was resumed.

The 26th Scout Dog platoon was plagued with a host of supply issues during its deployment to Korea. Even the most basic dog items such as choke chains, tracking harnesses, food dishes, and grooming supplies were hard to come by and difficult to replace should one break or wear out. Feeding the dogs also proved to have its problems. Originally, the working dogs had been fed on fresh horse meat, but because this was not readily available in Korea, had been switched to canned, frozen horse meat. This, along with cod liver oil, made up the majority of the dogs' diet.

In a report published in 1953, 1LT Bert Deaner, the commanding officer of the 26th Scout Dog platoon wrote about the difficulties the dogs faced in Korea. In particular, the dogs had a hard time with the mountain terrain, since both wind and terrain influenced the way the scents the dogs tracked behaved.

Working Dogs in Vietnam

The United States armed forces did not originally deploy any military working dogs to Vietnam. This changed in July of 1965, when a Viet Cong sapper was able to make his way through the guards and electronic devices surrounding Da Nang Air Base to carry out a successful attack. Two days later, the US Air Force launched a test program to see whether its working dogs would be suitable for the climate and terrain of Vietnam, and forty dog and handler teams were deployed for a test period of four months. The test was successful. The handlers returned to the US, while their dogs were assigned to new handlers, and the Air Force began to ship dog teams to all air bases in Vietnam and Thailand.

Scout Dog Training

Military Working Dogs in Vietnam were primarily used in two roles: as Sentry Dogs guarding large military installations, and as Scout Dogs.

All military working dogs in the Vietnam War first went to Lackland Air Force Base. There, the dogs were tested to see whether they were candidates to become Scout Dogs. If they were, they were sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army's Scout Dog school. Once at Fort Benning, the dogs underwent twelve weeks of training, which consisted of two weeks obedience training during which the dogs learned voice commands and hand signals for commands such as heel, sit, down, stay, and crawl. The second part of the training consisted of ten weeks of field instruction to teach dog and handler to work as a team and alert to enemy presence.

At the end of their training, the teams went through an Operational Readiness Test, where they were subjected to simulated combat conditions. They were required to demonstrate their proficiency in overcoming natural obstacles, scouting rice paddies, swamps, caves, and tunnels, working from a boat, and scouting through villages and jungles.

A Dog's Life

Military Working Dogs in Vietnam were housed in kennel facilities. The facilities varied between bases, but usually consisted of an area that was fenced to warn people to keep away.

The dogs themselves were housed in their shipping crates, metal containers that were raised on wooden or metal stilts to keep the dog off the ground, dry, and in a shady area. Dogs were tethered to the shipping crate by a long kennel chain so they would be able to walk around, get in and out of the crate, and just hang out when they were not working or training. Most facilities also had additional shade in form of small roofs or tarps, to protect the dogs from the sun and heat, as well as the rain.

When the dogs were not working, they were training with their handlers, receiving necessary veterinary care and vaccinations, getting dipped to prevent fleas and other parasites, or spent time playing with their handlers or staying in the kennels.

Sentry Dog Nemo A537

Nemo was purchased by the Air Force in 1964 and, after training, assigned to Fairchild Air Force Base in Alaska. In 1966, Nemo was sent to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam. In December 1966, Nemo distinguished himself during a Viet Cong attack on the air base, when he alerted on a hidden enemy soldier. Both Nemo and his handler were wounded in the encounter, Nemo lost an eye. In June 1967, the Air Force directed that Nemo should be returned to the United States. This made him the first sentry dog to ever retire from active service. Nemo retired to a permanent kennel at Lackland Air Force Base. The Air Force used Nemo as a "spokesdog" to help recruit dogs for the military, and he spent time making TV appearances and traveling with his handler. He died of natural causes in 1972.

Tracker Dogs

The Army first established a Tracker Dog program in 1966, when ten platoons were designated Infantry Platoon, Combat Tracker. The program was based on the British tracker program, which provided the first dogs to US troops at its Jungle Warfare School in Malaysia. When the US Army began training its own tracking dogs, it originally attempted to use American Bloodhounds, but this failed because the dogs were too noisy. The Army then started purchasing male and female Labrador Retrievers, who were able to track quietly and efficiently. Australian troops in Vietnam also had combat tracker teams that used black Labrador Retrievers as their working dogs.

Mine & Tunnel Dogs

The military had originally experimented with mine dogs in World War II, but the mine dog program had not been very successful under combat conditions. In 1968, the Army brought back the mine dog program as the Mine and Tunnel Detector Dog program, in response to the booby traps and tunnel hideouts employed by the Vietnamese. It had become clear that there was no technological way of locating small booby traps or hidden tunnels effectively, and that dogs, with their keen sense of smell, may prove to be the best solution.

Mine and Tunnel Dogs were trained by the Army at Fort Gordon, GA, and by a contractor, Behavior Systems Inc. in Shotwell, NC. The dogs were trained to work both on leash and off leash, and as much as 300 yards in front of their handlers, but the dogs were most effective on leash.

Mine and Tunnel Dogs were never trained to sit on command like other working dogs, but were trained to sit only to indicate a mine, booby trap, or tunnel, as this was the dog's way of clearly signaling his handler.

The Cold War

It is difficult to think of Military Working Dogs and the Cold War in the same paragraph without immediately thinking of guard dogs and their handlers protecting US missile sites. These missile sites, which contained  Nike Ajax, Hercules, and Zeus type missiles, dotted the American landscape in more than 300 locations, primarily around large cities that were most likely to be the target of an enemy attack, and on existing National Guard bases.

The military also expanded its use of dogs to include dogs trained to find illegal drugs and materials used for making explosives - so-called "Detector Dogs", which are now also known as Specialized Search Dogs or SSDs. These dogs started being used during the Cold War era where they filled functions such as checking luggage going on military flights, inspecting buildings on military installations, and the like. It wasn't just the dogs that were getting new jobs during the Cold War. It was also during this time period that the job of military police working dog handler was opened to female soldiers, such as the Air Force dog handler pictured here.

Military Working Dogs Today

Procurement of Dogs

Although the US military currently has its own limited breeding program, the majority of Military Working Dogs accepted into training are sold to the armed forces by breeders. About half of all dogs purchased each year are imported from overseas. The military buys dogs that are between one and three years old. They must be German Shepherds, Malinois, or Dutch Shepherds to become Patrol Dogs. Specialized Search Dogs can also be sporting breeds such as Labradors, Golden Retrievers, or Springer Spaniels. The dogs don't have to be purebred.

The dogs must have good temperaments, confidence, outstanding hunting and retrieval drive, defensive fight drive, and steadiness to gun fire. They must also be tattooed for identification. Before dogs are accepted, they must pass a medical exam, including full blood-work and hip and elbow x-rays, and further evaluations. Evaluation of a dog can take as long as two weeks. Some of the reasons why a dog may not pass are: shyness around people, aggression toward people or dogs, being difficult to muzzle or crate, and being fearful of different surfaces, such as staircases or slick floors. Medical reasons include: being overweight, hip or elbow dysplasia, degenerative joint disease, or injury.

Working Dog Training

All Military Working Dogs start their careers with the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, which is the home of the Military Working Dog Program. All dogs, regardless of whether they will be Patrol Dogs or Detector Dogs, have to go through basic obedience training. Dogs learn to walk nicely on a leash, sit and lay down on command, and come to their handler. Dogs also have to be agile and in good shape. Their work may require them to go up stairs or through tunnels; jump out of the patrol car or jump up to sniff the tail gate of a truck; run along with soldiers as they take cover; or spend hours on foot patrol.

Besides basic obedience, dogs have to learn the particulars of their individual jobs. Patrol dogs learn to do things such as protecting their handlers, locating enemy soldiers, and chasing down and intruder who tries to sneak onto the base. Mine Detection Dogs and Specialized Search Dogs have to attend school at Fort Leonardwood, Missouri, where the US Army Engineer Regiment's dog detachment is located. This is where the dogs are trained to locate ammo, guns, and explosives and signal their handlers that they have made a find.

An annual competition, the TRADOR Military Working Dog Warrior Police Challenge, tests the top working dog teams in the military.

The Military Working Dog Section

A Military Working Dog (MWD) Section in the US Army consists of one Kennelmaster, who is the senior non-commissioned officer in charge, the dog handlers, and the dogs assigned to the section. Very large kennels also have an Assistant Kennelmaster.

The Kennelmaster is in charge of all the dog handlers and dogs in his care. He makes sure that the facilities are taken care of, the dogs are fed and groomed, and that the dogs receive veterinary care. He also makes sure that the dogs receive training and are certified when needed, and that any needed equipment is requisitioned.

The MWD Handlers are responsible for the dogs that are assigned to them. Every handler is assigned one dog, and ideally, the dog and handler will stay together as long as possible during their career. The handlers feed and groom their dogs, exercise them, practice obedience training, and make sure all records and paperwork are in order.

Commanders can send Kennel Support soldiers to the Kennelmaster to be assigned duties, too. Those are usually soldiers who are interested in becoming dog handlers, or whose duties require them to understand how working dog teams work. Support Soldiers often do things such as cleaning the kennels or assisting the handlers, but they don't train or handle dogs.

Working Dog Retirement

Military Working Dogs are kept in service for as long as they can perform the duties for which they have been trained, both physically and mentally. Once a dog can no longer work due to health or age, they are retired from service if a suitable home can be found for them, such as with a former handler. In 2000, a law was passed that allows former handlers and civilians who are experienced with dogs to adopt former working dogs. The dogs that can be adopted are dogs that are washed out of training, or old dogs that are being retired.


Working Dog Equipment

Every Military Working Dog has his own equipment.

When the dogs are staying on a base that has an established working dog kennel, each dog has his or her own kennel in a larger kennel buildings. The kennels are small rooms that are divided by walls and that have concrete flooring so they are easy to clean. In most places, they also have an outdoor run attached, which the dog can get to through a small door. Inside the kennel, each dog has a water bucket and, when it is feeding time, a food pan. Many kennels also have platforms or cot-style beds for the dogs to lay on and be comfortable.

All dogs are issued a dog crate. There are metal dog crates and, more commonly, plastic airline-type dog crates like the VariKennel. Each dog has his own crate, which is stencilled with his name and tattoo number.

There are no "issue" dog collars and leashes, and most handlers (or their Kennelmasters) buy the collars and leashes from manufacturers like Ray Allen and Elite K-9, who make equipment for working dogs. Leather or thick nylon collars are most commonly used, along with training collars such as prongs or choke chains. Some units have custom dog harnesses made by equipment manufacturers like London Bridge or Blackhawk Tactical, and you can see a variety of different equipment being used. Supporters back in the States also send care packagtes to working dog teams overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the items they send are cot beds for the dogs, dog toys, boots to keep the dogs' paws safe from the hot Iraqi sand, dog goggles to protect the dogs' eyes, and cooling vests that keep the dogs cool when it gets hot in the desert.

Specialized Search Dogs

During the Vietnam War, the US military brought back its mine detector program after it became apparent that enemy booby traps and improvised explosive devices could not be located by electronic means. This also holds true for Iraq. Improvised explosive devices and hidden weapons caches can usually not be located by electronic means, and so the military has brought back its detector dog program for a third time.

The program is now split into two - Mine Detector Dogs (MDD) who are trained to locate landmines and buried explosives, and Specialized Search Dogs who are trained to locate firearms, ammunition, and explosives during building and vehicle searches. SSDs detect weapons and explosives by the distinctive odors of the explosives or other components of the devices, and signal that they have made a find to their handler by sitting next to the item, or through another, less obvious, change in body language. SSDs and their handlers constantly have to train and recertify to stay proficient at their job. Dogs trained to detect explosives have to have a 98% success rate in training to remain operational.

All detector dogs work for a reward they get when they have located weapons or explosives: a hard rubber ball called a Kong. When the dog has made a find, the handler tosses him the Kong and praises him for his good work.

Military Therapy Dogs

A new and different kind of Military Working Dog has joined the ranks of the US armed forces during recent years: Therapy Dogs.

Therapy Dogs and their volunteer handlers from organizations such as Therapy Dogs International, the oldest group in the United States, have been visiting people in nursing homes and hospitals for several decades. It was not until Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom that therapy dogs started visiting wounded soldiers. The military, realizing how soldiers benefited from these visits, soon had its own resident therapy dog, Labrador Retriever Deuce, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.

In 2008, America's Vet Dogs, an organization that trains and provides Service Dogs to disabled soldiers, gave the Army two specially-trained Labrador Retrievers, Budge and Boe, to serve as therapy dogs. Budge and Boe were the first Therapy Dogs to have been deployed to Iraq to perform their duties. They were attached to the 85th Medical Detachment (Combat Stress Control) which was stationed with the 101st Airborne Division at COB Speicher near Tikirt, Iraq.