Memorial Day Tribute to Military Dogs: A Service Member’s Best Friend

Memorial Day is a day to give thanks to our heroes; those brave men and women who served their country so proudly. But let’s not forget our four-legged heroes. Did you know that thousands of dogs have served our nation’s military, and have died in action?  Today I am delighted to present to you an article written by guest author, Teresa Frith.  Teresa is a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who has been in the journalist field for over 30 years. She has a BA in English and has been published in Dog Fancy magazine as well as many other military and civilian publications.

Military Working Dogs: A Service Member’s Best Friend From the backyard in War and in Peace

By Teresa J. Frith

His ears twitch back and forth as he listens to the smallest sounds around him. Ever vigilant, ever watchful, his body quivers as he lifts his muzzle to sniff the air for a sign of his target. He wears his battle armor proudly just like his companions do, and will just as proudly defend them as they would defend him.

Who is this epitome of virtue?  It’s the military working dog.

From the backyard to the battlefield, military working dogs have come a long way over the centuries. On this Memorial Day, we pay tribute to the thousands of dogs that have loyally marched off to war with their handlers, sniffed out a bomb that could have killed hundreds of people or covertly traveled with the Seals to seek out and kill Osama Bin Laden.

Over the centuries dogs have had held many roles within the military. These have consisted of jobs such as sentry duty, sniffing out drugs, casualties, bombs or other weapons; attack dog, messenger carrier, scout or patrol dog, and several other positions. They have even been adopted as strays on the battlefield and given emotional comfort to our soldiers that helped to keep them sane and relieve stress.

The Early Years

Dogs were used by many military sources prior to their use in the U.S., such as the Seminole Wars, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War of 1898. They also unofficially accompanied troops during World War I.

However, the first time they were officially a part of the U.S. military was during World War II, even though there had been a request in 1918 during World War I by the American Expeditionary Forces for 500 dogs to be trained as sentries, messengers and patrol aides. That request was disapproved, and nothing official was done concerning military working dogs until about the 1940s.

Even then, they were only used as sled dogs by the Air Corps Ferrying Command to rescue airmen who were forced down in areas of Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland.

Finally, during World War II, a program was put in place by the Army to train dogs for the military.

Especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it was then seen just how valuable the military working dog could become. They were to be trained as sentries at first, and later would play many other roles. To handle this,  the Dogs for Defense, Inc. was established in 1942, which received its funds from the American Kennel Club and interested individuals.

While most military dogs today are specially bred and bought specifically for the purpose of being trained as military working dogs, back then the dogs were donated to the program, and then trained at the kennels under the guidance of the Dogs for Defense program.

The major majority of these first military working dogs were sentry or patrol dogs. By July of 1942, it was being more seen just how valuable military dogs could be and the number of roles would soon be increased do fill not only sentry jobs, but also jobs as messenger, scout, sled and attack dogs.

Around that same time the Quartermaster General began to establish training programs for not only dogs, but also for handlers. By the end of 1942, not only the Army, but also the Coast Guard and the Navy were starting to be interested in using military working dogs.

About 30 breeds of dogs, both males and females, were tried at first, but it was pared down to seven that appeared to work the best: German Shepherds, Belgian sheep dogs, Doberman-Pinschers, Collies, Siberian huskies, Malamutes and Eskimo dogs.

Since that time, the main breed used for military working dogs is the German Shepherd, but some other breeds are occasionally used to do specific tasks on a case by case basis. German Shepherds were chosen because they had the right temperament, the right size and weight; they could adapt to any climate, and were easily trained.

Military Working Dog Jobs

At this time, there were five areas of jobs these dogs were trained to do:  sentry/attack dog, sled dog, pack dog, messenger carrying dog, mine detecting and scout dogs, with the majority of the dogs used mostly for sentry duties. However more jobs were soon to come open in the lives of these valiant and brave animals.

Sentry/Attack Dogs

Even today, there are many military sentry jobs walking their posts with their handlers to guard various bases or other things. These dogs were expected to be smart, willing to work, and aggressive. They were to both patrol their posts, as well as protect their handler. They were taught to give warning if they sensed or saw any suspicious behavior and to attack if given the word.

More than 10,000 dogs were trained for this job during WW II, with nearly all being used for this job. They performed their duties at hundreds of military installations and combat areas.

Scout Dogs

These are the type of dogs that were geared to work with combat units, and are the ones that face the most dangers of all the military working dogs. These dogs are trained to give a silent warning to their fellow soldiers and needed excellent hearing, and had to be very sensitive to changes and figuring out unusual activities.

These great animals knew when the enemy was about long before their human companions and helped to save the lives of many units with their ability of detection. They also did double duty to boost the morale of their human friends, who greatly appreciated their sense of smell and hearing out on the battlefield.

Messenger Dogs

Messenger dogs were trained to be loyal and had to be strong dogs with good stamina, able to swim if necessary, and have excellent powers of hearing, scent and endurance. These were needed so they could succeed at their mission of delivering messages between units or individuals during war times. If these loyal animals were seen by the enemy, they faced being killed by snipers who knew the value of these dogs to their combat units.

Mine Detecting Dogs

Mine detecting dogs were trained to smell out booby traps of all kinds, including different types of mines. They did duty in North Africa in WWII and then in later wars. Dogs are still trained today for these types of detection, as well as to detect drugs and other things, such as casualties. Many a man has been found by a field dog that would otherwise have died since he wouldn’t have been found without the aid of the dog’s sense of smell.

This program, however, was short-lived and disbanded a few years after it was formed because the dogs weren’t able to do their job in all environments or situation.

Disposition of War Dogs

When the sounds of wartimes died down and the service members came home to their loved ones, the military working dogs didn’t always fare as well. Through WWII the dogs that survived were given back to their previous owners, but later on that policy changed.

Due to fears of war dogs attacking or killing civilians, any dog that was unusable in some other position after the war was euthanized or even abandoned on the battlefields.  This was a policy that was getting more and more dispute against it, especially after the very unpopular Vietnam War.

Due to this, in November 2000 President Clinton signed a new law, Public Law 106-446, that let retired military working dogs be adopted by qualified people or law enforcement agencies. The adopters had to sign paperwork holding the military harmless if the dog caused any injuries and damages.

Animals also are being helped to come home from the battlefields. Many military members over the past few years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan have adopted strays that unofficially served in the role as companion, stress reliever and protector. Since only official military dogs can fly home in military planes, these animals faced being left behind.

However, with the financial help of several organizations such as the World Society for Protection of Animals and Military Mascots, these dogs are going home to the soldier’s families to be adopted.


All in all, military dogs have served faithfully and well in both war and peace. From the battlefields of Germany in WWII to a complex in Pakistan to help find one of our greatest enemies, these animals have truly been man’s best friend. So on this celebration of Memorial Day; it is fitting to give a hearty three woofs for these wonder and brave animals, the military working dogs. Woof! Woof! Woof!


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