This Memorial Day, we’re remembering K-9 heroes who served on the front lines of war throughout our history. We’ll be digging into the important roles military working dogs (MWDs) have played from World War I through the present day. We found out a lot more than we anticipated, and we’d love to hear from you about anything we missed or should cover in the future!
The Unanticipated Heroes of World War I
Gas attacks were one of the most used strategies throughout World War I, killing countless servicemen laying in wait in the trenches. Enter the famous Sergeant Stubby, a terrier mix who alerted soldiers of incoming gas attacks, a role no one trained him to play but that he learned all on his own --- an early demonstration of the intuition and loyalty of man’s best friend. Stubby is the first working K-9 we know of who’s handlers saw the value in outfitting him with his own protective gear. In Stubby’s case, he was given a rudimentary-fitting gas mask to protect him out on the front.
So while Sergeant Stubby and a few other famous war dogs got some good press, what most people don’t know is the sheer number of K-9s used by international forces in WWI -- while the exact (or even approximate) number served isn’t known, it’s reported that one million were killed in action worldwide, mostly German shepherds and Doberman pinschers for their early identified traits of protection and loyalty. We can only wonder if so many were killed, how many were in service overall?
We also dug into the archives to figure out what jobs all these K9s were trained for and given during war. The first thing we stumbled upon was the “ratters” -- dogs trained to hunt and kill rats in the trenches. Another, much more dangerous and risky job held by K9s was delivering messages between squadrons. But as we all know, dogs are jacks of so many trades, and they soon were trained as sentry dogs to accompany their handler and alert on the presence of unknown men with an alert, bark, or growl.
There were also scout dogs -- trained to stealthily point upon the scent of enemies long before any soldier could recognize impending forces. These pups had to demonstrate a quieter and more disciplined temperament than sentry dogs, patrolling territory without exposing the location of their squad. Sentry dogs were utilized mostly at night to detect enemy invasion on bases, giving them the nickname of “Guardians of the Night.”
Less common today was the role of casualty dogs in World War I, who wore medical supplies and located wounded soldiers across the battlefield. For those who were in fatal condition, these dogs waited by their side as they lay dying, providing a small comfort of companionship and loyalty as they took their final breath. This duty has morphed over time to the role dogs play in lifting spirits and working with military veterans, and we couldn’t be more thankful they haven’t been forgotten.
The K9s Who Protected our Coasts in World War II
It’s hard to imagine handing over the family dog to serve overseas in a war knowing they might not come back. Whether it was the all-encompassing mentality of the draft or a loyalty to country, many US war dogs in World War II were donated by their owners to the cause. Whether it was the tennis ball obsessed golden retriever, the Boston terrier, or a sweater-sporting chihuahua, it seems the military welcomed all breeds to begin with. We’re not sure who was in charge of that decision -- but by 1944 the military determined only seven breeds fit the bill; malamutes, Siberian huskies, German shepherds, Belgian sheepdogs, collies, Eskimo dogs, and Doberman pinschers. We dug up records showing 549 K-9s returned from the war -- with yet again no official numbers known for the total number sent overseas.
With no rest for the weary, K-9s continued to work as messengers and scout dogs, but with the invention of submarines, sentry dogs stationed along American-held coasts quickly became critical. This was the first known use of K-9s as part of the Coast Guard, and more than 3,100 had been assigned to the coasts by the end of the war. The role of K-9s in the Coast Guard has changed dramatically since then, and we’ve been lucky enough to help outfit today’s K9s with Rex Specs on so many day-to-day missions.
WWII is also the first known war of K-9s launching out of helicopters with their fellow soldiers. One border collie parachuted with the British into Italy, while many other K9s launched and parachuted to the beaches of Normandy.
Vietnam’s Top Dogs Saved Thousands of Lives
In what’s referred to as America’s most controversial war, somewhere between 4,000-5,000 K-9s are reported to have served in Vietnam. The “Top Dog” program was successful in finding scout and sentry dogs critical to the war effort, despite the fact feeding a military dog cost more than feeding a handler.
Though reports vary, somewhere around 350 K9s and 263 handlers were killed in action in Vietnam. K9s were so effective in the war that the Viet Cong put bounties on K9s, considering their deaths of higher importance than their handlers. But one of the horrors of this war is what happened to the K9s who survived serving their country bravely. Military dogs were classified as “surplus equipment,” and the dogs who so dutifully served their country were, even when their handlers petitioned to bring their heroes back with them, either euthanized at the end of the war or left to the South Vietnamese.
One famous hero is the German shepherd Nemo, who was selected by the Air Force when he wasn’t yet two years old. He and his handler, Airman Bryant, were deployed to the Republic of South Vietnam in early 1966, but after six months Bryant finished his deployment and Nemo was assigned 22-year-old Robert Thorneburg as his new handler.
In December of that same year, the two were on patrol when Nemo alerted on enemy soldiers who opened fire before Thorneburg could radio for assistance. Thorneburg was shot in the shoulder, and Nemo too was shot, with the bullet entering directly below his right eye and out through his mouth. But Nemo didn’t give up -- he launched his entire 85-lbs at the enemy, giving his handler just enough time to radio for help. In the minutes before the reaction team arrived, Nemo showed his unending loyalty for his handler, crawling over to him and laying on top of his body to protect him.
Though Nemo continued to work on perimeter duty after being blinded in his right eye, it was ultimately determined he needed additional treatment and his tour of duty ended.
The Present Day Role of Military K-9 Heros
With huge advancements in both training methods and special K-9 gear, dogs have become indispensable in the military today (and as we’ve seen in our retrospective, they have proved indispensable in saving countless lives in every war we’ve ever fought in). It’s been said that 150 lives can be saved by one MWD.
With the primary cause of death for US troops being that of IEDs, the job of detecting these devices has been primarily put on military K9s. In 2007, only 13 Labrador retrievers were deployed to Iraq to sniff out these dangerous explosives; if anyone were to question the success of that decision, by 2012 that number was up to 600.
Military K9s have advanced over the years just like the military, with the elite of the elite training for combat. It’s known that the average military German shepherd puts out anywhere from 400 to 700 lbs of pressure with one bite -- not something you’d want to mess with. The most well-known role of a K-9 today is that of Cairo, a Belgian malinois, who was included in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Unlike his earlier counterparts, Cairo was outfitted with his own equipment (estimated at around $20,000), a tactical vest capable of withstanding shrapnel and knife attacks made of dual Kevlar panels as well as an infrared camera. After the success of the mission, President Obama famously asked to meet Cairo for himself.
From 2001 to 2013, at least 92 military working dogs were killed in action. One of the biggest differences between today’s MWDs and those in earlier wars is the amount of money going into the multimillion-dollar industry that trains them. Let's take a moment to remember, thank and honor the dogs of war.