Dogs in the armed forces


The role of dogs on the battlefield has evolved as weapons and armies have been developed. Originally employed as a “foot soldier” in the frontline, dressed in a suit of armour, dogs gradually took on other duties as guards, trackers, patrollers, messengers and medical assistants, once again displaying their extreme devotion, generosity and capacities to serve and protect people and societies.

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Combat dogs


Dogs have been used in human wars since the 13th century BC. Powerful molossers were used most often, formidable beasts which could bring a man down and inflict serious injury with their terrible bites. These dogs looked much like the present-day Tibetan Mastiff, although considerably more imposing, measuring up to 30 inches at the withers, compared with today’s 27 inches.

More ferocious than the Greyhounds bred by the Pharaohs, these dogs were in great demand in Egypt and later in Greece, eventually gaining ground in the Roman Empire after the conquest of the Greek territories. Around the same time, Gauls, Celts and Germans developed a breed derived from the Great Dane. The two canine types would have faced each other in the battles of the 1st century BC.

It was not difficult to train these dogs, given that their role was simply to kill any enemy soldiers or horses they came across. Gradually, they were equipped with armour plating with spiky points and strips of sharp scythes, spiked collars and hides covered in a flammable substance. These machines of war were used to scatter horses and frightened or injure foot soldiers. Advancements in firearms in the 19th century saw the disappearance of these terrifying animals from the battlefield.

Sentry dogs

Their astonishing sense of smell and predisposition to defending and guarding has enabled dogs to become sentries at forts and fortresses.

Plutarch described the exploits of the dog Soter. “Corinth was defended by a garrison, assisted by 50 Molossers that slept on the beach”. One evening, the enemy armies disembarked. The troops had feasted the night before and were not in a state of readiness, so it was left to the dogs to fight the battle. Facing a much bigger force, the canine defenders were all killed until only one was left. This dog, Soter, managed to escape and raise the alarm with his barking, enabling the Corinthians to arm themselves and fend off the attack. To reward his courage, Soter was given a magnificent collar with the inscription “To Soter, defender and saviour of Corinth”. This type of dog was especially common in the Middle Ages, defending places such as St. Michael’s Mount in Normandy and the fortified town of Saint-Malo in Brittany, where, in a tradition started in 1155, 24 English Mastiffs were left on the shore every evening to guard the boats from pirates. The practice was discontinued in 1770, when a young officer was devoured on the beach. Dogs continue to work as sentries to this day.

Tracker dogs

Numerous dogs have been trained to follow a trail left by a person. During Columbus’ invasion of Native American territories dogs were trained to find and kill the enemy. In La Vega, the modern-day Dominican Republic, thousands of Native Americans were routed by just 150 foot soldiers, 30 cavalrymen and 20 war dogs. Later, the Spanish used dogs in South America to track down escaped plantation slaves. The dogs were trained using black dummies filled with blood and guts. Excited by the odour, the dogs would quickly make the connection between these dummies and the poor slaves, who really didn’t stand a chance.

In the Algerian War of Independence (1854-62) tracker dogs were deployed to find enemy troops that had managed to elude security. One of them was Gamin, a German Shepherd from the military kennels so aggressive on first arrival in the country no one dared go near him. It took a military policeman, Gilbert Godefroid, to calm and train Gamin. In March 1958 a group of around 200 men managed to cross the electrified fence at the Tunisian border. Godefroid and Gamin were quickly dropped in the battle zone by helicopter, followed by the 1st foreign parachute regiment. Gamin soon found the trail, but just as he released his dog Godefroid was mortally wounded by a burst of automatic gunfire. The dog was also wounded, but it didn’t stop him from killing the gunman. Gamin crawled back to his master and lay over his body to protect him. It ultimately took six men with a tent sheet to overpower Gamin, and although they got him back to base camp he was completely unapproachable. Military bosses gave Gamin an honourable discharge, retiring him to south west France, where he died of grief just two weeks after his arrival. The United States armed forces also used tracker dogs in Vietnam, where they were trained to follow soldiers silently on missions to find and encircle Vietcong encampments.

Liaison dogs


Good communications are critical in war. Advanced detachments need to get information back to HQ or the front line so that plans can be updated. Before the invention of telecommunications dogs were widely used as messengers.

In Antiquity, dogs were forced to swallow messages and were killed on arrival so that these messages could be retrieved. This practice was short-lived, however, not because it was considered cruel, but because it was expensive.

In the 18th century, Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia reintroduced the practice to pass messages between armies in his kingdom. The dogs he used made a great impression in the Seven Years’ War, giving birth to a whole line of messenger and liaison dogs.

‘Relay dogs’ were introduced in the Great War (1914-1918). The selection criteria were stringent: these dogs had to be between about 16 inches and 28 inches at the withers, have a neutral coat, be in perfect health, have excellent sight, smell and hearing, and be calm, intelligent and obedient. They had to be 2-5 years old to ensure they were at the top of their game and robust enough to withstand bad weather, privations and fatigue.

They had a vital role to play, connecting points several miles apart in often difficult climatic conditions. It was reported that these dogs could cover 3 miles in 12 minutes during a bombardment. They carried messages in clear that could be easily deciphered by enemy troops, but this gamble paid off because they were rarely caught.

Carrier and draught dogs


Dogs are able to carry up to 15 lbs of extra weight, so it‘s no surprise they were widely used to carry munitions, provisions and even arms to the front lines in various wars. In the Great War, German dogs were captured carrying light machine guns. That conflict saw the creation of two types of dog. Some were trained to carry a reel of telephone wire over a dangerous route through trenches, firing lines and barbed wire to re-establish lines of communication cut by fighting, while others were trained to carry homing pigeons to outposts

Draught dogs were used as early as 1911, when the Belgians employed them to pull machine guns. They were preferred to horses due to their better endurance and excellent mobility in following men in the undergrowth. In the same phase of the war, dogs were harnessed to carts loaded with supplies and stretchers bearing the injured. They were even used by the Germans on the eastern front to pull sledges. Due to the controversy that developed about a dog’s capacity to pull any moving object, only the Belgian, German (for a short time) and the Russian armies actually used this type of dog.

Scout dogs

Their well developed guarding and protecting instincts meant that scout dogs soon made names for themselves. Used to flush out enemies hidden in bushes and thickets, they enabled patrols to thwart ambush attempts and flag up the presence of enemy troops. These dogs were also deployed to guard prisoner escorts. Few dogs were to get their names into the history books, but they did enable countless patrols to find the enemy or their trails.

Medic dogs


The Egyptians were the first to train dogs to recover the wounded: once the battle was over these dogs would be released onto the battlefield to find anyone still alive, who they would mark by licking.

Medic dogs returned to the theatre of war in the 20th century. Trained to recover the wounded, they would flag them up by bringing back an object belonging to them: a soldier’s helmet often served as a signal for the medics who would send out the dog again in search of new wounded comrades. Their involvement was fundamental: the wounded could only be recovered under cover of darkness, and the dogs were good at directing search parties. The first Société du Chien Sanitaire was established in 1885 by the Belgian Van de Putte, followed by a German society founded by the animal artist Bungartz. Not until 1908 did France equip its own dogs, following an earlier move by the German army.

There are a whole host of stories about the exploits of these dogs, such as this testimony of a soldier from Mans, who was wounded on 2 November 1915. “Hit in the arm by a shell, with a bullet in my jaw and a bayonet wound in my scalp, I was half buried under the corpses of many of my comrades when I felt something stroke my forehead; it was a fine German Shepherd medic dog that licked my face. I managed to raise myself a little in spite of my physical pains. I knew that the dogs were trained to return to camp with the helmets of wounded soldiers, but I had lost mine. The brave dog hesitated. ‘Go,’ I said to it, ‘Go little doggie, find my comrades.’ It understood, turned and made off for camp energetically, barking, pulling on their coats, which grabbed the attention of two brave stretcher-bearers. They followed it, it took them right to me. I was saved.”

Dangerous missions

Dogs have sometimes been used in difficult situations and exceptional conditions.

During the war in Indochina, the terrain and the vegetation posed a great many problems in operations undertaken by French troops. The dangers facing parachutists dropped in enemy territory were revealed in the first few months of the campaign. Dogs were able to accelerate the meticulous searches the soldiers had to conduct. On September 5-6, 1949, parachutist dogs were tested at Meucon.

The principal difficulties during parachute training were encountered when the dogs left the plane, and when they hit the ground. Lighter than their masters, dogs reached the ground a long time after the humans and far away, which delayed recovery and the start of the operation significantly. A reduction in parachute size solved this problem, enabling the dogs to touch down at the same time and close by their masters.

Other dogs have sadly sacrificed their lives for the cause. The Soviet general Panfilon, faced with the advance of the German army, trained dogs to search for their food under armoured vehicles. Not feeding them for one or two days ahead of an attack, a mine was attached to their backs and the dogs were pushed towards their terrible fate. This cruel practice spread pandemonium through the German ranks.

Dogs are indispensible assistants in every army in the world, often poorly recognised by some commanders who are only interested in sophisticated arms, forgetting the extraordinary things this animal can achieve. Many of these dogs have been decorated for heroic deeds.

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Dogs in the armed forces
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