Dogs in the armed forces

Armed forces throughout the world have long understood the varied roles dogs can play on difficult missions. But today’s military dogs are not like the war dogs of ancient times; they have become indispensable assistants to peace-keeping forces.

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Combat dogs

Duhayer - Royal Canin

Dogs have been used in human wars since the 13th century BC, most often powerful molossers, formidable beasts that could bring a man down and inflict serious injury with their terrible bites. These dogs looked much like the present-day Tibetan Mastiff, albeit much 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 canines 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 injured foot soldiers. Advancements in firearms in the 19th century saw the disappearance of these terrifying animals from the battlefield.

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German Army Dogs

The German Forces (Bundeswehr) have been using military working dogs since 1958. The Bundeswehr started with a dog squadron of 10 trainers, 7 dog handlers and 52 guard dogs in Koblenz/Bubenheim. For nearly 40 years, the sole task of the handlers and their dogs has been guarding military bases, airports, military depots etc. By the end of 1980 the number of dogs had grown to around 2000, handled by civilian employees. German reunification led to a reduction of troops and today there are less than 500 guard dogs.

The participation of Germany in international military missions has necessitated it to train soldiers as dog handlers and dogs with other abilities than guard dogs. The first steps of the Bundeswehr School of Dog Handling were taken in 1993 when the first explosive sniffer dogs were trained. The school is the centre for recruitment, training, selection and breeding of dogs and has a veterinary medical facility. Since 2005 it has been located in Ulmen/Eifel.

Since 1997, dog handlers and their dogs have been deployed continuously on missions to the Balkans, Congo and Afghanistan and the functions of the dogs include drug sniffing, mine detection and explosive ordnance detection in addition to patrol, scout, tracker and military police dog. There are in the region of 300 military handlers, including military police, air borne infantry, engineers and explosive ordnance disposal personnel.


Leander Buchner
Veterinary Colonel
German Armed Forces

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, enemy armies disembarked. The Corinthian 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 such places as Mont Saint Michel 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.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

Tracker dogs

Many 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 unfortunate slaves, who didn’t really stand a chance.

This military role was really developed after the Second World War, by the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam and more recently by the coalition of the willing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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 fairly severe: they had to be between about 40-70cm (16-28 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 between 2-5 years old to ensure they were at the height of their abilities 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 uncoded messages that could easily be 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 10kg (22 lbs) of extra weight.


Dogs are able to carry up to 10kg (22lbs) 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 over horses due to their better endurance and excellent mobility in following men in the undergrowth. At the same time the 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 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 a name 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 allow 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 the dog out 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 (Society of Medic Dogs) was established in 1885 by the Belgian Van de Putte, followed by a German society founded by the animal artist Bungartz. France didn’t equip its own dogs until 1908, 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 pain. 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 5-6th 1949, parachutist dogs were trialled 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 as and close to their masters.

The armed forces of many countries now have canine parachute units. Alaska’s National Guard even uses them on search and rescue missions.

Other dogs have sadly sacrificed their lives during missions. 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 then attached to their backs and the dogs were pushed towards their doom. This cruel practice spread pandemonium through the German ranks.

Still indispensable

While dogs have the same aptitudes they have always had, as the art of war has changed so too has the role of canines. They have parachuted into forward positions, transported carrier pigeons, detected mines and chemical attacks. Nowadays they are flown in to intervention areas by helicopter, abseiling down with their handler. Who knows how their role will evolve in the future.

All of these dogs need to be as calm as possible in the midst of gunfire and explosions, while also remaining ready for swift action at a moment’s notice, which demands daily training and the establishment of a strong bond of trust between dog and handler.

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Belgian defence dogs


The Belgian Army has been using patrol dogs to guard military areas for many years. A patrol team is made up of either two servicemen or a handler with a dog.

Malinois Belgian Shepherd Dogs account for 85% of all dogs used, and German Shepherds another 13%. The majority (80%) are males. They are purchased aged 18-24 months and follow a selection programme, which includes tests to assess basic obedience, biting in confrontation situations and their ability to deal with gunfire.

If they pass the selection, the dogs are fully trained and paired with a handler. There are five dog teams at each guard
post, enabling round-the-clock surveillance. For a few years now we’ve encouraged handlers to take their dog home with them, so they stay together at all times, deepening the bond between them.

Besides day-to-day exercises, in-depth training is held with the kennel chiefs twice a month.

As well as around 500 patrol dogs, over the past few years we have also trained explosives, munitions and arms dogs, which work in areas such as Lebanon and Afghanistan, where they perform security duties by examining all vehicles that enter the compounds.In the near future dogs will also be used on active arms and munitions searches and to back up the troops on crowd and riot control missions.


Colonel Miguel Stevens,
Chief Veterinarian of the Belgian
Ministry of Defence

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Abu Dhabi Police Dog Section

The Abu Dhabi Police Dog Section was established in 2005 as part of the restructuring of the police dog units of Abu Dhabi (1982), Al Ain (1983), Almirfa (2002) and Algoevat (2004). In 2006, two new groups were added to the section, which now has a training centre and a breeding kennel in Al Ain.

Abu Dhabi police dogs are used to search for a number of people and objects:

- Criminals

- Explosives - Illegal drugs - Arms

- Buried persons

They are also used for patrols and to fight crime.

The Dog Section also has dogs specialised in the detecting of date palm parasitic diseases, which plays a big part in protecting this important commercial activity.

Abu Dhabi police dog teams regularly participate in search and rescue operations abroad following earthquakes.


Colonel Jamal Habash
Director of the Dog Section,
Abu Dhabi Police
(United Arab Emirates)

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When is the best age to train the dog?

Generally speaking, we can divide the training program into three periods.

The first period: 3-6 months old. The handler stays with the puppy to understand its temperament. At the same time, a well-designed physical training program not only improves the dog’s physical capacities and performance, but also improves its self-confidence, courage, and obedience.

The second period: 6-8 months old. The basic training program can be started, including commands such as come, sit, down, stand, bark, no etc.

The third period: from 8 months old. The training program can be tailored to the dog’s use, especially for working and sports dogs.


Junyan Dong
Chief veterinary surgeon
Public Security
Ministry of China
Nanjing City Police Dog Research Centre
Animal Hospital

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Rumanian National Police: Sibiu Dog Centre

In 1950 the Rumanian Minister for the Interior gave the National Police a Dog Centre in the town of Sibliu, with its optimal climatic conditions for breeding and its great variety of terrain (mountain, forest, plains) to allow the dogs to be developed for different specialities.

The Centre originally consisted of a reproduction and a maternity unit allowing breeding of the dogs needed. Nowadays dogs are bred, raised and trained with their future master. Another feature is the permanent availability of specialised veterinary services 24 hours a day, provided by the Minister for the Interior.

Most of the disciplines (attack, drugs, explosives, missing persons, bodies etc) followed by the police dogs are assigned to different groups of dogs. The prospective handlers are also trained in general understanding of the dog, before specific training lasting several months and enabling them to work daily with their new companion.

At the same time the Centre has developed in the area of odour technique, a science which comprises the dog recognising a suspect in a line-up from a reference odour from the scene of a crime. Although this does not constitute legal proof in Rumania, it is a valuable indicator for detectives.

Fully modernised, Sibiu Dog Centre is recognised in Europe for development of the concept of genetic selection and breeding dogs with specific aptitudes for police work.

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