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Purpose Bred Dogs – Military Dogs of War

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Ever wondered about the history of military dogs of war? How and where did they originate?Historically, dogs in the military have struggled to earn their deserved recognition as heroes who have played a vital role in the military. The earliest recorded use of dogs in combat was around 600 BC by Alyattes of Lydia against the Cimmerians. They were used by the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. These dogs were used to break up enemy formations, charging into the ranks and sowing chaos before their human counterparts jumped in. Dogs were also useful to attack war horses.

Aeneas, known as the Tactician (one of the earliest Greek writers on the art of war who is credited as the first author to provide a complete guide to securing military communications), wrote in the 4th century BC about dogs being used for a range of purposes, one of them most certainly being as war dogs. In his writings, he recommends tethering them outside the wall so as to detect spies and escapees and to alert guards by barking (Aeneas 22.14). They would also accompany human guards on their rounds outside the city walls. In 243 BC, the Achaeans guarded Acrocorinthos with 400 soldiers and 50 dogs each with their own individual handlers.

Dogs can be seen in this drawing by Pietro Bellori (an Italian painter and biographer of artists of the 17th century) from a 1704 publication – you can see the dogs come ashore from ships during an invasion

The U.S. has made the most extensive use of them in warfare. These dogs have been used to detect bombs or drugs and sniff out enemies. They are fearless in the face of incoming bullets and danger, and their prey drive ensures they are always ready to be on the go – ready for action at a moment’s notice.

They are weapons themselves, ready to sink their sharp teeth into enemy flesh. The U.S. military actually has “puppy development specialists” (people who work with hand picked puppies to develop their basic social skills and prep them for their future) until they begin their military training at around 6 months of age. The US Marine Corps began its war dog program in 1942 and during WWI they distributed experimental dog units across the Pacific theater.

However, throughout most of history, they were often thought of as expendable once they outlived their usefulness, despite their contributions and heroism. Oftentimes, these dogs were separated from their handlers (take a look at this article: Troops betrayed as Army dumps hundreds of heroic war dogs), who felt as though a part of themselves had been ripped away from their hearts. Way back in the past, after the Vietnam war, only about 200 Vietnam War dogs who survived the war were assigned at other U.S. bases outside the U.S. – the remaining dogs were euthanized or left behind.

Chips, a U.S. Army dog, meets Eisenhower. (Photo from U.S. Army)

Chips (1940-1946) was a trained sentry dog who was the most decorated war dog from World War II. He was a German Shepherd-Collie-Siberian Husky mix owned by Edward J.  Wren of Pelasantville, New York, who served with the 3rd Infantry Division in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. His handler, John P. Rowell, and Chips were pinned down on the beach by an Italian machine-gun team. Chips broke away from his handler and jumped into the pillbox, attacking the gunners and forcing them to leave. They then surrendered to US troops. Chip was injured, yet still managed to help take ten Italians prisoner later that day. He was awarded a purple heart, the Distinguished Service Cross, and Silver Star – all of which were revoked later due to an Army policy preventing official commendation of animals. His unit unofficially awarded him a theater ribbon and 8 battle stars. (A movie was made in 1990 by Disney about his life, entitled “Chips, the War Dog”).

The Marine Corp’s first official mascot was the USMC’s highest ranking war dog – an English Bulldog named Jiggs. Jiggs enlisted in the Marines in 1922, climbing through the ranks to become Sergeant Major in 1925.

Sergeant Major Jiggs was the first bulldog to “serve” in the Marine Corps as the mascot. The bulldog became an important Marine Corps symbol during World War I. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution (NASM 83-7531). Photo Number: NASM 83-7531

As modern warfare has evolved, so have war dogs, their roles and the recognition awarded to them. Today, over 90% of retired military war dogs are allowed to be adopted by their former handlers. They have armor tailored for them and technological assets. They have titanium teeth to replace ones they break during service (the teeth are only replaced with titanium if medically necessary) and Hearing Protection/Active Communication systems being proposed. A Russian defense company called Scientific Production Association of Special Materials has produced specialized body armor for protecting K9 dogs and military working dogs, called “Nord Body Armour“. It is a vest designed to prevent fatal injury for bomb sniffing dogs. The product was brought to life inspired after Diesel, a heroic and brave military canine, was killed in a terrorist raid in the Saint-Denis region of France.

85% of military working dogs are purchased from Germany and the Netherlands, where they have been purpose bred for hundreds of years for military service – literally “born for the job”. The remaining percentage of working dogs are born and bred in the USA. Complex training techniques utilize the dog’s natural traits for focus and aggression to the military’s advantage. Only about 50% make it through training. The dogs have an average of 98% accuracy rate in their detection skills. The dogs have to be extraordinary, and at around 7-9 months of age, only the ones that meet all required criteria are considered for movement into the pre-training program.

Military dogs of war are often bred for and exhibit the following traits:

  • strong drive (prey/play)
  • high intelligence
  • highly tenacious
  • adaptable to different environments
  • fearless
  • appropriate level of aggressiveness and excitability
  • loyal
  • athletic
  • highly focused
  • heightened and keen sense of smell
  • highly reward motivated
  • free of physical issues like hip dysplasia
  • ability to attack on command (some dogs have been dropped from the program due to extreme stress at having to bite a human)

Handlers work to ensure their puppies develop their sense of drive, biting grip, environmental and social stability and military skills based on whether they are required to detect, attack or apprehend.

Breeds used:


  • German Shepherd (preferred as the standard because of their unique combination of traits)
  • Belgian Malinois
  • Dutch Shepherds
  • Neapolitan Mastiff  (used as a guard dog mostly today, but historically traces its roots to the giant war dogs of Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia and Asia)

Detector Dogs

  • Retrievers (Labradors, Golden or Chesapeake Bay)

The bond that develops between these marvelous war dogs and their handlers is like none other. It is not unusual for dogs or their handlers to experience significant distress if their partner passes away. If a dog of war is lost in combat, their entire squad honors them – feeding dishes are symbolically placed upside down and a poem “Guardians of the Night” is read:

Guardians Of The Night
 Author – Unknown

Trust in me my friend for I am
your comrade. I will protect you
with my last breath When all
others have left you And the
loneliness of the night closes
in, I will be at your side.

Together we will conquer all
obstacles, And search out
those who might wish harm to
others. All I ask of you is
compassion, The caring touch
of your hands. It is for you that I
will unselfishly give my life And
spend my nights unrested.
Although our days together
May be marked by the passing
of the seasons Know that each
day at your side is my reward.

My days are measured by The
coming and going of your
footsteps. I anticipate them at
every opening of the door. You
are the voice of caring when I
am ill. The voice of authority
when I’ve done wrong.

Do not chastise me unduly For
I am your right arm, The sword
at your side. I attempt to do
only what you bid of me. I seek
only to please you and remain
in your favor.

Together you and I shall
experience A bond only others
like us will understand When
outsiders see us together Their
envy will be measured by their

I will quietly listen to you And
pass no judgment, Nor will your
spoken words be repeated I will
remain ever silent, Ever vigilant,
ever loyal. And when our time
together is done And you move
on in the world Remember me
with kind thoughts and tales,
For a time we were unbeatable,
Nothing passed among us

If we should meet again on
another street I will gladly take
up your fight, I am a Military Working Dog
and together
We are guardians of the night.    “

Read another article: Purpose Bred Dogs – Herding Dogs

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