A History of the Military Dog Breeds Who Fought Alongside Us

We bet you have big plans with your pooch this holiday weekend — maybe a game of fetch or a run on the beach or just a nap in the hammock. However you celebrate, we know you’ll enjoy your time with your best friend.

But dogs can be more than companions. In many cases, they stand alongside servicemen andservicewomen in combat zones, where they display the same loyalty and responsibility we value in them at home.

This Memorial Day, we look back at the history of military dogs and celebrate the successes and sacrifices of our canine comrades in arms.

Military Breeds

Mastiff dog breed

Sally Anne Thompson, Animal Photography

Ancient Warriors

The most ancient uses of dogs were for hunting and guarding. As groups of humans fought one another, it was only natural that they would engage their hunters and guardians in battle. According to Michael Lemish's book War Dogs, the ancient Persians, Greeks, Babylonians and Romans all took dogs to war. The dogs tended to be large molosser types (Mastiff progenitors) and were used not only for defense but also for offense. They wore armor and spiked collars and were both bred and trained for ferocity against opponents — and were just plain scary looking.

Greyhound dog breed

Sam Clark, Animal Photography

Conquering Forces

Dogs proved to be an almost unfair advantage when used by invading forces against people who had no such toothed weapons. Lemish writes that as early as the fifth century, Attila the Hun traveled with armored molosser dogs on his conquest of Europe. In 1493, Christopher Columbus set his Mastiffs and Greyhounds on the natives he encountered in the New World, a cruel practice continued — often simply for entertainment — by other Spanish conquerors throughout Central America and Mexico. Lemish also notes that in 1695, the British employed "savage" dogs in Jamaica in the Maroon War.  

Civil War dog with George Custer


Early America

The American military was slow to adopt the use of dogs in battle, Lemish writes, despite advice from Benjamin Franklin and others that they would provide an advantage against Native Americans. During the American Civil War, dogs were often used as mascots and as prison camp sentries and trackers, but not as combatants. (Photo shows Union Army Gen. George Armstrong Custer seated with his dog in front of his tent circa 1862, exact date unknown). It wasn't until the Spanish-American War of 1898 that the United States began to appreciate the value of patrol dogs, but their use was still the exception rather than the rule.

Brindle Boxer

Sally Anne Thompson, Animal Photography

World War I Rescue Dogs

In the First World War, Red Cross dogs were used by both sides to find wounded soldiers, bring back evidence of them and lead rescuers to them. Lemish writes that an assortment of breeds were used, including German Shepherds, Airedale Terriers, Boxers, Bulldogs, sheepdogs, and various retrievers. Draft breeds, like the Bouvier des Flandres, were used to pull ambulance carts in World War I, especially near the start of the war. Dogs, Lemish explains in his book, were smaller targets than horses and, unlike motorized vehicles, never broke down or ran out of gas. In addition, sled dogs of various Husky-type breeds pulled flatbed cars along train tracks to deliver supplies.

Irish Terrier

Eva Maria Kramer, Animal Photography

In the Trenches

Messenger dogs were employed by France, Great Britain and Germany to run along the elaborate trench system during World War I, according to Lemish's book, ferrying both messages and carrier pigeons to deliver return messages. Again, a variety of breeds were used, and many dogs faced serious dangers doing their jobs. An Irish Terrier named Paddy delivered a message after being partially blinded by gas nine miles before he reached his destination.  

Sergeant Stubby
Mascot Dogs

Most dogs accompanying U.S. troops in World War I, Lemish writes, were mascots who provided companionship and comfort to soldiers living in the trenches. The most famous military mascot was Sergeant Stubby, a brindle Bull Terrier mix secreted into Europe by Private J. Robert Conroy, who had found the stray during training camp at Yale University in 1917. In early 1918, Stubby survived a mustard gas attack. After his recovery, alerted by the gas smell he then recognized, he warned his troop of a surprise attack by running through the trenches, barking and biting at the soldiers. Stubby also captured a German spy, holding him by the seat of his pants until military police arrived. Stubby participated in 17 battles, received a shrapnel wound and was generally hailed as a hero.

Alaskan Malamute

Karin Newstrom, Animal Photography

Sled Dogs

With the approach of World War II, the United States realized it needed a concerted war dog effort. When war broke out in 1939, Lemish writes, the only American military dogs were sled dogs that were used to locate crashed pilots in Greenland. Some of the dogs were from Admiral Byrd's polar expedition and included Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, American Eskimo Dogs and Chinooks.

German Shepherd Dog

Nick Ridley, Animal Photography

Civilian Dogs

In 1942, with American troops fully engaged in World War II, Dogs for Defense was organized. A plea went out for civilians to volunteer their dogs; qualified canines had to weigh between 25 and 85 pounds, stand between 23 and 28 inches, and be between 1 and 5 years old. (Eventually, the age limit was lowered to 2 years.) Females had to be spayed. Approximately 40,000 dogs were volunteered, and about 32,000 made it past an initial screening. At first, more than 30 breeds were accepted, but by 1944, the list of preferred breeds was shortened to five: German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Belgian Sheepdogs, Giant Schnauzers and short-coated Collies.

Doberman Pinscher dog breed

Mary Bloom

Patrol Dogs

The German Shepherd Dog and Doberman Pinscher soon dominated as the first choices for U.S. patrol dogs. The Marines favored the Doberman because of its trainability, alertness, bravery and short coat — and because the Doberman Pinscher Club of America gave them their first dogs. Dobes became associated with the Marine Corps and were widely known as the Devil Dogs of the Marines, even though the Marines also used other breeds. According to Lemish's book, the Doberman was far less popular with the Army and was often perceived as too high-strung for patrol. By the Korean War, only German Shepherds were used by the U.S. Army for sentry and patrol duties. Not only were they considered more tractable, but their coat better protected them from the harsh environment in that part of the world. 

Labrador Retriever

Leesia Teh, Animal Photography

Odor Detector Dogs

During the Vietnam War, German Shepherds were trained as mine and tunnel detectors. Scent dogs were also used to track fleeing enemies. According to Lemish, Bloodhounds were tried first, but they made too much noise on the trail. Labrador Retrievers were the answer: Highly trainable, docile and dedicated to a track, they formed the core of the tracker dog program in Vietnam. Today, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers and Golden Retrievers share odor detection duties with Labs.

Belgian Malinois

Tara Gregg, Animal Photography

Modern Military Dogs

Although not as well known as the German Shepherd, the Dutch Shepherd has recently grown in popularity as a military dog. It has a variety of coat lengths, including a short coat better suited for hot climates than the German Shepherd's thicker coat. The breed almost died out in its homeland during World War II because of lack of food. Only concerted breeding efforts brought it back from the brink of extinction.

For deployment in the Middle East, the Belgian Malinois is the military dog of choice. More heat resistant than the German Shepherd and equally, if not more, nimble and responsive, the Belgian Malinois is also a popular police dog. Its light and compact build makes it ideal for tandem parachute jumps as well. A Malinois named Cairo was part of the U.S. Navy SEAL mission that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Canaan Dog

Sally Anne Thompson, Animal Photography

Designing Military Breeds

Some countries have chosen to breed their own military dogs. In the 1940s, the Soviets began a breeding program to develop the ideal military dog. They imported several breeds, mostly German, into their Red Star kennels. A Giant Schnauzer became the core of the program; his progeny were crossed with many other breeds, including Airedale Terriers, Rottweilers and Moscow Water Dogs, and by 1957, the Black Russian Terrier was established. Black Russian Terriers have served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, working as mine-detection dogs, draft dogs and first-aid dogs.

The Soviets weren't alone in their desire to create the ideal military dog. The Canaan Dog is descended from largely feral dogs left to fend for themselves in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Bedouins would capture the canines and train them as guard and livestock dogs. When the Israeli Defense Force tried to use military dogs in the 1930s, the popular military breeds couldn't handle the heat. So Dr. Rudolphina Menzel followed the Bedouins' example and domesticated feral Canaan Dogs; the dogs were used to develop a breeding and training program. By World War II, Canaan Dogs were serving as all-purpose military dogs. 

U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument
Fallen Heroes

In October 2013, the U.S. Working Dog Teams National Monument was dedicated at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Lackland is the heart of military dog training in the United States, and the memorial honors all dogs who have sacrificed for their handlers, comrades and country. There are other war dog memorials throughout the country and beyond; one of the better known is the National War Dog Cemetery on Guam, dedicated to the dogs who gave their lives there in 1944 during the Second Battle of Guam.

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