Memorial Day was filled with events honoring those who gave their lives while serving in our military. But did you know that many of our heroes were “man’s best friend?” Dogs have been used during times of war as far back as the Greeks and Romans. They were initially used by the U.S. military as messengers and for protection, but eventually were trained for combat.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. military realized that our 4-legged companions could serve our country along side our human soldiers. Their immediate focus was the use of dogs on sentry duty to guard against attacks in the U.S. and its harbors. By 1942, “Dogs for Defense” was recognized as the official agency for choosing and training sentry dogs. Eventually, training was given to the Quartermaster Corps of the Army. At first more than thirty breeds were accepted. Later the list was narrowed down to German Shepherds, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Farm Collies and Giant Schnauzers. In all, a little over 19,000 dogs were procured between 1942 and 1945, but about 45% of these were rejected as unsuited for training.
Total training for a dog was between 8-12 weeks, starting with basic training and then moving on to specialized training. There were four areas of specialized training:
Sentry – Trained to warn of approaching strangers
Scout/Patrol – Trained to work in silence and detect enemy forces
Messenger – Trained to deliver messages
Mine – Trained in mine detection
These canine troops could often detect the presence of the enemy at distances up to 1,000 yards greatly lessening the danger of ambush and boosting the morale of the soldiers.
Of the 10,425 dogs trained, approximately 9,300 were used for sentry duty. By early 1944, the emphasis shifted to combat when the War Department authorized the creation of Quartermaster War Dog Platoons.
Dogs have continued to serve our armed forces. During the Vietnam War about 4,000 dogs were employed. Of these 281 were officially killed in action. More recently, Cairo, a Belgian Malinois and member of Seal Team Six, participated in the mission which killed Osama Bin Laden.
The oldest memorial to War Dogs in the United States is at the Hartsdale (New York) Pet Cemetery. This memorial was dedicated in 1922 to War Dogs used in World War I. In 1994 a War Dog memorial was dedicated at the U.S. Marine Corps War Dog Cemetery on Guam to honor the dogs that served in the Pacific during World War II. An effort is currently underway to petition the U.S. Postal Service for a stamp honoring military working dogs.