Warriors and dogs have been partners for more than 2,000 years. “Courage at both ends of the leash” – those words are engraved on one of the many memorials throughout the world honoring military working dogs. Dogs have gone into battle wearing armor, guarded encampments, tracked enemy combatants, delivered messages, detected mines and other explosives, scouted out snipers, located wounded, hauled armaments and laid underground telegraph wire, to name just a few of the ways they have aided armies over the centuries.
Canine loyalty, intelligence, mobility and ingenuity are among the attributes that make dogs valuable to the armed forces. The most common breeds are Belgian malinois, German shepherd and Labrador retriever. Doberman pinschers were famous during World War II as the “devil dogs” of the Marines. One of the best known was Kurt, the first canine casualty on Guam, killed by incoming mortars and grenades after he alerted troops to the presence of Japanese forces. A war dog memorial on the island features a sculpture of Kurt by artist Susan Bahary and the words “always faithful.” It lists the names of all 25 Marine war dogs who lost their lives there in 1944.
Not every military working dog fits the “big and tough” stereotype. Smoky, a four-pound Yorkshire terrier, was adopted by Cpl. William A. Wynne after she was found in an abandoned foxhole on New Guinea during World War II. For two years, the little dog nicknamed “Yorkie Doodle Dandy” rode in a backpack, went on combat and reconnaissance flights and ate Spam and C-rations with the best of them. She proved her valor and value by warning Wynne of incoming shells and, most famously, pulling a telegraph wire through a 70-foot pipe with only an eight-inch diameter. Her feat saved ground crewmen from a grueling and dangerous dig.
Another uncommon canine war hero was Sergeant Stubby, a Boston terrier noted as the most decorated dog during World War I. The official mascot of the U.S. 102nd Infantry Regiment, his exploits included alerting his regiment to mustard gas attacks and incoming shells, locating wounded soldiers and capturing a German soldier, grabbing and holding him by the seat of his pants. In the trenches in France for 18 months, he participated in 17 battles and was a celebrity at home. His story hits the silver screen next year, with “Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero” set for release on April 13.
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Today’s combat dogs undergo rigorous training. In Afghanistan, military working dogs may wear cameras and scout areas before troops move in. They don’t typically enjoy the same media exposure as Smoky and Stubby, but Belgian malinois Cairo, a Navy SEAL dog, stepped into the spotlight in 2011 after taking part in Operation Neptune Spear, during which Osama bin Laden was killed.
Last month, five military dogs were honored at Capitol Hill with American Humane’s Lois Pope K-9 Medal of Courage, awarded for extraordinary valor and service. The canine honorees were Coffee, a chocolate Lab who sought out IEDs and other security threats in Afghanistan; black Lab Alphie, an explosive-detection dog in Afghanistan who now works for the TSA; Capa, an explosives and patrol dog who also received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for meritorious service; black Lab Ranger, who served as an explosives-detection dog in Afghanistan and Iraq; and posthumously, Gabe, who was sprung from a Houston animal shelter and trained as a specialized search dog, a career in which he earned more than 40 awards.
“Soldiers have been relying on these four-footed comrades-in-arms since the beginning of organized warfare, and today military dogs are more important than ever in keeping our service men and women safe,” said AHA president and CEO Dr. Robin Ganzert.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Kim Campbell Thornton, affiliated with Vetstreet.com.