What is a military war dog? The dictionary definition includes the description, “a dog trained to serve on the battlefield,” in addition to being used to describe humans who behave in warlike ways.
Our article focuses on canines, who have been used in combat nearly as long as they have associated with humans. Roman legions used them, troops on both sides of both World Wars had dogs, and in the 21st century a war dog helped bring down the leader of ISIS in 2019. And where do these 21st-century war dogs come from?
The Department of Defense training program is located at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, operated by the 341st Training Squadron there to prepare and train military working dogs (MWDs) used in patrolling, drug detection, explosive detection, and “specialized missions”.
The squadron provides logistical support, veterinary care, plus R&D for operational security approaches. We’ll get a closer look at the 341st, below.
A Short History Of War Dogs
There is a history of less formalized use of dogs in combat. Dogs were used to smuggle intelligence during the Civil War, and the Red Cross used them in World War One to find wounded soldiers.
But it wasn’t until World War Two that American military planners would try to make partnerships with non-military organizations to further the integration of dogs into American combat units.
A WW2 Joint Effort
World War Two saw the United States military contemplating a partnership with a civilian organization known as Dogs For Defense. In 1942, Dogs For Defense partnered with the Defense Department to create training centers for war dogs.
In the early days of the program many dog breeds were considered, but the list was culled in favor of the most suitable breeds for the work required. Dogs that are sensitive to loud sounds like explosions or gunfire can’t work as military dogs. (Animals that have a compromised sense of smell also cannot make the grade for the DoD program.)
Come 1944, war dog platoons deployed to both Europe and the Pacific. The Army Quartermaster Corps would pass the K9 Corps dogs or K-9 Working Dog mission to Security Forces, and in modern times the dogs are trained in a multi-service environment at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
Dogs And The Fog Of War
Being a war dog or a war dog handler is not without its risks.
Depending on which side of the war effort you were on, dogs were more at risk thanks to the awful plans of their handlers. Some published sources indicate that during World War Two, Russian troops actually gave explosives to some war dogs and sent them after Nazi invasion forces.
This deplorable practice was not only ill-advised, it was also reportedly not very effective. Worse, the dogs were originally trained to drop explosives and run away. This did not work and the Soviet response to this failure was to simply strap a bomb on the dog and send it on a suicide mission.
According to one source, war dogs were apparently trained by U.S. forces as an anti-tank resource, but the dogs were never used in this capacity.
Some 5,000 US war dogs served in the Vietnam War, with approximately 10,000 troops deployed as handlers. More than 200 dogs and nearly 300 handlers were killed in action in Vietnam.
The use of war dogs has increased since 2001. Prior to 9/11 the Air Force alone used roughly 200 working dogs. Fast forward a few years and that number has more than doubled. DoD-wide in present times there are more than 2,300 active working dogs, many of which act as explosive sniffers and sentries.
The DoD War Dog Program Today
War dogs are bred and whelped by the 341st Training Squadron in a state-of-the-art facility until they are eight weeks old. Once they reach eight weeks, they need to be socialized properly before they can be fit to enter a war dog training plan.
K9 Dog Foster Care
They are placed into temporary foster care, which is a program that relies on volunteers who live in the local area within a reasonable distance who socialize a K9 puppy for a limited amount of time (five months at the time of this writing) before returning the animal to the 341st.
This program is easy to confuse with another military working dog adoption process that helps to give war dogs a home if they have retired, are declared no longer fit for duty, or were unable to meet the standards for a working dog as part of the training program.
The “adoption” for puppies waiting to be entered into the training program is not permanent; the dogs must be returned. The “retirement” program for adopting war dogs IS permanent.
Once war dog puppies have been adopted and socialized for the specified amount of time, they come back to the 341st to be entered into a training program where they will either pass and be placed into active service, or fail the program and be made available for adoption to an owner who would care for the dog permanently.
Entering the K9 War Dog Program
When they are ready, dogs in the program are put through a 120-day program that begins with obedience training, and leads to combat tactics and how to sniff out contraband. The initial training program has in the past involved positive reinforcement techniques rather than punishment for wrong choices or behavior.
After the initial training phase, war dogs are taught how to work with teams. And believe it or not, humans need war dog training, too. After all, how can you recognize the signs that a war dog is showing you when explosives are detected? Knowing how the dog communicates with the handler is a very important part of the relationship between dog and handler.
Dogs that pass the training process can be deployed all over the world, and 21st century innovations like veterinary tele-medicine help to keep the dogs in good care no matter where they are.
Protecting Dogs At War
As part of a military team, working dogs need protection the same way their handlers do; protection from shrapnel, gunfire, all the same considerations for body armor and gas masks apply to working dogs, too.
A dog without protection is a dog exposed to the elements of war and DoD research includes projects designed to protect both humans and K9 troops.
A 2004 article published on the DoD official site DefenseNews.gov mentions such research, stating that gas masks and body armor for working dogs was a priority, as well as nerve agent antidotes for canines who must work in forward deployed locations.
Dogs That Cannot Make The Cut As A K9 Working Dog
Not all dogs are fit for duty. Some don’t have the discipline, some don’t have the right sense of smell to detect bombs or drugs, and some aren’t socialized well enough. Other dogs may qualify but later get sick or hurt.
In the end, all of these animals must be provided good homes, which is one reason why there is a working dog adoption program operated in two different ways with the blessing of the DoD.
Adopting From A Local K9 Unit
One option is offered at the base level or “local” level, with the leadership of the local K9 mission determining who may adopt a working dog retiring or being taken off duty. The local kennel handles all the details, paperwork, and processing.
And then there’s the adoption program operated at Joint Base Lackland-San Antonio. The 341st Training Squadron has a screening process for potential dog adopters to determine who is the best fit.
Requirements For Dogs And Handlers
There are requirements for those who want to adopt a working dog including having a six-foot fence, and those with children under five are not permitted to adopt a working dog until the children are five or older.
The dogs are screened for suitability in the adoption process, and potential adopters must provide references and written details of how the dog will be cared for and homed. This process is not ideal for those in a hurry to adopt a dog; it can take as long as two years to complete due to the unique nature and needs of these animals.
There is also a priority list. Law enforcement agencies and those who have prior experience with military dogs are given first shot at adoptions. The general public has access to the adoption process after those two priorities.
If you are interested in learning more about adopting a military working dog, contact the 341st Training Squadron at [email protected] or call 210-671-6766.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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