Band of Brothers: Dogs in the Military

Written by:

PetMD Editorial
Published: November 10, 2008

Over the past several generations, the canine has served alongside our men and women of the military, not only as a trusted ally, but also as a friend. Even today, certain missions require abilities that neither humans nor advanced technology possess, thus the need for the military or "war dog."



During the height of the Roman Empire, "war dogs" were used to break the first line of enemy offense. Feared for their ferociousness, the trained attack dogs were equipped with mail armor and spiked collars. Napoleon would later make use of the dog's superior senses by chaining them to the walls of Alexandria, thereby warning the city dwellers of any impending attacks.


The United States military would not make extensive use of dogs until 1942. After setting standards for training the dogs and their handlers, the U.S. Army called for the donation of American pet dogs to serve in World War II. Some of the breeds included the Doberman Pinscher, Rottweiler, Boxer, Bullmastiff, Collie, German Shepherd, and Belgian Sheepdog, among others. In 1943, the War Dog program was established, and by July of that year over 11,000 dogs had been procured for service.


Once sent to training centers, the dogs were divided into eight distinct areas:


  • Sentry Dogs – assisted in guard duty at arsenals, ammunition dumps, ration depots, and water works
  • Attack Dogs – trained to bite on command and used for the apprehension of "undesirable persons"
  • Tactical Dogs – trained to be used in certain combat situations; experimentation included the use of camouflage and gas masks for them
  • Silent Scout Dogs – used their amazing sense of smell to give silent warning to their handlers of the presence of enemy troops
  • Messenger Dogs – delivered messages on the battlefield in any type of weather
  • Casualty Dogs – aided the medical corps in finding wounded soldiers on the battlefield
  • Sledge Dogs – trained to find downed airmen in snowbound regions inaccessible by normal means
  • Pack Dogs – carried transport loads of guns, ammunitions, and food; loads could weigh as much as 40 pounds


Dogs continued to serve the armed forces with distinction in other conflicts as well, including the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the Persian Gulf War. Today, the U.S. Air Force trains dogs for all branches of the military, including U.S. Customs. Lackland Airforce Base serves as the current training ground, with the Belgian Malinois as the most preferred breed for training. Retired military dogs are generally sent back to Lackland, but a federal law signed by former President Clinton allows these dogs to be adopted by law enforcement agencies, former dog handlers, and other qualified people who understand the responsibilities of owning such dogs.


Former military dogs are not always adoptable because of their temperament. However, if you think you are qualified to adopt an American canine hero, you can contact The Military Working Dog Foundation for more information. This non-profit foundation also accepts donations so that they may continue to provide protective gear to dogs placed in law enforcement agencies, provide "comfort supplies" (treats, special gear, hygiene kits, etc.) to military working dogs and their human handlers, and to provide informational support services to those dogs that do go to private homes.