Dogs may be known as man’s best friend, but the relationship of a military dog and his handler goes far beyond that concept. It is a relationship built on partnership and forged in intense training. Their dependence on each other is a 24/7 relationship; their lives depend on that trust.
Dogs have long been part of the military from ancient times forward. In the US, military dogs have participated in some fashion in every war. In World War I, Sergeant Stubby was a mascot with the 102nd infantry, Yankee Division; however, he was actually smuggled into the battle zone. Stubby was credited with detecting deadly gases, warning of nearby enemy soldiers, and locating wounded men on the battlefields. He set the bar high for the future of military dogs.
During World War II, a war dog named Chips, a German Shepherd, Collie, Siberian Husky mix, captured 14 enemy soldiers in one day. Chips was the most decorated dog in World War II. The first airborne dog jumped with British paratroopers on D-Day. During this war, military leaders finally recognized the value of military dogs and the contributions they could make. In recent years, Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, was part of the SEAL team who located Bin Ladin. Lucca, a German Shepherd, was awarded the highest medal the USMC could bestow on a military dog for her service; she completed over 400 bomb detection missions in Iraq and Afghanistan with no loss of human life.
Currently, there are approximately 2,500 actively serving military dogs with 700 deployed on overseas assignments. The Department of Defense Working Dog Training School is housed at Lackland Air Force Base where an average of 1,000 dogs work in various stages of training based on their natural abilities of focus or aggression. Like other intense military training programs, the drop out rate is high; about half of the dogs wash out of the program.
What are the qualifications for a military dog? Currently, about 85 percent of the US military dogs are bred in Germany or the Netherlands; their bloodlines are rooted in military service. A potential military dog must have no physical issues, must be highly reward motivated, and must be able and willing to follow commands. A candidate must have a balance between aggression and excitement, and must not be too submissive or too strong-willed. The dog must enjoy working with humans and be well socialized. They must be adaptable, as most of them will work with more than one handler during their military careers. Some of the most prevalent breeds that do well in the military environment include German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Belgian Malinois. Military dogs may specialize as scouts, sentries, or detection operators. The average success rate for a fully trained bomb detection dog is 98 percent. Many on active duty work with a price on their heads; their skills are that well known by enemy forces.
Military dogs who give their lives in service to our country have their own honor ceremony. Their food bowl is ceremoniously turned upside down, their leash and collar are hung up, and their kennel door is left open. In many services the poem, Guardians of the Night is read. The poem’s author is unknown, but certainly, the writer had a love and respect for dogs whose job it is to protect and serve; it is a beautiful tribute. The poem’s opening stanza is “Trust in me my Friend for I am your comrade. I will protect you with my last breath when all others have left you and the loneliness of the night closes in, I will be at your side.”