K9 Soldiers – The Roles Dogs Play in the Military


We are familiar with service dogs in our midst. They are symbols of our modern world. Medical service dogs, therapy dogs, police K-9 units. Throughout the entire history of canine and human relationship, the dog has had some job that their human owners have trained them to do.

K9 soldiers have been around for millennia. Humans have brought their newly domesticated animals on hunts, and ultimately, to war. But by the turn of the last century, during the first world war, in particular, dogs were being utilized in a variety of ways to aid in man’s war efforts.

Brief History Of Military Working Dogs

Dogs have been used in war since ancient times. Their earliest recorded use is as trackers and sentries, although there are records of them being used in actual battles. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, the Slavs, Britons, and Persians, all used canines in their military campaigns.

The Spanish had used armored dogs to pacify local inhabitants in the lands they have conquered. Le Lo’i, one of Vietnam’s great emperor and hero, raised a pack of 100 hounds which were trained to be part of their shock troops.

During the Seven Years War, Frederick the Great of Prussia used dogs as messengers. Napoleon also used canines during his campaigns, and as guards in French military and naval installations.

America started using dogs in the military during the Seminole Wars. And during the Civil War, hounds were used as messengers and as prison guards.

During the First World War, Germany started using dogs as part of their medical corps. They helped with the wounded on the battlefield, or identifying those who were still alive. This was the first time they were trained specifically for this type of duty, and their training formed the basis for how future service dogs were trained to help wounded soldiers in the field.

What Are Military Dogs?

Well, the first and obvious task dogs did in war were as attack dogs. This required larger breeds, such as mastiffs or molosser-trype breeds, which include the old British Bulldog and the modern American Pit Bull Terrier. In ancient times, they were trained to attack the enemy during battle.

Today, attack dogs are still employed, especially in apprehending fleeing enemy combatants during raids. They are also used to search areas that are not easily accessible to soldiers, or are too dangerous for human soldiers to enter, such as crawl spaces or tunnels.

Dogs have been used to pull small ordinance such as machine guns during WWI. They were also used as couriers, bringing small supplies or messages between headquarters and forward positions.

They were also trained as guard dogs, as previously mentioned. These dogs were trained to be aggressive, attacking prisoners who are trying to escape, or are fighting back against their guards.

And again, they were used to identify and pull wounded soldiers off the battlefield, and towards aid stations. This required dogs that are big and are not easily scared by gunfire and explosions.

Later on, dogs were used as mine detection animals, and as subjects for medical research and experimentation. This was especially true during the Cold War. Their use as medical subjects sparked a debate in this country about the ethics of using these animals as guinea pigs.

Ultimately, dogs were used as mascots for military units. The practice started out when either an officer’s dog is chosen as the unit mascot, or a dog the entire unit chose from one of their pack animals. Later, some units started choosing dogs of a particular breed as their mascot and new dogs are always chosen from that breed alone when the older one dies or is retired. Mascots uplift unit morale and the soldiers are very protective of them.

Today, in some militaries, canines are also considered service members and are given rank and commendations.

Bonding With Their Human Handlers

Military dogs are referred to as Military Working Dogs. And unlike their handlers, who are personnel, these dogs were classified as “equipment,” therefore, property of the US Military.

The bonds between handlers and their dogs are often very strong. They have to be, to be able to work together and trust one another while performing under stressful, and dangerous situations. However, once a service member gets rotated out, the dogs are usually assigned to another handler within months of getting separated from their previous human partners.

This is often hard on both the dog and the handlers. I’ve read of stories where handlers get depressed, and dogs refusing to work with their new human partners.

What Happens To K9 Veterans?

After the Second World War, Dogs who survived the war were either returned to the families that volunteered them, or are sent home with their handlers as pets, in some cases. It was only later that the military kept dogs as part of their inventory.
During the Cold War and into much of the Vietnam War and after, military dogs were considered “equipment.” And this led to one of the most tragic events in military dog history in the US Military. Canines who served out their term are either euthanized or abandoned after their service. In Vietnam, hundreds if not thousands were killed there rather than taking them back to the States.

After intense lobbying by veterans groups and animal rights activists, President Clinton signed Robby’s Law in 2000 that allowed military dogs to retire and be adopted by their handlers and military families. Dogs that served in combat situations also get PTSD and these dogs require special handling after they leave service. These services are given to them as former service members.

Their last handlers are given first crack at adopting these veteran animals. Then military families are given a shot.

In 2015, President Obama signed the Military Working Dog Retirement Act, which stipulates that military service dogs must retire in the United States. This saves thousands of dogs that now serve with US forces overseas. The law requires that they must be cared for by American Citizens either here in the US, or abroad. This is important because many of these veteran dogs require special services and handling, and often, they can only receive those here in the US, or as veterans being cared for by American Citizens living overseas.

Man’s Best Friend And Companion

It’s easy to forget that these canine service members go through the same hell that their human counterparts go through. We subject them to horrific experiences that they never chose nor were bred for. We started using them because they are expendable. They don’t hold the same attachment to us as human soldiers do.

But we’ve been living in close proximity to these animals for thousands of years, and there’s a reason we call them “man’s best friends.” They’ve become as close to us as family.

This is why today, even as we still utilize them in ways that they never volunteered for nor could ever understand, we have, nonetheless, made it possible for them to be treated with as much respect as we show all veterans serving our country. Which is as it should be.

My dream is to one day no longer see animals serving in our wars. Those are tragedies of our own making. We have no moral standing to recruit innocent animals into our fight, let alone ask them to die for a conflict that they don’t share, did not start, and have no say in.