The Vietnam War is the largest deployment of military working dogs in United States Military history. While official records weren’t maintained in the early days of the war, estimates suggest nearly 5,000 canines were deployed across all four branches of the US Military, with 10,000 total handlers. While the first and second World Wars established and refined military canine programs, the Vietnam War saw an advancement in training techniques and increased effectiveness in canine detection, scouting, sentry, and tracking capabilities.
Canines in Jungle Warfare
The jungles of Vietnam created a challenging scenario for US Military forces—in most cases, the enemy had an advantage through superior knowledge of the landscape and the element of surprise. Canines were the number one tool to help American soldiers get the upper hand, though. Their superior senses of smell and hearing made canines absolutely vital in sentry and tracking duties.
During patrols, canine handler teams were often assigned to walk point—out in front of the rest of their unit. These canine teams scouted the jungle for Vietcong ambushes, and were often able to alert the rest of the unit of enemies well before they fell into the trap set for them out in the jungle. From there, the unit could call in an airstrike on the enemy position. Richard Cunningham, a former dog handler in Vietnam, says most patrols conducted with a canine were successful or uneventful, and, in his estimation, these canines saved over 10,000 lives.
The Dogs Deployed in Vietnam
The dog breeds deployed in Vietnam are the same as those used in patrol and detection work today, including here at VWK9: German shepherds and Labrador retrievers. Unlike the modern era where these canines are the result of a scientific breeding program, however, many of the dogs deployed in Vietnam were not purebreds, and were donated by civilian families.
Canines were tested for their capabilities at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The most aggressive shepherds were assigned for sentry training, with the less aggressive dogs going into scout training. Labradors were all sent immediately into detection and tracking training, due to their unmatched scenting ability. The dogs who were accepted into the program were given a four-digit service number, tattooed on their ear, and sent to training. Some tracker canines were trained by the New Zealand Special Air Service in Malaysia, while others were trained by the US Military.
Most canines saw multiple deployments, each time with a different handler. Because of this, a significant portion of training was devoted to teaching new handlers to work with an already skilled and capable dog. Cunningham says his drill instructors delighted in informing trainees how dumb they were in comparison to the dogs, who knew the drills inside and out.
Detection Canines in Vietnam
Enemy ambushes weren’t the only thing canines were looking out for in Vietnam. The jungle was also littered with booby traps and explosives set by the Vietcong. Countless soldiers were wounded by these traps while out on patrol. Many traps were set with a tripwire, which was almost impossible to see with the human eye. However, Labradors trained to detect the explosives attached to the tripwire were able to alert their handler so the explosive could be disarmed before it hurt anyone. These canines also were used when conducting sweeps of villages to find enemy ammunition stockpiles.
Other canines, trained in combat tracking capabilities, lead “search and destroy” missions. These canines and their handlers aggressively pursued Vietcong soldiers, rather than waiting for an ambush. When enemy soldiers would flee after a firefight, tracking canines would follow their trail as they attempted to vanish into the thick jungle. Canines provided not only an excellent defense against surprise attacks, but an effective offense as well. This wide range of capabilities made dogs especially hated by the Vietcong, who put a $20,000 bounty on the capture of a US Military canine.
Nemo: An American War Hero
Airman Robert Throneburg and his canine partner, Nemo, were on a routine patrol of Tan Son Nhut Air Base in December 1966 when enemy fire erupted. Throneburg released Nemo from his leash, and they charged towards their attackers. Throneburg shot and killed one Vietcong soldier before being shot himself. Throneburg collapsed from his wounds, but Nemo continued to fight. Nemo was shot once in the head, with the bullet entering under his eye and exiting through his mouth. Nemo pressed on through his injury, throwing himself at the enemy. This bought Throneburg enough time to radio in for backup before losing consciousness. Nemo crawled over to his handler and threw his body over him to shield Throneburg from harm.
When backup arrived, Nemo was guarding Throneburg, and wouldn’t let anyone touch him. A veterinarian had to be called in to get the dog to leave his handler’s side. Both Nemo and Thorneburg survived their wounds, and Throneburg received two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. After the pair was reunited one last time, Nemo was flown home, where he retired from active duty and became a recruiter for the K9 Corps. Nemo died of natural causes at 11 years old in 1972, and his kennel at Lackland still stands as a memorial. Throneburg wrote an inscription for a war dog memorial in Tampa, Florida to honor his former sentry partner. It reads:
Brave beyond words.
Ferocious without self-regard.
Bonds never broken.
Loyal till death.
Defender of the night.
He was a war dog.
Stay back, handler down!
The Tragic End of the Vietnam War Dog Story
Unfortunately, Nemo is one of the few canines who made it back home from Vietnam. Canines were classified as “surplus equipment” and were left behind when US forces exited Vietnam. Of the thousands of canines who served, it’s estimated less than 200 made it back to the states. The rest were abandoned, euthanized, or given to South Vietnamese military and police.
However, the righteous anger of former military handlers and civilians ensured that will never happen again. After tremendous outcry, Congress passed “Robby’s Law” in 2000. This law makes it so retired military canines can be adopted by law enforcement agencies, former K9 handlers, and civilians capable of caring for a military canine.
Military Canines in the Modern Era
Vietnam in many ways set a precedent for US Military campaigns in the 20th and 21st century. Modern warfare is fought through ambush, surprise attacks, and traps like IEDs—all things that canines are vital to defend against. According to the Defense Department, canines raise the IED detection rate on patrols from 50 to 80 percent—which saves countless lives.
In our next installment, we’ll be taking a break from military history to trace the origins of that most vital canine capability: explosives detection.