World War I (1914-1918) conscripted nearly every able-bodied man around the world, as well as soldiers from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Pigeons delivered crucial messages from the front to command centers, soldiers rode cavalry horses through the Middle Eastern Front, and mascot animals like Canada’s Winnie the black bear helped keep morale up among the foot soldiers.
Working dogs, though, were the ones the BBC calls “some of the hardest and most trusted workers” in the war. Some estimates say over 50,000 dogs were deployed around the world during the Great War, doing everything from delivering messages to detecting bombs.
The Working Dog Breeds of World War I
Working dogs in World War I looked very similar to the ones still used today, over a century later. That’s because the qualities in a great working dog haven’t changed: dogs need to be intelligent, easily trainable, and the right size and temperament for the job at hand.
Of course, different jobs required different breeds. The most common working dogs in World War I were German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers. However, border collies, English sheepdogs, and terriers were also put to work across the various theatres. The British military was particularly fond of the Airedale terrier.
Working Dogs in The Trenches
The Western Front was a deadly, dreary landscape with trenches stretching for miles in every direction, with perilous stretches of open terrain between Allied and German trenches. These trenches created unimaginably tough conditions: it was difficult to move supplies and messages in and out of the trenches, pests raided food supplies, and it was dangerous to attempt to retrieve the wounded from the no man’s land between enemy trench systems. Fortunately, canine help was on the way.
It was risky enough to get supplies to the front, so it made no sense trying to get food scraps out of the trenches. This led to conditions where rotting food piled up at the soldiers’ feet, and with rotting food came rats. Terriers and other small breeds were trained as “ratters”—dogs who would run through the trenches catching and killing every rat they saw. One photo from the BBC archives (seen here) shows a terrier who killed 23 rats in just 15 minutes of hunting.
While pigeons were ideally suited for carrying messages across long distances, dogs were best suited for short distances. Since dogs are much faster and smaller than humans, their odds of making it across open terrain were much greater. Soldiers would tie notes to a dog’s collar and send them back to headquarters with vital requests for reinforcements or relaying enemy movements.
Dogs were also given the noble duty of caring for the wounded and dying. Casualty dogs were trained to seek out the wounded on the battlefield, and were outfitted with a pack filled with medical supplies so soldiers could treat themselves. Casualty dogs were trained to stay with the mortally wounded, so the dogs could comfort men as they died on the battlefield. These dogs were deployed by military units as well as the Red Cross.
Canine Scouts and Sentries
Dogs are unmatched in two things that make them indispensable as working dogs: their hearing and sense of smell. Dogs are capable of hearing and smelling something or someone far before their human companions. This proved to be vital in a war where surprise attacks and clandestine movements on the front made all the difference.
Sentries on patrol were accompanied by dogs trained to bark and growl when they were approached by someone they did not recognize. This was especially important in securing forward camps at night.
Scout dogs, on the other hand, received different training. As they were often paired with units operating on the fringes of enemy lines, they were trained to not make a sound when they sensed an approaching enemy. Instead, these scouts would go rigid, stiffening their tail in the classic “hunting dog” pose. These dogs could mean the difference between a scouting party being exposed and captured by the enemy or conducting a successful operation.
Sergeant Stubby: The Most Decorated Dog in World War I
Sergeant Stubby is the only canine to be given a rank and promoted to sergeant through combat in World War I. Stubby, a stray picked up by soldiers training in Connecticut and smuggled onboard a transport in a soldier’s coat, participated in 17 battles over 18 months of service as a member of the US 102nd Infantry Regiment’s 26th “Yankee” Division. His heroics include alerting his unit of incoming artillery and mustard gas, caring for the wounded, returning to the front after suffering his own wounds, and single-handedly capturing a German spy—a feat that resulted in his promotion to sergeant.
These tales of courage made Stubby a celebrity when he returned home to America, where he met three sitting US presidents, lead parades, and attended veterans’ commemorations. The Hotel Majestic in New York City made an exception to its own “no pets” policy to let the hero dog stay overnight, and Stubby was granted a lifetime membership to the YMCA. Stubby’s death in 1926 was commemorated with a lengthy obituary in the New York Times. He has been the subject of multiple books and a feature film, and is memorialized by a statue in Connecticut and a brick laid in the Walk of Honor at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
Working Dogs in the 20th Century
Of course, World War I was far from the first, or the last, time dogs served in the military. Records of war dogs go back all the way to 600 BC, and canines were conscripted by everyone from the Romans to Attila the Hun.
The 20th Century saw great technological leaps in seemingly every facet of human life, and working dog training was no exception. In our next blog post on this series, we’ll take a look at World War II, where the role of canines was dramatically expanded. In future posts we’ll continue to cover military and law enforcement canines, but we’ll also take a look at civilian working dogs. If there’s a working dog application you’d like to see covered on this blog, let us know on our Facebook page.