While World War I saw a large deployment of working dogs around the world, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the United States Army formally established many of the nation’s most important military working dog programs. During World War II, the US Army published its first training manual on war dogs, made its first attempt at training explosive detection canines, and made many other leaps forward in handler education.
This formalization and expansion of military dog training and tactics lead to improvements in canine capabilities. Without these leaps forward in canine training, it’s likely we wouldn’t have the quality of detection and patrol canines our industry benefits from today.
Pearl Harbor Changes the Role of Working Dogs
Prior to the United States entering World War II, the US Army only had a small number of working dogs in its ranks. These dogs were deployed as sled dogs in Alaska and other Arctic regions, where they provided the most effective form of transport in snowy regions.
However, everything changed after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The attack galvanized Americans across the entire nation, and many sought ways to get involved in the war effort. One group of civilian dog enthusiasts formed Dogs for Defense, Inc. (DFD), an organization through which other civilians could donate their dogs to be trained as sentries for the Army. Due to being a small civilian effort, however, DFD ran into issues housing and training all of the dogs they recruited.
Not long after DFD contacted the Army, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson formalized the effort and assigned procuring, training, and housing canines to the Remount Branch of the Quartermaster Corps (QMC). The majority of the training effort was spent on training sentries and scouts, although dogs were trained as messengers and other experimental roles at the time.
Lessons Learned During Training
Canine training was still an inexact science in the 1940s, but QMC trainers learned a number of valuable lessons, and learned them quickly. One of the most significant lessons learned was that the human handler needed just as much training as their dog. Early feedback proved that dogs performed better when assigned to a specific handler for their entire service. That handler needed to learn commands and techniques for when they were on duty, but also how to care for their canine partner’s basic needs when they weren’t working.
The QMC program initially accepted civilian dog donations of all breeds. Over the course of training it quickly became evident that not all dog breeds were cut out for military service, and the list of acceptable breeds for procurement was cut to just seven: German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, Belgian sheepdogs, collies, Siberian huskies, malamutes, and Eskimo dogs. These dogs had the right blend of temperament, body type, and trainability to serve as military working dogs.
Early Missteps in Military Dog Training
Despite all of the rapid advancements in military dog training, there were some failures along the way. One such failure was an attempt to weaponize roving packs of dogs without handlers, carried out in experimental capacity on Cat Island, off the Mississippi coast. The project was an attempt to train assault dogs to hunt down Japanese soldiers in the jungles of the South Pacific. The Cat Island project had many faults: the training program lasted months, and required human subjects in bite suits hidden out in the jungle. These people suffered bite injuries in spite of safety gear. Dogs were also subjected to abusive behavior, including electric shocks, to make them more aggressive.
The Cat Island project saw little progress in many months of experimentation, and was shuttered after Master Sergeant John Pierce, an Army dog trainer, showed up and demonstrated the superior ability of canines deployed with a handler. Pierce emphasized that canines should alert their handlers to a stranger’s presence, then only attack on command. With a few weeks of training, Pierce’s handler teams were more effective than the Cat Island dogs, who had received months of training.
World War II also saw the first failed attempt at explosive detection canine training: The M-dog project. In the European theatre, Germans began burying mines made with materials that weren’t detectible through conventional means. Army handlers correctly intuited that this was a perfect role for canines—they just approached it in the wrong way.
Canines have a sense of smell that is far superior to humans and can smell even trace odors left behind by explosives—we just didn’t know that in the 1940s. Instead, Army trainers taught canines to look for partially buried wires and other visual signs of human interference with the ground.
In training, canines detected buried wires with an 80% success rate. However, that quickly dropped to 30% in actual deployment, leading to significant casualties and an almost immediate closure of the M-dog program. Researchers wouldn’t learn that they could train canines to sniff out the chemical components of explosive devices until after the war was over.
Working Dogs on the Homefront
In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the military was concerned with saboteurs making landfall and covertly attacking military bases and industrial centers. To combat this, QMC provided the Coast Guard with trained sentries. These sentry dogs patrolled stateside beaches and coastlines, alerting their handler whenever they sensed a stranger. The Coast Guard deployed 3,174 of these canines over the course of the war.
Military Dogs in the Pacific
By 1943, Army dogs were ready for the frontlines. The War Department created fifteen Quartermaster war dog platoons in 1944 and assigned seven to the European front, and eight to the Pacific. Each war dog platoon attached to an Infantry division and provided scouting and messenger dogs, although messenger dogs were eventually cut from platoons for efficiency.
The Pacific battlegrounds were a challenging place for human soldiers. Dense, noisy jungles made it nearly impossible to see or hear an oncoming ambush by Japanese soldiers. Dogs, on the other hand, could smell the enemy from 70 to 200 yards away, which made all the difference.
In the Dutch East Indies, the 26th QM war dog platoon assisted the 31st Division. Over the course of two and a half months, aided by scout canines, they conducted 250 patrols without a single ambush.
Military Dogs in Europe
Europe was characterized by fast-paced fighting on open battlegrounds, a sharp contrast to the dense jungles of the Pacific islands. European combat also included frequent artillery fire, which made dogs skittish and less effective. Early training protocols only acclimated dogs to small arms fire, and although that was adjusted later in the war, the pace and intensity of combat proved to be too much for dogs.
In addition to loud artillery, the environment itself wasn’t suited to military dogs: heavy rains and soft, deep snow slowed their movement. Most dogs deployed on the German front at the end of the war therefore shifted from reconnaissance duty to sentry duty, keeping guard at camps and preventing sneak attacks.
Chips, The Military Dog Icon
The most famous war dog of the World War II era is Chips, a German shepherd/collie/husky mix assigned to Private John Rowell of the 30th Infantry. During his 3 ½ years in the Army, Chips served in North Africa, Italy, and France.
In 1943, Rowell and Chips were patrolling in Sicily when they suddenly came under heavy fire from a camouflaged bunker. Chips broke free of his handler and charged the bunker, alone. Seconds after he entered the bunker, the machine gun fire stopped. Chips emerged from the bunker, dragging the German machine gunner by the throat. Three more Italian soldiers surrendered and left the bunker without a fight. Chips received only minor injuries, and single-handedly captured four enemy soldiers. Later that day, Chips led his platoon to capture 10 more soldiers.
Though his medals were later revoked by an order disallowing animals to receive awards intended for humans, Chips received a Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Distinguished Silver Cross during his service. He was posthumously recognizedwith the Dickin Medal, the highest honor military animals can receive.
Chips served at Rowell’s side until December 10, 1945, when he was honorably discharged and returned to his owners, the Wren family, stateside. Chips met President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Dwight D. Eisenhower—who Chips bit for getting too close.
War Dogs Return Home
At the conclusion of their service, donated dogs like Chips were returned to their civilian owners. Those who weren’t claimed were eligible for adoption. Around 3,000 such dogs were retrained and found happy, quiet post-war lives with loving families. Each returning canine was issued a certificate of faithful service and an honorable discharge.
It’s thanks to this widescale effort by canine trainers and handlers during World War II that we have such sophisticated canine capabilities today. Even failures, like the M-dog program, taught trainers and researchers valuable lessons that pushed them in the right direction when developing detection capabilities.
The sentry and scout canines in the US Army saved countless lives, whether through bravely storming bunkers or giving an early alert to an approaching ambush. These canines were certainly not the last of their kind, and canine deployments only increased with time through the 20th Century and beyond. Next month, we’ll examine the role of war dogs in Korea and Vietnam.