The Dog Days of War

This article appeared in The Vincent Brothers Review, Issue #21, which was published in 2002


The Dog Days of War

by Curt Dalton


Dogs have been companions, partners and protectors of humans since prehistoric times. All modern domestic dogs are descended from the Gray Wolf and retain some of that wolf's hunting and protective instincts. These instincts, combined with their easy trainability, made dogs suitable participants for one of human history's biggest preoccupations: war.

Early Greek and Roman soldiers equipped large dogs with spiked collars and sent them into battle. The dogs would attack the legs of the enemy, causing them to lower their shields, thus leaving their bodies open to attack by the soldiers. During the Middle Ages, war dogs were encased in armor and used to defend caravans. In America's Civil War, they were used as messengers. Dogs again proved invaluable to soldiers during the first world war, when they were used by Germany, France, and Belgium as messengers, sentries, and patrol aids.

There was, however, no real plan in place for training dogs when the U.S. was thrown into WWII. The sled dog was the only working type of military dog at that time, used primarily in Alaska in place of mules and for rescuing airmen forced down in snowbound areas. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor caused a surge of interest in using dogs for sentry duty. With the rapid expansion of industrial plants and army installations, the potential damage that might be done by saboteurs was a big threat and precautionary measures were required. This need was further emphasized when German submarines began to operate in large numbers near the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, causing concern that enemy agents could infiltrate the country.

Steps were taken to establish a national organization to procure dogs for the war effort. Among the leaders of the movement were Mrs. Milton Erlanger, and Henry Caesar, who was elected first president of the newly formed organization, Dogs for Defense (DFD).

The organization's program was experimental due to the fact that the U.S. Army had very little experience with the training of canines. The DFD asked qualified trainers to volunteer their services for the war effort, and called for the donation of animals suitable for guard duty. At first, the army estimated that only one hundred dogs would be needed. Soon, however, the demand increased for dogs among the armed forces, and the need for centralized training centers became clear. The first of these was established in August of 1942, at the Front Royal Virginian Quartermaster Remount Depot. Three others were opened soon after in Nebraska, Montana, and California, and a fourth was added in Mississippi in April of 1943.

Upon arrival at the training centers, canines were given physical examinations. At first, the official specifications for dogs that entered the program were that they should be between the ages of twelve months and five years, measure twenty-one inches to twenty-seven inches at the shoulder, and weigh a minimum of sixty pounds. The military preferred recruiting working breeds of dogs, including collies, Doberman Pinschers, large Airedales, all types of shepherds, huskies, Eskimo dogs, and large schnauzers.

Only purebred and crossbred dogs were accepted because the conventional wisdom at that time was that mixed breeds might be less stable in character.

They also had to be in top physical condition. Animals of neutral color such as gray or tan were preferred. Dogs with extensive white or buff markings were considered too conspicuous to be used.

Dogs that habitually ran away were not accepted, since they would be even more likely to run away in a war situation.

The dogs were also tested to see if they shied around guns being fired and if they were quick to learn commands. Again, at first some dogs slipped through the system that did not meet the physical requirements stated above. But the requirements were later followed more rigidly as more people donated dogs toward the cause.

On receiving an offer of a dog, the nearest regional office sent out a questionnaire to ascertain whether the animal met the specifications for military service. If accepted, dogs were placed in quarantine kennels for twenty-one days. Several tests were then conducted. After passing muster, the dog was tattooed on the left ear with a serial number for identification, which became his "dog tag."

By the end of the war, more than 10,000 dogs had passed training for some form of war work. These included a number from the Dayton, Ohio, area.

The first dog donated for service from the Dayton area was named, appropriately, Wright Rudder. "Ruddy," as he was called by his family, was a two-year-old pointer owned by Mrs. F. 0. Carrol, whose husband was a brigadier general stationed at Wright Field.

That same week, three more dogs from Dayton joined the DFD: a two-year-old Labrador retriever named Duke of Magee Marsh was donated by 0. Lee Harrison; a tricolor collie, who went by the name of Skipper, was sent by C. F. Simmons; and Hesta, a Doberman Pinscher, was enlisted by Mrs. Harry Stover.

The first dogs donated from Dayton left for the Cincinnati induction center on December 10, 1942.

Mrs. William H. McHugh of Alexander-Bellbrook Road became chairwoman in charge of recruiting dogs for army work in the Dayton area. Mrs. McHugh was also co-director of the Cincinnati chapter of DFD at the time. She said that seeing the parting of the dogs and their owners was the worst part of her job. Some of the owners couldn't bear to watch their dogs leave, and would stay away from home until she had taken their pet away.

On October 10, 1943, the Journal Herald newspaper published a story titled, "Young Dayton Shipping Dogs to Armed Forces." It detailed how several dogs from the area were going to war, including three that were owned by children.

Emerson Robinson, son of Elizabeth Robinson, had a good reason for enlisting his German Shepherd Dog, Rex. "I'm going to send him to the army and then when I'm old enough I'll go, too," exclaimed the eleven-year old.

Emerson's mother agreed with the decision. The rest of the Robinson family was involved in the war effort, so it was only fitting that Rex should be as well. Besides a son in the navy, two other daughters worked at a local military base, and she worked for the signal corps.

Heinz, a Doberman Pinscher owned by Mr. and Mrs. James Brown, was also among the first dogs to leave Dayton for battle. The family had purchased the Doberman nearly five years earlier to act as a guard while Mr. Brown worked nights at the McCall plant. At first they were reluctant to allow Heinz to be recruited, due, in part, to their three-year-old daughter, Jill. The Browns admitted being saddened by the fact that Jill would be losing a playmate that had helped guard her since she'd been born.

It was Harry Stover, co-director of DFD in the area at the time, who convinced the family of the difference Heinz could make in the war effort if they donated him.

"Mr. Stover said that Heinz would release five soldiers from guard duty, so we figured that he would do a lot more good in the army," said Mrs. Brown.

"If you can give your son, you can give your dog, too," was the way Mrs. P. W. Kline felt about sending her two-year-old Mr. Chips, an elegant collie, to help in the war effort. Her son, Richard, was a seaman at Norfolk, Virginia. Richard, of course, had wanted his dog to go to the navy, but stated that he was "mighty proud" that Mr. Chips would serve in the army. Their thirteen-year-old daughter, Susan, began calling her pet "Colonel" once he had been accepted into the service, believing that he would be promoted to that rank after a few months in the army.

The exploits of Dayton war dogs serving overseas made the news. One favorite was Second Lt. Salvo, a one-year-old fox terrier, who served as a "para-pup" in Europe. Salvo's master overseas was Second Lt. R. Fletcher, a bombardier navigator, whose wife worked at the Dayton Signal Corps Inspection Office. By May of 1944, Salvo had more than 300 hours in the air and had served on two battle operations in a Marauder medium bomber over Nazi Europe. Local newspapers ran photographs of Salvo parachuting from an airplane 1,500 feet in the air. Salvo also became a "family man" while on duty in England, his mate being Duchess, an air-corps mascot.

"Boy," a Doberman Pinscher from Dayton, was considered a real hero during the war. Boy served as a marine corps war dog, and was cited several times for valorous service against the enemy at Peleiu in the Palau island group from September 15 to October 19, 1944. In early 1945, Boy's owner, W. D. Canton, received word that the dog had been injured in action on Okinawa. To Canton's relief, he soon received a picture showing Boy and his handler, Corporal Harold N. Flagg, displaying a Japanese flag that had been captured from the enemy. Although Boy's front left leg was bandaged at the shoulder, he was well enough to hold up one end of the flag in his teeth, while Flagg held the other corner.

Daytonians who owned dogs not qualified for service duty were offered another way to enlist their pets in the war effort. The Journal Herald began conducting a campaign for DFD, calling it the "War Dog Fund." Pet owners could make contributions that paid for an honorary rank for their "recruits." Ranks ranged from private or seaman in any service of the armed forces, including the women's division, to four-star general or admiral of the fleet, depending on the size of the contribution. After enlistment, the pet received a certificate denoting his rank in the War Dog Fund and a tag for his collar to show that he was a member. The contributions were used to help with the recruiting expenses involved in the selecting, kenneling, and feeding of dogs before they reported for final examination and acceptance or rejection by the army.

The Dayton Junior Association of Commerce recruited a five-month-old puppy from the local animal shelter to help with the war dog drive. Having bailed him out, the association paid five dollars to the War Dog Fund that entitled him to the three stripes of a sergeant. The Journal Herald appointed the puppy, renamed Sergeant Dayton, "top recruiting dog" for the city. On May 23,1943, the story of Sergeant Dayton's rescue was printed in the paper, in his own words.


"A week ago I was like any other of the expendable dogs at the Montgomery County's animal shelter," exclaimed Sergeant Dayton. "I was a homeless dog, (three parts collie, one part conjecture). But today I couldn't count my blessings on all four paws. There is something to this dog's life after all. Here I am, a three-striper, the keys to the city are as good as in my pocket, and the Junior Association of Commerce is treating me just as if my father weren't a roving ne'er-do-well and my mother a gay lady with nary a pedigree between the two o' them."


When the drive was over, Sergeant Dayton was to be given to the top recruiting boy or girl who had done the best job of enrolling their neighbor's pets.

Dayton responded enthusiastically to the drive. Before long, it wasn't just dogs being enlisted. On May 30, 1943, the Journal Herald ran a picture of Wilma Stevenson, who had signed up her three ducks, Tom, Dick, and Harry. The picture carried the following caption:


"Someone in the office got funny and called us ducks 'Aquatic'," quacked the newly enrolled Seamen. "Well, that's all right with us. It's because we're aquatic that we chose to join the Navy in support of the War Dog Fund."


The use of dogs, both at home and abroad, was considered a success. The presence of the animals with patrols lessened the danger of ambush and boosted the morale of the soldiers. It's been estimated that dogs saved hundreds of lives on the battlefields of WWII due to their loyalty and courage under fire. At least one member of the "K-9 Corps" was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. Unfortunately, both were later revoked as "contrary to Army policy," which prohibited official commendation for outstanding performance by animals. Eventually, approval was granted to allow the issuance of citation certificates to donors of war dogs that had been especially useful during the war.

However, WWII had proved that the method of acquiring dogs on loans from patriotic citizens was impractical and uneconomical because a large number of the animals had to be returned when they proved to be unsuitable for combat. In 1946, it was decided that dogs would be purchased, thereby becoming the sole property of the government, a practice that had been in effect with other types of animals for years.

After WWII, most of the dogs that survived were issued an honorable discharge from the K-9 Section and returned to their families. Before this happened, however, each animal underwent a complete "demilitarizing" process.

Handlers began the sometimes daunting task of convincing the dogs that human beings were their friends. A record was kept of how the animals reacted to different situations they might encounter when returned to their owners. Loud noises or people riding by on bicycles were used as indicators to determine when the dogs could return to civilian life. As one final test, the dogs would be walked on leashes near a building. As they passed by, a man would jump from behind the building, waving a sack and shouting. If the dogs showed no unusual alarm, it was believed that they had earned the right to return home.

The retired dogs were first offered to their original owners. If the owner wanted the animal, it was shipped at the government's expense. If the owner no longer wanted the dog, it was offered for sale.

Although the government never assumed responsibility for a dog's actions once it was placed, there were few complaints regarding the behavior of the approximately 3,000 dogs discharged from war service. By early 1947, all borrowed dogs had been returned to their original owners or placed in new homes.

In 1949, dogs in the military were reclassified as "equipment," instead of "personnel" so that they could be destroyed if they were no longer useful, or if the kennel where they were housed was too crowded to accept any more animals. No longer could they be adopted or returned to their former homes. Instead, when they reached the end of their usefulness, they were euthanized.

During the Vietnam War, approximately 4,000 dogs were employed by the U.S. military. Of these, 281 were officially killed in action. Unfortunately, of those dogs that survived, less than 200 were ever returned to the United States. The consensus is that the remaining dogs were "putdown" because the government did not want to pay the cost and liability associated with their return to civilian life. They were destroyed, in spite of the fact that those very dogs were responsible for saving thousands of lives during the conflict.

Congressman Roscoe G. Bartlett learned about the defense department's war dog policy in the September 2000, issue of Stars and Stripes magazine. The article also mentioned a U.S. Marine Corps dog named Robby, who was sick and near the end of his career. Bartlett realized that Robby could be facing euthanasia.

Bartlett decided to visit Robby and his handler. Lance Corporal Shawn Manthey. Robby was put through his paces, but failed. Suffering from bad hips, arthritis, and a painful growth on his spine, the eight-year-old Belgian Malinois was unable to catch the suspect when his handler ordered him to attack. When he was able to get in a bite, Robby's gums bled. Finally, the dog was in so much pain that the demonstration was cut short.

Manthey wanted to adopt the dog, but was unable to do so under the current law. Bartlett returned home and, on September 27, 2000, he introduced a bill to allow military dogs to be adopted after "retiring" from their service.

On October 18, 2000, William W. Putney, the ex-Commanding Officer of the War Training School at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, wrote a letter to Senator John Warner eloquently stating why the adoption bill was so important.


“Our service dogs must be honored and treated as heroes because that is what they are. And they must be allowed to retire to loving homes, as any soldier is. They have served us with honor and distinction, and have saved countless American sons and daughters from injury and death. They have risked their own death and injury for no more than the love and affection of their handlers.... They would never, ever have left us behind, and they would never give up on us because we were too old or infirm to do our jobs anymore. If they can offer us this sort of service and devotion, how can we do less for them? We owe them.”


On November 6, 2000, President Bill Clinton passed the "Robby" law (Public Law 106-446). It stated that military dogs who were no longer able to go into combat or be used for training purposes could be adopted under certain conditions. Upon retirement of the canine, the present handler was offered first choice for adoption. If this wasn't possible, a previous handler would be allowed to adopt. Law enforcement agencies and other qualified handlers were also permitted to adopt.

Prospective adopters are restricted because military dogs have been trained to be intensely aggressive. And because they lead such active lives, many of the animals suffer from age-related medical conditions and need special care.

By the time the legislation had passed, however, Manthey's wife was pregnant and the handler realized that he could not afford the expensive medication that Robby would need. After being housed at a base through a bitterly cold winter, the dog could no longer even stand. Robby was euthanized on January 19, 2001.

In April 2001, eleven-year-old Ronny (not to be confused with Robby), another Belgian Malinois, was retired from the service. He became the first dog adopted under the new law. Marine Sergeant Kevin Bispham, Ronny's handler for more than three years, was excited about the adoption. He moved from an apartment into a base housing unit with a fenced yard. The sergeant bought a 20' x 20' kennel and paid to have Ronny shipped to his home in South Carolina.

"I love Ronny, and it's so exciting to bring him home," Bispham was quoted in an article on DefenseLINK, a web site for the Department of Defense. "He's done his time. Now it's time for him to take it easy and not work anymore."

Although Robby wasn't as lucky as Ronny, he was honored as the dog that helped bring attention to the plight of older military animals. On June 24, 2001, he was laid to rest at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Established in 1896, the cemetery is home to the first American dog monument, which was unveiled there in 1923, and has since been the centerpiece of an annual memorial service paying homage to the thousands of dogs who have given their lives in times of war.

More recently, the dog's devotion and invaluable service to humans during time of strife and war became repeatedly and dramatically evident in the hours, days, and weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Within minutes of the first attacks, bomb-sniffing and guard dogs were deployed around Air Force One. Rescue dogs were used to help recover the survivors and the victims in the rubble left by the attacks. Dogs are still used to sniff out bombs and other suspicious material in airports.

Uncounted are the millions of dogs who console and comfort their owners during these troubled times. Human dependence on dogs seems to grow, rather than diminish, the longer human history carries on.

The deep and unwavering devotion dogs have for humans cannot be denied. But one question remains: Why do dogs feel compelled to stand by humans, even in times of war and strife?

In his book, K-9s; Vietnam and After, soldier and author Paul B. Morgan described the courageous exploits of his German Shepherd Dog, Suzie. Morgan had acquired Suzie from a Vietnamese priest. Father Tu, who also gave him some insight into dogs' selfless affection for humans.

"God protects dogs from the knowledge of death," Father Tu told Morgan, "so they will be brave and serve their fellow man. Because of the unconditional love, devotion, humility and honesty, all dogs are rewarded in the afterlife with the equivalent of Heaven."