On March 13, 1942, the Quartermaster Corps (QMC) of the United States Army began training dogs for the newly established War Dog Program, the “K-9 Corps.”
This is their story. (You have to read that in a deep voice.)
Once upon a time, there were dogs in the military. This has been true since the first military (wherever that was) because dogs are loyal, trainable, and darn cute–except when they are threatening to rip someone’s throat out.
The military of the US of A was no different. In the beginning, military dogs were mascots and companions. Eventually, they became tired of being showgirls and unionized, saying they could do real work. In World War I, the army listened and dogs began carrying messages along the trenches.
The most famous dog to emerge from the war was Rin Tin Tin, an abandoned puppy of German war dogs found in France in 1918 and taken to the United States, where he became a movie star. Rin Tin Tin did nothing to help the Beauty Queen image of dogs and the military went back to he-man work and guns.
Fast forward to WWII. The American Kennel Association and Dogs for Defense convinced dog owners to donate Rover to the military for things like sentry duty along the coast of the US. A Bright Young Lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corp suggested using the dogs for sentry duty at supply depot. Since this was a good idea, it was almost rejected. But training for the K-9 Corp began and a few months later the QMC was given responsibility for training pups for all the branches of the military. (These days the Military Police Corps trains military dogs.)
When the program started, the K-9 program accepted 32 breeds of dogs (Booker doggies were not included). It didn’t take long to figure out that some breeds of pooch were more suited to this type of work than others and the list of acceptable breeds was cut to German Shepherds, Belgian sheep dogs, Doberman Pinschers, collies, Siberian Huskies, Malamutes, and Eskimo dogs. (Dogs with high V02 capacities and a serious work ethic.) The military also discovered they needed to train the handlers as much as the dogs (Note: It’s almost always the dog when good things happen. It’s almost always the human when not-so-good things happen. From the Belief of Mom.)
The dogs were trained to work as sentry dogs, scout dogs, messenger dogs, or mine-detection dogs. The Japanese never ambushed or made a surprise attack on a patrol led by one of the war dogs. In war, it’s good to hang with someone who’s hearing, sight, and sense of smell is about a zillion times better than yours.
The top canine hero of World War II was Chips, a German Shepherd who served with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. Trained as a sentry dog, Chips broke away from his handlers and attacked an enemy machine gun nest in Italy, forcing the entire crew to surrender. The wounded Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and the Purple Heart–all of which were later revoked due to an Army policy preventing official commendation of animals. Which was a stupid policy, imho.
At the height of canine usage, there were over 18,000 dogs working in the military. Today there are less than 600 dog teams.
There is an effort underway to make March 13th K9 Veterans’ Day nationwide.