There were a few famous dogs, mascots like Rin Tin Tin and the less famous but nonetheless highly celebrated Stubby, who joined soldiers of the 102nd Infantry on the front lines in France during World War I.
But it wasn’t until the last decade or so that the stories of canine warriors and the history of the U.S. war dog program was pieced together. Soldier dogs have emerged as the subjects of several books and articles, and most recently the Hollywood movie “Max,” released last Friday. Max is a fictional war dog, a Belgian Malinois, who served in the Afghanistan war with the Marines. When his handler is killed in action, the family of the fallen soldier then takes in the dog.
The military has started to favor the Belgian Malinois breed, which has more durable hips and higher energy than German Shepherds, in selecting potential working military dogs.
But back to Stubby, a stocky dog with a short tail, whose breed has been debated since he became famous. He came from Hartford, Conn. and was smuggled by a soldier onto a ship bound for France. Stubby started out as a mascot, the main role dogs played in the Great War, providing companionship and boosting morale for U.S. troops.
Stubby went from mascot to war hero somewhat instinctually. He warned a group of sleeping soldiers of an impending gas attack, giving them enough time to put on their masks. He once acted as a sentry for the soldiers he was with, standing guard and biting a German infiltrator, detaining him long enough for soldiers to capture him. And he was wounded by shrapnel, but continued on with the 102nd, surviving several battles, according to Michael G. Lemish, a war dog historian and author.
Known by then as “Sergeant Stubby,” the dog met three U.S. presidents — Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge — and after the war he toured the country, marching in parades and making appearances, according to Lemish, who spent years piecing together the disparate story of war dogs for his first book “War Dogs: A History of Loyalty and Heroism.”
Other than mascots, the U.S. did not send dogs to World War I in an official capacity, unlike other countries, including Britain, France and Germany, which used thousands of dogs in World War I. The majority of the dogs were destroyed after the war but those countries continued to build up their canine resources.
When the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor, U.S. military officials quickly realized they wanted to use dogs as their enemies did, but they had access to only about 50 sled dogs in Alaska. Patriotic civilian groups began organizing a campaign to have Americans donate their dogs for the war effort and ultimately 18,000 were accepted. The dog owners were told there was no guarantee their pets would return, but none of those dogs were euthanized after their service, according Lemish. The majority of them worked with the Coast Guard watching America’s shores, but several hundred served in Europe as sentry or search and rescue dogs.
When the war was over, they were either returned to their owners or adopted by their handlers.
Keeping the dogs alive after their service in that war was a stark contrast to the fate of the 4,000 scout dogs sent to Vietnam. These canines were used to flush out the enemy by moving through the jungle and picking up the scent of North Vietnamese fighters. They could do this in part because of the difference between the way the opposing forces smelled: Americans ate a wheat-based diet, and Vietnamese ate a rice-based diet, said Lemish, who is working with filmmakers to raise money for a movie about a dog handler and his canine partner during the Vietnam War.
In America’s hasty exit from Vietnam, all but a few hundred of the scout dogs were euthanized or simply left behind, presumably to starve to death or be killed by North Vietnamese soldiers.
There was no law stopping the military from killing dogs when they were done with them. But in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed “Robby’s Law,” named for a dog that was euthanized even after his handler notified his superiors that he desperately wanted to adopt Robby, according to Lemish and other historical accounts. The new law banned the military from putting dogs down after their service, and made it possible for civilians to adopt former war dogs. The dog’s handler, former handlers and law enforcement agencies were given priority to adopt the dogs.
By the time the law passed, however, Robby was too sick to be adopted. Military officials said he was euthanized for humanitarian reasons.
At least 650 dogs were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to military officials working with the U.S. war dog program based at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The number does not include Special Forces dogs, which are not based there; information about those dogs is classified.
Statistics on dogs killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan are also limited. According to Doug Miller, Department of Defense military working dog program manager, 44 of the 650 dogs that served in both conflicts died between 2005 and 2012. Each war was well underway by 2005, but the number of deaths in the previous years is not available, Miller said.
With the two wars over, the number of military working dogs has decreased. The official count now is 1, 734 dogs stationed at all Department of Defense installations, in the U.S. and other countries.
Meanwhile, adoptions of dogs who have served in the military — or candidates who did not make the cut during training — are on the rise, Miller said. The current waiting list to adopt a military dog is 1,200, up from 200 six years ago, he said.
The adoptions themselves are free but transportation is not covered and neither are veterinary benefits, even for veterans who adopt the dogs, although advocates for war dogs are lobbying for a new law that would provide that coverage.
There is at least one organization dedicated exclusively to caring for Special Operations dogs and preparing them for adoption. However, the Warrior Dog Foundation’s website
currently says, “We have multiple dogs onsite who were combat heroes. They are un-adoptable because of combat stress related injuries.”
Upon hearing how long the waiting list is to adopt from the military dog program, Lemish said he felt lucky to have adopted Lucy, a German shepherd, five years ago, from the war dog program at Lackland. Lucy was in training to be a military working dog, and she feverishly and successfully could locate the fake explosives planted to train the dogs to sniff out bombs. The only problem was that when Lucy found the simulated explosives, she was overjoyed that she had discovered new toys to play with.
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Stubby as a Pit Bull, but his breed is under debate.