The brindle and white sausage-shape dog with pointy ears races across what was once the countryside of France, now scorched earth. He dodges bullets, jumps over trenches, and quickly searches foxholes, his nose leading the way. Nothing can deter him from his mission of finding the wounded soldier—his pack member.
He spies a human hand half-buried beneath the upturned earth, sniffs, barks, and starts to dig. He digs until he sees the soldier’s face, feels him take a breath, and then races back to his trenches to get human aid.
That was Sergeant Stubby, one hundred years ago during World War I. This little dog did not officially enlist in the army. He did not get drafted. A homeless dog, wandering the streets of Connecticut, came across troops training on the Yale campus, and for reasons we can only imagine: companionship, the feeling of being needed by these young boys about to face war, Stubby joined them.
Dogs were not part of the US Military at that time. While stray dogs and cats might be adopted as mascots, they were not soldiers in the sense that Sergeant Stubby was. Nor were they soldiers as the dogs of war are today.
It wasn’t until 1942, many years after dogs had taken it upon themselves to join the armed forces, that the US Department of Defense said, “Sure, dogs can be soldiers.” Ms. Alene Stern Erlanger, a poodle breeder, dog expert, and prominent New York socialite, knew other countries had been employing dogs in their armies for centuries. The United States was well behind. Through her persistence, the DOD agreed to allow a dog program into their military with one caveat—she had to find the dogs.
Like all exceptional women throughout history, you set her up with a challenge, and she’ll come through tenfold. With her connections—in public relations, dog training, and in wealth—she created Dogs for Defense. Arlene brought in Henry Stoeker, a German dog trainer, one we would classify as a “positive dog trainer” in today’s terms. With the help of Arthur Kilborn of the New York Sun, she put out word that they were accepting canine soldiers. The American people had already given their sons, their husbands, their uncles, and their fathers to the cause. They gave their tires for rubber, and their pots and pans for steel. And now, when asked, they also gave their dogs. In a time when dogs were equal members of the working class family, taking care of children, working with cattle and sheep, and hunting with their people for food; they were just as capable of military service as were eighteen year old boys.
The mishmash of breeds was as diverse as America itself. They were given draft cards, their behavior and personality assessed and given positions such as messengers, scouts, and sentries. They were matched with a human handler and the team trained and worked together, as they still do today.
Throughout history, dogs have been by man’s side, whether in the fields, in the woods, at the hearth, or on the battlefield. They are our partners. These dogs who run messages across battlefields, who patrol base boundaries, and who jump out of helicopters with their handlers, do not do so because of the values the troops are fighting for mean the same for them. The dogs who have lost their lives in battle fighting for America, do not know that they are fighting for freedom, to take down dictators, or keep our way of life alive. They only know that they are fighting for their person, and whatever their person holds dear.
As the years progressed, the Dog of Defense no longer needed to look to private citizens for soldiers—they set their own standards of breed and tactical prowess, acquiring dogs from breeders and rescues. Lackland Airforce Base in Texas is the hub of training. Overseen by the Air Force, these highly trained dogs work worldwide for all branches of the military including even the Navy Seals. They work year-round at bases and military installations and have have served in every war and battle since World War II.
The actions taken at the end of the Vietnam War changed the military working dog program forever. The human veterans that returned from that war were not always given the respect they deserve. And the canine veterans… they never came back at all. When the troops departed from Vietnam, the handlers assumed their canine partners would be following right behind. Much to their horror, once Stateside, they found out that their loyal, faithful, and dutiful partners were considered “surplus equipment” and left behind. Their fate was unknown. For decades to follow, the US Military was hard pressed to find canine handlers to join their ranks. No one would be a part of the ultimate betrayal to a fellow soldier. No man—and no dog—is ever left behind. The guilt those handlers feel (although it is not their fault at all) goes beyond words. Our veterans came away from that war scarred forever, and those who lost their loyal canines, wounded so deep, it will never heal.
It took decades of outrage, but policies finally changed. In 2000, Robbie’s Law was put on the books. It made it mandatory that military working dogs could be adopted out at the end of their service, rather than left behind or killed. In 2013, further clarity was made in the Defense Bill as to the treatment of military working dogs. Today, handler and dog go to war together and return together to the States after each tour. While the serviceman might be off duty, the dog will take a new handler and be deployed once again. When a service dog retires, preference for adoption goes to law enforcement agencies, then their handlers, then the general public. In one case, when a 23 year old handler was killed, and his dog Sirius survived, his family was able to adopt him when he was ready to retire. Sirius’s duty continues on, taking care of his deceased handler’s little brother in civilian life. The promises made between soldiers on the battlefield (“Take care of my daughter”, “Look in in on my wife”, “Tell my mother I love her”…) are honored, even when that soldier is a canine.
While the protections for our canine veterans have improved over the years, there is still much to be done. These loyal companions who fight alongside our men and women are not given lifetime medical care. When they are adopted out, their adopters must take on the brunt of the medical expenses for injuries and conditions procured during their time in service: shoulder and knee injuries, arthritis, CPTSD (canine post traumatic stress syndrome), etc. Robbie’s Law, while it applies to military working dogs trained at Lackland, do not always apply to the contractors who supply their bomb-sniffing dogs, so while official US trained working dogs are protected, many who serve are not.
Memorial Day Weekend, is the kickoff to the Great American Summer, so please take a moment to remember those who made the Great American Summer possible: the men and women who fought and died for this country and the values we hold dear. And remember all those who lost their lives who fought beside those those men and women—the dogs of war; the fighters for freedom. A military dog and her handler are the highest level of canine-human bond you will ever find for it is not just the bond between animal and person, but it is the sacred bond between two soldiers.
If you’d like to learn more about military dogs, pick up Rebecca Frankel’s book War Dogs, or any other of the array of books on military canines—the ones in Afghanistan, the ones in Korea; the ones left behind, and the ones who came home. Sergeant Stubby got his own animated motion picture in 2017: Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero and is available to download. There are many organizations you can learn about across the country that assist our military canine soldiers. Support Our Troops has a K-9 Soldier Treats programs that sends care packages to dog and handler teams. Project Paws Alive provides life-saving equipment to canine troops. Gizmo’s Gift provides funds for medical care to adopted canine veterans and fights for better legislations to honor our canine veterans and keep them healthy and happy after serving our country. Save-A-Vet provides a secure sanctuary for those military dogs who cannot be safely placed in civilian life and would otherwise be killed. In memory of all our canine soldiers, read about them, watch a documentary about them, get a glimpse into the lives of those who took part in our human battles and laid down their lives for us.
Our deepest gratitude goes out to all—humans and canines—who lost their lives in defense of this country and all we hold dear. You are not forgotten.