Dogs of modern war, part 3: WWII and the Dogs for Defense

Dogs of modern war, part 3: WWII and the Dogs for Defense

Dogs are inducted into the Army at Front Royal, Virginia. August 25, 1942

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It was clear during World War I, that the United States’ allies and enemies had already recognized the value of training dogs for war, yet the U.S. still was unaware of their significance. While the Army had no plans to train dogs when the U.S. entered World War II, they would be thankful for having dogs with them in the war during its conclusion. Anna Walker, the author of “Dogs and National Defense”, recounts the events that put the dog in the U.S. military.

Dogs of modern war, part 3: WWII and the Dogs for Defense

Many pack and sled dogs earned parachute wings, "..once suspended under the canopy they seemed to enjoy the ride.... they wagged their tails the whole time and became extremely excited every time they were strapped into their harnesses."

Sheryl Franklin /

With the risk of war on the horizon, a heavy push to use and train dogs was coming from an unlikely source. Influential breeders, dog owners, and dog fanciers banded together to justify training dogs for war. They gained support from major organizations and some military officials by explaining the natural instincts that would be advantageous in war and detailing numerous jobs dogs could be trained to do. With their newly acquired support, the patriotic group of dog enthusiasts approached the Armed Forces about training dogs for war. Their plea triggered several leaders of distinguished dog organizations to begin working on military training techniques, especially sentry work.

The pivotal moment would be the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The U.S. would enter the war against the Japan, Germany, and Italy, known as the Axis Powers. The U.S. would become part of the major Allied nations consisting of Great Britain, France, and Russia.

Pearl Harbor left the U.S. fearing more attacks. In 1942, large numbers of German submarines began appearing on U.S. coasts. This made the U.S. very uneasy, as they were not able to monitor all the coastlines. Dog breeders quickly pointed out how the dogs could be trained to help prevent landings, staying attached to Coast Guard beach patrols and trained as sentry dogs to assist sentries on guard at possible targets.

The U.S. sets up a national organization called “Dogs for Defense” to act as a procurement agency for dogs to be trained for war and be guidelines for the breeders, dog exhibitors, and professional handlers who would run the program. Dogs for Defense worked to build interest in training dogs, assemble a canine population, and campaign for funds. Patriotic breeders across the U.S. responded to the request for dogs with enthusiasm.

When the American Kennel Club announced their cooperation, the clubs approval of Dogs for Defense causes a strong influence on many of its wealthy members. The financial donations from the individual members and member clubs of the AKC, would allow Dogs for Defense to officially launch their regional offices and kennels in January 1942.

The regional offices handled procurement while dogs acquired by donations, and training would take place at the kennels. Trained dogs were then issued to the Army or Marine Corp. In the future, trained dogs would also be sent to the Navy and Coast Guard.

Staff Sergeant Tracy L. English’s publication, “The Quiet Americans: A History of Working Dogs,” sheds light on the transition that Dogs for Defense makes into the U.S. Army.

Colonel Russell A. Osmun, Chief of the Plant Protection and Public Relation Branch of the Office of the Quartermaster General, had a prior interest in using sentry dogs and the efficacy of Dogs for Defense did not go unnoticed. He instructed all Quartermaster installations on the West Coast to train and use sentry dogs. His actions would be integral in the Army’s involvement with dogs.

By June 1942, Dogs for Defense was unable to keep up with demand and the Army made a formal offer to the Secretary of War to accept the dogs from Dogs for Defense and keep the officials for the procurement and training of the dogs, without any cost to the Government. The offer was granted.

With the partnership in place, the Army made rapid progress and advancements. They begin by establishing standards regarding acceptable breeds, training methods, and had standards for the handlers.

The first reception and training center was set up at the Front Royal, Va. in August 1942. By April of 1943, they had centers at Fort Robinson, Neb., Camp Rimini, Mont., San Carlos, CA. and Cat Island, Gulfport, Miss. Temporary centers were later built for mine dog training but the results were disappointing and training was abandoned.

According to K-9 Section of Hahn's 50th Air Police, when the Coast Guard began using dogs as patrols at Brigantine Park, N.J in August of 1942, their success prompted training schools to be set up specifically for these dogs at Peter A. B. Widener Estate, at the Elkin Park Training Station in PA., Hilton Head, S.C., and Curtis Bay, MD.

In early 1943, the War Dog Program, nicknamed K-9 Corps, was established to help raise funds for Dogs for Defense. Public donations to the War Dog Program would give dogs’ honorary ranking and the money raised would help finance Dogs for Defense.

The War Dog Program had several areas of specialization that would vary during the course of war.

  1. Sentry Dogs – Sentry dogs were trained in guarding a specific site. They remained on a leash and would work with a sentry, also able to alarm the sentry of trespassers. An off-leash version of the sentry dog was the attack dog, but there was a limited need for these dogs. English’s publication states that the Coast Guard felt attack dogs could be beneficial by apprehending “undesirable persons” on beaches or any type of situation where trespassers would be too far for sentries to detect.
  2. Tactical dogs – The training of tactical dogs began as experimental training. The Army was not sure about what kind of environments and combat situations the dogs could survive in. It was a common belief that they would be unable to bring the dogs to a tropical area because of the disease and parasites. They were able to conduct trials on Cat Island near the Bahamas, involving camouflage and gas masks for them. Another example is the reaction the dogs had on D-Day. At first they were extremely gun shy and cowered away from the explosions. English’s publication says that once they began sentry duty on the battle lines, “the dogs were praised with being far more alert and responsive then their handlers.” This showed that training needed to include familiarizing the dogs to ammunition blasts.
  3. Scout/Patrol Dogs – These dogs were trained as tactical dogs to give silent warning to handlers of enemy troops. They used windblown scents of others and were trained never to alert their handlers loudly.
  4. Messenger Dogs – Messenger dogs were used to deliver messages, but it was not an easy job. They would need to prove to officers in training that they could execute their duty through all battle conditions.
  5. Sled Dogs – These dogs were trained for search and rescue that would be specific to the Army Air Force. They worked in snowbound regions that would normally be inaccessible.
  6. Pack Dogs – The general job of pack dogs is hauling items, however the specification on size and weight would vary in time.

By the fall of 1944, the standards for the dogs donated were becoming much stricter. The publicity of Dogs for Defense had many eager dog owners offering help, but Walker reports that only 40% of the dogs donated were accepted.

In March 1945, the officials of Dogs for Defense asked to be relieved of their duties. Walker’s article indicates that since established in 1942, Dogs for Defense had acquired an estimated 18,000 dogs through donations and trained 2,000 sled and pack dogs purchased by the Quartermaster Corps for a total of 20,000 dogs.

The Quartermaster Corp would set up their own methods of procurement and hired leading dog trainers from around the country. At the Remount branch, the dog trainers worked with of technical experts of the Military Training Division Office of The Quartermaster General, and began training dogs with their handlers. Their idea would prove worthwhile.