More than 50,000 military dogs served in World War I. They proved just how valuable canines can be on the battlefield and beyond. Here is how their service in the Great War differed from what military dogs had done before.
For centuries, dogs have protected their human companions. The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Roman armies all enlisted dogs to help fight their battles. Napoleon Bonaparte set strays around his fortifications. Dogs guarded troops on both sides of the United States Civil War.
Several European nations officially began training military dogs in the early 20th century. By the opening of World War I, Germany had trained thousands of German shepherds and Doberman Pinschers along with English dogs they had purchased, such as Airedales, sheep dogs, and collies. Both the French and the English established official war dog schools. Russian, Swedish, Italian, Albanian, Belgian, and Bulgarian troops also used military dogs.
Most dogs used by the American Expeditionary Forces came from their allies. However, a few dogs from the United States did end up on the front lines. Perhaps the most famous is Sergeant Stubby, who served in France for 18 months.
World War I was the first war in which military dogs were mobilized on a massive, organized scale. More than an estimated 50,000 dogs served. This war was also the first conflict in which most official military dogs received formal training. They learned to tolerate battlefield chaos and gear such as gas masks. They also learned to serve in highly specialized roles that saved thousands of human lives.
Major uses of military dogs in World War I
Watchdogs: Sentries, scouts, and guards
With keen senses of sight, hearing, and smell, many military dogs were well-suited as watchdogs, especially at night. They were trained to raise alerts quietly. Rather than bark, as a domestic watchdog might do, military dogs growled quietly or stood at attention. This quiet signaling allowed soldiers to get ready for their foes without betraying their preparations. On patrol, military dogs could often sense an enemy presence—human or chemical—sooner than their human handlers.Dogs were effective guards too. They defended railways, munitions and supplies, barracks, and trenches. They kept an eye on prisoners of war. On the front, guard dogs often prevented enemies from getting close enough to lob grenades.
Lifesaving ambulance dogs
Red Cross dogs or “mercy dogs” performed one of the most dangerous tasks on the battlefield: finding and assisting the wounded in the no-man’s land between the trenches. These ambulance dogs carried medical packs that men could use to treat themselves if they were able. Dogs would carry a wounded soldier’s cap back to the medics and then bring the medics to him. Compassionate canines even sat with the dying to comfort them.
Unfortunately, medics and their dogs were often killed in the line of duty. The casualty rate among dogs was so high that many units stopped using them. Ambulance dogs were highly effective on the Eastern front, though. During the Russian retreat, medical dogs reportedly saved thousands of German lives.
Messengers and couriers
In the trenches, communication was often a problem. Heavy shelling destroyed telephone lines. Human runners were easy targets for enemy fire. Even close-range communication became difficult or impossible in the smoke and thunder of the artillery.
Early in the war, dogs were trained to deliver messages in combat. Images from the time show them leaping over coils of barbed-wire fences and carrying messages tied to their collars. They also sometimes carried small packages of food, cigarettes, explosives, or other supplies to soldiers in the trenches. Their speed, size, and nimble feet helped them evade enemy fire over difficult and dangerous terrain.
Some military dogs pulled small vehicles packed with arms, equipment, supplies, and food. Sometimes they transported soldiers too, both wounded and whole.
Discover World War I heroes in your family
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Chaz, “War-dogs of First World War (WWI, First Great European War) 1914–1918,” Owlcation.com. Updated 7 March 2018. Accessed 20 April 2018.
Holly, “The dogs of war,” findmypast.com Blog, 28 November 2013. Accessed 21 April 2018.
Moore, Lucinda. Animals in the Great War. Images of War series. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Military, 2017.
Nalewicki, Jennifer. “The animals that helped win World War I,” World War I: 100 Years Later series, Smithsonian.com, 5 May 2017. Accessed 21 April 2018.
Richardson, Edwin Houtonville, British War Dogs, Their Training and Psychology. London: Skeffington & Son, 1920. Digital copy accessed at Internet Archive, 20 April 2018.
About the Author
Sunny Morton is an internationally-known, award-winning writer, editor and speaker for the multibillion-dollar genealogy industry. Her voice is heard on the Genealogy Gems Podcast, which has more than 2.5 million downloads worldwide. She is a contributing editor at Family Tree Magazine and the NGS-award-winning coeditor of Ohio Genealogy News. She has been a popular speaker at events across the country, including RootsTech. Sunny is especially known for expertise in tracing U.S. ancestors; unique comparisons of the industry’s leading websites; and inspiring presentations on how to reconstruct meaningful stories from genealogy records.