Each year on November 11th, we take the time to remember and thank those who have given their lives in service to our country. Parades are held, ceremonies of remembrance abound, and wreaths are laid at war memorials all over North America and Europe. But how many people remember or even know about the many thousands of horses and dogs who have taken to the battlefield over many hundreds of years? Horses have been replaced by machinery now, but war dogs are still actively on duty around the world.
Probably the most famous war dog was Sergeant Stubby, a terrier type dog who saw action in Europe in World War I. His full story can be read here, but in a nutshell, despite having no formal training and literally being smuggled over to Europe by his owner/handler, he saved countless lives because he could hear the whining of enemy shells heading for the Allied forces’ trenches long before the human occupants could, which gave the soldiers time to take cover. He could detect the onset of a gas attack and he was also famous for capturing a German spy who had been sneaking into Allied trenches. On this occasion, waking up in the middle of the night, Stubby leaped into action, grabbing the surprised spy by the seat of his pants and holding on until the man could be disarmed. Upon his return home from the war, Stubby was highly decorated and honored and lived out his life with his owner Corporal Robert Conroy, until passing away in his arms in April of 1926.
While Stubby was the only war dog for the US in World War I, the French, British and Belgians had some 20,000 trained dogs deployed while the Germans had approximately 30,000, a staggering number of dogs serving in the name of their homelands.
Canada has its own war dog hero – Gander, formerly named Pal (pictured above) – who became the mascot of the Royal Rifles of Canada, stationed in Gander, Newfoundland during World War II. The unit was deployed to Hong Kong Island in 1941 to defend against Japanese attacks. Gander went with them and saved numerous lives whilst there. His final act of bravery was to pick up a tossed Japanese grenade which had landed near some wounded Canadian soldiers and run it back towards enemy lines. The grenade exploded, killing Gander, but saving a number of Canadian lives. In 2000, Gander was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent to the Victoria Cross.
Those are just two of the stories that number in the thousands about the courageous dogs we send into deadly war zones. In World War I and II, many different breeds and types of dogs were used. Everything from a Yorkshire Terrier, to a Cairn Terrier cross, to a Pointer, as well as German Shepherds and Dobermans were used. In earlier times, a black poodle named Moustache served in the French Army in 1805 and a Staffordshire Terrier named Sallie served in Pennsylvania during the Civil War.
Today most war dogs are German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois, with Labradors and Golden Retrievers often used for scent work. These dogs are used for a multitude of tasks:
Sentry Dogs: These dogs work on a short leash and are taught to give warning. They are especially valuable for working in the dark when attack from cover or the rear is most likely. Sentry dogs are trained to warn their handlers of the approach or presence of strange persons.
Scout or Patrol Dogs: Scout or patrol dogs are trained to work in silence to help detect snipers, ambushes, and enemy forces long before human soldiers are aware of them. Scout dogs can detect the presence of the enemy at distances up to 1,000 yards.
Messenger Dogs: Messenger dogs have to be extremely loyal because they must work for two handlers. They learn to travel in silence and take cover when necessary in order to be able to deliver the necessary communications between the two handlers.
Mine Detection Dogs: Trained to find trip wires, booby traps, and various types of mines.
Casualty Dogs: Casualty dogs are trained much like Search and Rescue dogs to search for casualties who may need immediate care but are hard to locate.
Explosives Detection: Explosives Detection dogs are trained to alert their handler on the scent of chemicals used in explosives. With their superior sense of smell it is very difficult to package explosives in a way a dog cannot detect.
It’s a testament to the amazing bond we have with dogs, that so many have served with such courage and loyalty. Too often they have given their lives in the process and they continue to do so to this day. We owe our canine companions a debt of gratitude for the dangers they fearlessly face in order that human lives may be saved. This Remembrance/Veteran’s Day when you give thanks to those who have served their countries to protect our freedoms, remember to include our animal soldiers when you do so.
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