By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
“These are the stories that the Dogs tell, when the fires burn high and the wind is from the north” (Clifford D. Simak).
Dr. Jeffrey Fowler’s dog “Sweetie”
(Belgian Malinois Cross)
No one knows the origins of the first domesticated dog. Presumably it was a wolf that, for whatever reason, decided to link its fate in life with humans. The initial impetus for dogs befriending humans was probably a combination of the dogs’ hunting prowess and their need for companionship.
Whatever the reason, dogs and humans have become the proverbial “match made in heaven.”
Historical Roots of Modern Working Dogs
The roots of the modern working dog derive from military and security applications dating back to at least the Roman Empire. The preferred dog of the Roman Legions was the now-extinct Molossian breed from northwestern Greece and southern Albania. Shepherds used these dogs to protect their flocks from wild animal attacks. Molossians were similar in musculature and shape to modern Mastiffs.
Later, during the Middle Ages, canines were used for a variety of functions such as security and hunting. Legend has it that during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Sir Peter Legh of Lynne was killed, but his faithful Mastiff refused to leave his side. Mastiffs and Great Danes were trained to leap onto a horse’s back, throwing the rider off his horse so the dog’s owner could kill the fallen knight.
Use of Working Dogs during Wartime
Unofficially, dogs assisted in the American Revolution. Working dogs have officially served in all major conflicts that the U.S. military has participated in since 1917. The first official use of dogs by the U.S. Army came during the Seminole Wars (1835 and 1842 in Florida and Louisiana) when Bloodhounds were used for tracking. The use of dogs in war continued into the First and Second World Wars.
Serving as the Director for Security – Reserve Storage Activity – Miesau (RSAM) in Miesau, Germany, during the early 1990s, I was responsible for security and law enforcement operations using dogs. Our kennel had billets for 50 military working dogs (MWDs).
The dogs performed both law enforcement and security patrol duties. One night, a dog on patrol protected his handler from a threatening wild boar.
After 9/11, the expanding role of the U.S. military in the global war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the increasing use by terrorists and insurgents of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), prompted a renaissance in using working dogs for war and police activities.
Currently, all U.S. military branches send handlers to train working K-9s at the U.S. Air Force facility at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas. This facility has 62 training areas and houses more than 1,000 of the military’s 2,500 working dogs that receive training in narcotics/bomb detection, patrol and tracking work.
Two Major Breeds Are Often Used for Police and Military Work
Although many breeds are used as working dogs for a variety of purposes, two major breeds are most often trained for police and military work: German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. German Shepherds are excellent workers, but they and Malinois often suffer from hip dysplasia.
The German Shepherd breed is largely the result of the efforts of Max von Stephanitz, beginning in 1899. Stephanitz was a former German Imperial Army cavalry captain and a student at the Berlin Veterinary School. He founded the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (Society for the German Shepherd Dog). His personal German Shepherd, Horand von Grafrath, was the first dog to be placed on the official registry of the breed.
The Belgian Malinois (sometimes called the Belgian Shepherd) originated in the Malines region of Belgium in the late nineteenth century. This medium-size dog is one of four derivations of the type known as Belgian Shepherds with a fawn color, black muzzle and square face.
In 1901, the first Belgian Malinois, Vos des Polders, was registered with the Societe Royale Saint-Hubert. He was bred from a line of Belgian Shepherds that were used to guard flax fields in that region.
Both breeds are in wide use in security, military and civilian law enforcement worldwide. Both breeds are agile, loyal, strong, intelligent and willing to work. They have often proven themselves in periods of great stress and are welcomed additions to any K-9 operation.
Training Military Working Dogs
Prior to 9/11, the Military Working Dog Program trained approximately 200 dogs a year. Since then, the number of MWDs trained annually has increased to approximately 500.
Dogs can also be trained for routine military patrol duties and as sentry dogs as they were used during the Vietnam War.
The 341st Training Squadron is responsible for the basic training of the K-9s. The regimen consists of both basic obedience training and more specialized training, such as attacks and the identification of various explosives and narcotic substances. Dogs are typically rewarded with a rubber ball rather than with treats.
Military Working Dogs Have Specialized Training
Explosives detection dogs are used to locate explosive materials and devices. For example, they can detect Semtex, an explosive commonly used by terrorist groups. The dogs are used by both the military and law enforcement/security agencies, and were the inspiration for the motion picture “Max.”
These dogs have been a key element in assisting the U.S. military in locating IEDs in the war on terror. In fact, their usefulness has resulted in 31,000 tactical explosives detections (TEDs) in addition to saving many lives.
Narcotics detection dogs are trained to locate illegal substances for military and law enforcement agencies as well as for the Transportation Security Administration.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) manages its own training program at facilities in El Paso, Texas, and Front Royal, Virginia. The primary purpose of CBP K-9 teams is to locate and identify potential terrorists attempting to enter the U.S. Their secondary mission is contraband detection.
Patrol dog teams are used for general military security and law enforcement patrol activities. Their daily duties consist mainly of maintaining a presence and acting as a deterrent to would-be intruders.
In the heavily wooded confines of Miesau and at its two associated operations, I used K-9 teams to patrol around ammunition bunkers and associated facilities. Our regimen was one hour of “paws on the ground” and one hour alternating in vehicle patrols over an eight-hour shift.
Military sentry dogs were used in the Vietnam War for a variety of tasks, especially to ensure the security of Army, Air Force and Marine facilities. A sentry dog program is still active at the Idaho State Correctional Institution.
The Army and Marines use scout dogs, mainly German Shepherds, in combat to sniff for airborne and ground scents such as trip wires on explosives or hidden combatants.
Tracker dogs, mostly black or yellow Labrador Retrievers, are trained to find and track a single scent. For example, the scent of an enemy soldier leaving a footprint or in some discarded article.
The Future of Working Dogs in the Military
A relatively new program at Joint Base San Antonio is the Combat Dog Tracker Course, similar to tracker dog teams used in Vietnam. This course trains dogs to go to the site of an ambush or firefight involving an IED and then follow the trail of the perpetrators to their current location. Instructors of this course expect to produce approximately 10 teams annually.
One thing we can be sure of: in this age of high-technology weaponry and cyber threats, the nose, eyes and ears of working dogs are just as useful and welcomed by today’s service personnel as they were when that lone Roman Legionnaire walked a foggy post besides the waters of the Rhine in 50 A.D.
About the Author
Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army Captain, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.