A Memorial Day Salute: Our Military Working Dogs

Military working dogsIn honor of Memorial Day, I would like to pay tribute to some very special heroes— the U.S military working dogs. I am a sucker for a good dog story and this is the story of thousands of good dogs!

A Few Notable Combat Canines

General Custer
General Custer and his dog

Dogs in the military are nothing new. They have been around for a lot longer than even the holiday of Memorial Day! In the United States, military dogs date back to the Seminole Wars of 1855. And during the Civil War, American Pit Bull Terriers were used to send messages, to guard prisoners and also for companionship. Even General Custer took a companion dog to war with him. By WWI, the role of dogs in the military became more official. And by WWII, dogs were trained for active duty. They weren’t military afterthoughts, they were full-fledged soldiers!

Sergeant Stubby
Sergeant Stubby

Sergeant Stubby, a Pit Bull mix, was the most decorated combat dog of WWI. He was also the only dog to be promoted to sergeant through combat. Stubby served for eighteen months and participated in seventeen battles on the Western Front. He even discovered and captured a German spy!

Chips with his handlers

During WWII, the U.S. Marine Corps used dogs, which had been donated by their American owners, to recapture territory from Japanese occupying forces in the Pacific Theater. Chips, a German Shepherd mix was the most decorated dog of WWII. In one day, he attacked a small fort, received wounds to the head, forced the surrender of four Italian soldiers and later assisted in the capture of ten prisoners. He was awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart, although they were later revoked, due to an Army policy preventing official commendation of animals.

Military dogs
Cairo, the dog who took down Osama bin Laden

More recently, U.S. Navy SEALs used Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, in Operation Neptune Spear. You might know that operation better as “the one that took down Osama bin Laden.”

Gabe, Hero Dog of the Year
Gabe, Hero Dog of the Year

In 2012, the American Humane Association awarded Gabe, a specialized explosives search dog, the Hero Dog of the Year Award. Gabe is a yellow Labrador that was deployed in Iraq for thirteen months. During that time, he completed 210 combat missions, which resulted in twenty-six finds and an untold number of saved lives.

The individual stories could go on and on and each one is worthy of telling. Alas, there’s more ground to cover…so let’s talk about how military dogs are trained.

Dog School

Dog trainingSince 1958, Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas has been home to the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program, or MWD. This “Dog School” procures and trains dogs to assist military service personnel for each of the military branches in combat situations. The dogs must be both focused and aggressive. They must also demonstrate a desire to work and a heightened sense of smell.

This program is not for lap dogs, although they must have a desire to play! Detection training begins by searching for toys. Dogs are evaluated on how hard they will work to find a hidden toy and how hard they will bite the toy when they find it. In a combat zone, you want a dog that is not going to grow tired of searching for explosives!


Dog School currently has sixty-two training areas for more than one thousand dogs. The training staff consists of around 125 security forces airmen and previous handlers from each branch of the military.

Approximately eighty-five percent of MWDs are purchased from Germany and the Netherlands. Those countries have military dog breeding programs that are hundreds of years old. Most of the remaining fifteen percent of military dogs are bred at Lackland’s training facility.

Dishonorably Discharged

All military careers eventually come to an end. Sometimes a dog’s career ends due to age or health problems. Sometimes the dog has simply lost the oomph for the job and wants to chill out and lick its private parts. I was shocked to learn that, prior to the year 2000, most Military Working Dogs were euthanized at the end of their military service. Retired dogs were seen as “surplus equipment,” and were treated as such. Yowza! That blows my mind!

Robby's Law
Robby and handler

When the time came for Robby, a military working dog, to be retired, his handler fought desperately to be able to adopt him. While the handler’s request was denied, Robby’s death had an impact on the fate of thousands of other MWDs. In November 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Robby’s Law, which requires that all MWDs suitable for adoption be given the opportunity to be adopted by law enforcement agencies, former handlers or other persons “capable of humanely caring for these dogs.”

Adopt a Retired Military Working Dog

Military programSince these dogs have been highly trained for unsavory tasks, they are often unsuitable to be family pets. Due to their unique training and temperaments, MWDs are never simply surrendered to shelters or animal rescue organizations. Each Military Working Dog adoption is handled through the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Adoption Program at Lackland Air Force Base. Military personnel carefully evaluate dogs and an estimated three hundred dogs are adopted each year.

For dogs that are still capable of working, adoption priority is given to law enforcement agencies and retirement is postponed in favor of a career change. For dogs that are no longer up for a career, former handlers are given an opportunity to adopt. Following that, the general public can apply to adopt. Adoption of these military heroes is always free of charge.

Save a Vet

If you are interested in providing a home for one of these dogs, you may get adoption information here, at Save-A-Vet. Keep in mind that most retired MWDs are not placed in homes with small children or other pets. Due to the popularity of these canine national heroes, there is a waiting list for people interested in adopting one.

Dog lovers living within two hours of Lackland Air Force Base can also consider serving as a foster home for the MWD Breeding Program. Fostering entails raising a puppy from twelve weeks to six months of age, at which point the pups are ready to enter their military training program.

Monument Dogs

In October 2013, the U.S. military dedicated its first national monument to combat dogs. Located at Lackland Air Force, the nine-foot tall bronze statue features a handler and four noble dogs. It is inscribed with the words, “Guardians of America’s Freedom.” The statue features the four major breeds that have been used since World War II: German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, Doberman Pinscher and Belgian Malinois.

Monument Dogs

The monument, which was built entirely through private donations, is the brainchild of John Burnam, who served as a dog handler during the Vietnam War. Burnam had the idea for a memorial when the U.S. combat dogs during Vietnam were not allowed to return to the United States. Burnam is the author of two books about combat dogs, including, Canine Warrior: How a Vietnam Scout Dog Inspired a National Monument.

Freedom is Never Free

Blog13At any given time, approximately 500 military working dogs are deployed. The vast majority will never make the evening news and they ask for no more than a pat on the head for a job well done. So, for that, they deserve our thanks, on this Memorial Day, and every day.

Let’s honor them today by watching this moving video, of combat dogs and their handlers in action!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

4 Replies to “A Memorial Day Salute: Our Military Working Dogs”

  1. I’ve been rescuing dogs for close to 40 years and have a lot of military in my family. I was in tears the whole time that I watched this video. The love, the trust, the bond…..wow….great job,!!

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