German Shepherd Dogs in the Military — A Brief Historical Overview

By Brad Cohick -MWDTSA

Development of the Breed and Early Trials

Between 1899 and 1914, the German Shepherd Dog (GSD) was developed by Captain Max von Stephanitz of the German Army to be a working dog. Because of the many years of selective breeding by Stephanitz, the GSD is known for it’s intelligence, loyalty, dedication, and tenacity, making it a perfect candidate for military and police applications and operations. After years of honing the traits of these dogs, Stephanitz was eager to show the prowess of the new breed in areas such as obedience, tracking, and protection and sought to do so by lending these new dogs to German police departments–the first K9 Corps.

During this trial period with German police, these new dogs showed great promise in performing the aforementioned tasks along with their police handlers and Stephanitz believed that they could also be useful to the German military. After these early trials with German Police units, Stephanitz sought to have GSDs added to German Military units, and the timing could not have been better for Stephanitz and his new German Shepherd Dogs.

German Shepherd Dog (GSD) Photo: PDPics.com

World War I

In 1914, at the beginning of the first World War, German Shepherd Dogs were provided to the German Military and they began performing a number of tasks on the battlefield and within the ranks of the German Army. These new dogs performed a wide array of tasks such as sentries, messengers, ammunition carriers, and, they proved themselves especially capable in aiding wounded soldiers on the battlefield, even leading injured and blinded soldiers off of the battlefield to safety and medical attention. This latter act by the new breed eventually led to the development of the first seeing eye dog, an important function the GSD still serves today.

While at first amused by the use of the new dogs on the battlefield, the soldiers on both sides of the conflict were impressed by the heroic acts they saw these new dogs performing under such stressful and dangerous conditions. In fact, soldiers were so impressed by the dogs’ capabilities that after the conflict, the Germans, as well as the Americans and the English, began to develop their own cadre of German Shepherd Dogs for use in the military. GSDs would prove themselves again in conflict when World War II broke out in 1941.

Photo: publicdomainclip-art.blogspot.com

World War II

During WWII, not only did the Germans use GSDs, but the United States Military now deployed GSDs to act mainly as messengers, helping the soldiers to communicate on the battlefield. GSDs also acted as guards and search and rescue dogs during the war. In all of these roles, the GSD performed well and many K9 training camps were established to begin regularly training GSDs for service in the U.S. Military.

Beginning in August 1942, the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps established dog training centers at Front Royal, VA; Fort Robinson, NE; Cat Island (Gulfport), MS; Camp Rimini (Helena), MT; and San Carlos CA. The K-9 Corps initially accepted for training thirty-two breeds of dogs. By 1944, however, that list had been reduced to seven: German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Siberian huskies, farm collies, Eskimo dogs, and Malamutes. Today, GSDs are the only breed still trained by the U.S. Military from that original list, with the modern addition of Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retrievers now being trained and mobilized as Military Working Dogs (MWD).

Training for dogs at these K-9 Camps lasted between 8 and 12 weeks and consisted of what could be considered “basic training” to get the dogs used to military life. After this initial twelve week training period, the dogs would go on to a specialized training course in one of four areas: Sentry Dog training; Scout or Patrol Dog training; Messenger Dog training; or Mine Detection Dog training.

After successful completion of the specialized training, the dogs and their handlers would be organized into War Dog Platoons and deployed to both the European and Pacific Theaters of War. During the course of World War II, fifteen War Dog Platoons would be deployed with seven serving in the European Theater and eight serving in the Pacific Theater. It has been said that while on patrol in the Pacific Theater with a War Dog Platoon, no units were ever ambushed thanks to the K-9s assigned to those units. Many of the dogs trained and deployed during WWII were German Shepherd Dogs.

The Korean War

After World War II, due to lack of interest and budget issues the War Dog Programs were mostly cancelled and closed. The 26th Scout Dog Platoon however stayed intact to some degree and moved from Front Royal Virginia to Fort Riley Kansas in 1948. On December 7th, 1951 the responsibility for dog training was transferred to the Military Police Corps and the 26th Scout Dog Platoon moved again to Fort Carson Colorado. The 26th Scout Dog Platoon was the only active War Dog Platoon to serve in the Korean War. The 26th Scout Dog Platoon served with honor and distinction in Korea from June 12th 1951 to June 26th 1953. Platoon members were awarded a total of three Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars for Valor, and thirty five Bronze Stars for meritorious service. On February 27th 1953 the Department of the Army recognized the accomplishments of the platoon in General Order No. 21. One Dog who proved an outstanding success with the 26th Infantry Scout Dog Platoon in Korea was Scout Dog York (011X). York completed 148 combat patrols, the last one coming the day before the Armistice was signed officially ending the war. On July 1, 1957 the War Dog Training Center was moved from Fort Carson Colorado to Fort Benning Georgia¹.
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¹Webpage, 47th Scout Dog Platoon, ttp://www.47ipsd.us/47k9hist.htm

Vietnam

During the initial phases of the Vietnam War, German Shepherds were used mainly as sentry dogs on Air Force installations as sentry dogs. However, as the war escalated, The United States Marine Corps entered into a service agreement with the US Army to have them train German Shepherds as Scout Dogs. This would be the first time since World War II that the Marines had used scout dogs. Two Marine scout dog platoons were deployed to Vietnam in February 1966. The Marines kenneled their dogs near Da Nang at Camp Kaiser, named after the first Marine scout dog to be killed in action in Vietnam. The first Army scout dog platoon was deployed to Vietnam when the 25th IPSD arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in June 1966. Between late 1965 and January 1969 twenty-two Army Scout Dog Platoons (including the 47th IPSD) and Four Marine Scout Dog Platoons were deployed to Vietnam².
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²Ibid

Over 9,000 handlers and 4,000 dogs served in the Vietnam War. The final disposition of the dogs after the war is a sad and disgraceful episode in our military’s history however. At the time, the dogs were viewed as equipment by the military and disposition of the dogs after the war was done in the most economical way. The dogs were given to the reluctant South Vietnamese military if possible for an unknown disposition, and at worst were euthanized or simply left to fend for themselves. A most despicable and shameful ending for the beautiful and heroic dogs who had served our military personnel so gallantly on the battlefield.

This sad episode led to a large public outcry. After which, the military pledged not to dispose of military working dogs in the same manner. Congress eventually passed a law which allows military dogs to have an honorable retirement. President Clinton signed a bill in November 2000 (H.R. 5314) which amended title 10 of the US Code. This allowed for the adoption of retired military working dogs of war to former handlers and other qualified civilians.

Now these life saving dogs in the military can finally look forward to a comfortable and dignified retirement.

Author’s Note:According to a former Vietnam MWD Handler here at MWDTSA, GSDs served in VN not only as Scout Dogs but also as Mine & Tunnel dogs. The advent of IHS fever helped the US military decide not to bring home GSDs, since they and most US bred dogs were subject to it. After VN all dog units except AF were disbanded. Due to the “overbreeding” of American GSDs, the AF began its favoritism toward the Malinois, including a breeding program.

9/11 and Beyond

German Shepherd Dogs have been part of the US Military’s Military Working Dog program since the end of the Vietnam war, through the Cold War years and up to today’s climate of global terrorism and asymmetric threats. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are the most common breeds of dogs used by military operators because they have the best overall combination of keen sense of smell, endurance, speed, strength, courage, intelligence, and adaptability to almost any climatic condition.”

Currently, the Army has approximately 600 dog teams which have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan³. The courage and loyalty of these dogs have continued to save lives and prevent injuries since creation of the K-9 Corps. Many of the dogs serving on these current teams are German Shepherds and they serve in many roles and perform many duties. Today, we can see German Shepherds performing HALO jumps with Special Operators and inserting from boats with Navy SEAL Teams. These dogs continue to be valued members of our Military and patriotic guardians of our freedom.

There is no reason to believe that German Shepherd Dogs will not have a place in our military for years to come. They have served with distinction in many theaters and in many conflicts around the world. Should you have the good fortune to meet one of these Military Working Dogs, please remember to show your respect and thank them for their service to our country.
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³U.S. Army.mil

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