The military working dog: America’s four-legged warrior

The military working dog has long been part of America’s fighting forces, though recent events have brought renewed public attention to these highly trained canines.

This month marks the one year anniversary of SEAL Team Six’s raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Perhaps no single member of the elite commando team has generated more fascination than Cairo, a military working dog who accompanied the SEALs on this mission.

A proud legacy of service

Pfc. Hester, 7th War Dog Platoon, 25th Reg. and Butch; February 1945. SSG M. Kauffman.

For nearly a century, America’s military has put canines to work. During World War I, German and France trained an estimated 50,000 dogs to act as sentries, messengers and ammunition carriers, and to tend to casualties on the battlefield. When American Expeditionary Forces landed in Europe late in the war, they borrowed similarly trained dogs from British and Belgian forces.

The United States’ own war dog effort got its official start shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Before the U.S. was drawn into World War II, an influential group of professional American dog breeders formed the organization Dogs for Defense to procure and train war dogs for U.S. military use, should the need ever arise. The dogs were trained primarily for sentry duty, and started their service at Quartermaster installations on the West Coast.

In November 1942, the dogs were tested on the battlefield in North Africa and proved their worth. On the battle lines, canine sentries were considered more alert and responsive than their human handlers. One commanding officer remarked that when bases were blacked out at night, a single human sentry with a trained dog was just as effective as two human sentries on duty.

After North Africa, the U.S. military’s demand for war dogs exploded. By July 1943, over 11,000 war dogs were procured, mostly through the Dogs for Defense organization.

Vietnam presses MWDs back into action

After World War II the war dog program shrank considerably and most dogs returned stateside. The Air Force began using sentry dogs in Europe and the Pacific for peacetime duty. The Army used some MWDs during the Korean War, for sentry and patrol duty. On patrol in Korea, the dog and its handler walked ahead, while the patrol followed behind to provide protection. Once the dog alerted to the possible presence of the enemy, the dog and handler were sent to the rear lest they became combat casualties.

U.S. Air Force. Senior Airman Elizabeth Rissmiller.

MWDs were called back to active duty during the Vietnam War. Between 1965 and 1973, over 4,500 MWDs served in Vietnam. Once again, MWDs proved their worth. They were deployed primarily at night, when their senses are far more acute than those of humans, alerting to the enemy before the enemy could endanger U.S. assets or soldiers’ lives.

As threats to national security changed, so evolved the use of MWDs to combat those threats. With the rise in drug trafficking in the late 1960’s, MWDs were trained and used for narcotics detection. Then, following the example of the British who were in conflict in Northern Ireland, America’s military began training MWDs for bomb detection in 1971.

The post-9/11 military working dog

The events of September 11, 2001 jettisoned MWD responsibilities to a whole new level of sophistication. In addition to narcotics and bombs, MWDs were trained to detect the mines and IEDs scattered across Iraq and Afghanistan. Some MWDs, called “CTDs” for Combat Tracker Dogs, were trained to not only sniff out explosives and weapons, but to track the humans who left behind those IEDs or weapons as well.

Tech Sgt. Manual J. Martinez, U.S. Air Force/DoD

Finally there are the MPCs, or Multi-Purpose Canines – the Cairos of America’s military. These explosive-sniffing and tracking MWDs can be dropped out of aircraft, outfitted with tactical vests and/or night-vision cameras. MPCs are stealth dogs; as Air Force Master Sgt. Antonio Rodriguez, an MWD training supervisor, notes: “They can do all this and pursue a bad guy through a wall of fire and tear you to pieces if they need to.”

Today there are over 2,700 MWDs in the U.S. military serving worldwide. The MWDs’ contribution to the efficacy of America’s military has earned the respect of the highest levels of command. According to CIA Director and Four Star General David Petraeus, “the capability they bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine.”


  1. […] to sniff out IEDs and hiding humans or chase down and incapacitate targets. Today there are over 2,700 MWDs (Military Working Dogs) serving worldwide. These animals used to be cut loose at the end of any […]

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