Mad About Science: War Dogs

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Man’s best friend hasn’t always been about the head rubs and tail wags — like everything humans touch, canine history has been complicated. 

Battle between Cimmerian cavalry, their war dogs and Greek hoplites.
Depicted on a Pontic plate. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Canine use in warfare, peacekeeping and sentry duty has been recorded as far back as 600 BCE. One of the earliest breeds used for war was the Molossus from Greece, believed to have been bred into today’s mastiffs. The Molossus may have been one of the progenitors of the Rottweiler, famously used by the Roman legions as a dog of war and as guard dogs that protected valuable cattle during long campaigns.

In the ages before refrigeration and dehydrated MREs (meals ready to eat, used by contemporary militaries), cattle were driven behind marching armies and butchered daily to feed the soldiers. Cattle, being relatively unintelligent and vulnerable to all manner of predators — including humans — had to be controlled on the move. The most effective means to do this without wasting valuable manpower was to employ trained dogs with a natural herding instinct. This must have been a pretty sweet gig for the dogs in most cases, as the cattle butchery left behind plenty of bones, hides and scraps for all of their effort.

The Romans didn’t stop with herding duty. It is believed that they employed units of several war dogs to charge enemy ranks to disrupt a formation’s cohesion long enough for infantry to swoop in and put down their opponents.

The role of dogs seemed to have waned during the Dark Ages and the medieval period, as horses rose to prominence in the open field and castle walls became too difficult and complex for dogs to effectively attack. Though they have been depicted in portraits and tapestries made during the Middle Ages, it’s believed they were used more often for hunting and protection among the noble class. Dogs must have been expensive to maintain during those times, and raising dozens of them just to see most of them felled by arrows before an infantry charge would have been a devastating waste of time, resources and — most important to the medieval 1% — money.

War dogs saw a resurgence of popularity in World War I, acting as mascots for squads and platoons, as well as sentries, couriers and effective prisoner-takers. Dogs even acted as engineers during WWI, where they would carry communication cables between allied posts as their human counterparts continued fighting. Dogs were smaller and faster targets than people, which made them far more difficult for enemy soldiers to see and attack. The most famous war dog during WWI was Sergeant Stubby, a pit bull that filled a number of roles from warning system to spycatcher.

Dogs are still in use in the military. Possessing a sense of smell up to 33 times more acute than that of a human, they’re capable of sniffing out trace materials used to create IEDs (improvised explosive devices), drugs, hidden ammunition and secret passageways and hiding spots of enemy combatants. Despite reconnaissance being their primary function, they’re fully trained for combat and are even armored similarly to our troops, with protective vests to protect their vital organs from shrapnel and gunfire.

All of the features that make dogs great wartime companions also make them powerful tools for law enforcement. K-9 units undergo weeks — and even months — of specialized training. Not every K-9 unit is trained to sniff out bombs or narcotics; each of these requires its own specialized training course. One of the things law enforcement agencies and K-9 trainers look for in puppies is a natural curiosity and high prey drive, which manifests in puppies that stop at nothing to catch what they are chasing. Because of this, if you’re breaking the law and a K-9 unit is in your presence, just give up. That dog is going to get you and I promise you won’t like the end result.

K-9 units are very expensive to procure and maintain. In the cases I researched, the average cost of a K-9 unit is around $23,000 per dog, including training. This cost goes up with veterinary maintenance, including when the dog needs to have damaged teeth replaced with titanium implants. These dogs are vital investments for the police forces they are a part of, and are sworn officers. They are capable of serving for five to seven years, and are allowed to retire after they’re done. Because of the difficulty of maintaining a former K-9 unit, they generally need someone well versed and capable of owning a highly energetic, driven dog with strong predatory instincts to take care of them in retirement. Usually this means the handler, a former handler or another officer that is familiar with this type of animal that can anticipate its needs.

After researching this article, I’m very happy that my dogs have the luxury of lazily lounging about my house and not having to chase down bad guys — though if they did, I’m sure they’d tackle them and lick them into submission.

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