Fur Missiles: A Brief History of Military Working Dogs

Conan's military working dog brethren date back to 600 B.C.

Elizabeth Howe
December 13, 2019 - 10:57 am
Pfc. Rez P. Hester of the Marine Corps Seventh War Dog Platoon on Iwo Jima takes a nap while Butch stands guard. February 1945.

National Archives


Military working dogs have been in the spotlight recently thanks to Conan, the MWD that hunted down ISIS leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria during a Delta Force raid. But Conan is far from the beginning of the military fur missile ancestry line. So when were dogs first used in warfare?


PHOTOS: Conan the hero dog's White House medal

The first mention of dogs being used in warfare is in 600 B.C. When Alyattes, the King of Lydia battled the Cimmerians, ancient records read that he ordered his troops to be accompanied by a "number of large and fierce dogs." The Egyptians in 525 BC used dogs in warfare in a slightly different way — considered sacred, dogs were frequently placed on the front lines because no Egyptian would fire upon the sacred animal. 

In the United States, many centuries later, dogs were first introduced to war zones as pets and mascots. 

Tec 4 S. Medeiroa, of the Army's 26th Division, holds the unit's mascot, Little Joe - Germany on March 21, 1945

Army Pfc. Raymond Gasiorowski takes Leipzig, his company's pet puppy, for a walk

Soon, of course, the true potential of canines in the war zone came to light — and dogs started to enlist.

Dogs are inducted into the Army at Front Royal, Virginia. August 25, 1942

While an unofficial canine force existed during World War I, dogs were not officially recognized by the U.S. military until March 13, 1942, with the establishment of the private organization, Dogs for Defense. In the beginning, Dogs for Defense was all-volunteer and family pets were handed over to the Army for training. 

 Clyde Porter gives his dog, Junior, to the Texas recruiting station for Dogs for Defense, August 1942

Dogs quickly started to distinguish themselves with acts of gallantry in the field — including war hero dog Sgt. Stubby.

Sgt. Stubby

Army Sgt. Stubby earned the Purple Heart twice during World War I. Once for his actions during a gas attack and once for being wounded by a grenade — after being smuggled into Europe by members of the 102nd Infantry Regiment. This is the highest military award any dog has received.

PHOTOS: Because it's been entirely too long since we published some dog pictures

Dogs were soon performing a whole range of duties in the field — tunnel dogs, sentry dogs, detection dogs, hunting dogs, tracking dogs. Dogs even boarded on Navy ships — keeping rats at bay and morale high. 

Water Dog

And, of course, they also served as companions to their handlers. 

Pfc. Rez P. Hester of the Marine Corps Seventh War Dog Platoon on Iwo Jima takes a nap while Butch stands guard. February 1945

These dogs followed their handlers into any fight where they were needed — and they continue to do so to this day. During the Vietnam War, an estimated 232 MWDs were killed. Approximately 109 have been killed during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A Marine Corps German shepherd is comforted by his partner while being x-rayed. Shot by a Japanese sniper on Bougainville, the dog died of his injuries

Today, the Department of Defense has approximately 1,600 MWDs headquartered out of Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in San Antonio, Tx. Most MWDs are either German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois, but the force also includes Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Beagles.

As warfare modernizes and evolves, so does the work and equipment of MWDs. These dogs are used for patrol, drug and explosive detection, and specialized mission functions — and the Department of Defense is working to design equipment to help them do their jobs including innovative ear protection.


Innovative hearing protection may safeguard military working dogs

And, more and more, the work of these canines in combat is being recognized. This year, military working dogs were honored with memorials, medals, awards, and even a Forever stamp. 

USPS Military Working Dog Forever Stamp

You can finally buy Forever stamps featuring military working dogs

Thank you to all four-legged service members. 

Photos courtesy of National Archives, USPS, Naval History and Heritage Command

Want to get more connected to the stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.