If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: A dog is a man’s best friend. There’s no doubt about it. From Lassie to Wishbone and Balto to Beethoven, dogs have occupied some of the most iconic positions in society’s collective memory over the years. However, there is more to the dog/man relationship than just warm snuggles and fun times playing catch in the park. Dogs have also proven themselves excellent companions in some of the most harrowing environments that man has ever experienced. Here is a list of some of the most famous military dogs in history.
Dogs in the Military
Did you know that dogs have been involved in every major conflict that the United States has been involved in over the centuries? Yet, they were never formally recognized for their heroic sacrifices until World War II, less than a hundred years ago. Despite the belated thanks, though, thousands of dogs—there are roughly 2,500 of them in active service—have steadily served in the armed forces in a variety of capacities over time.
From sniffing out bombs, drugs, and weapons, to literally helping to attack enemy soldiers, dogs have provided invaluable services for the armed forces over the years. The impressively uncanny ability of a fully trained war dog to detect a variety of threats saves soldiers’ lives on a regular basis. And their service goes beyond the actual act of saving lives, too; they also provide a sense of peace and protection that is invaluable to the emotional well-being of military personnel.
Canines continue to be incredibly supportive of members of the military beyond the battlefield as well. PTSD has remained a real threat to many veterans returning home from war, with more than a quarter of the veterans of more recent conflicts suffering some form of difficulty upon their return. From building a resume and learning how to interview for jobs to rediscovering how to relate to those around you again or simply remembering how to function in the much slower pace of normal life, the transition can be an ominous one to tackle. Once again, though, having a pooch as your pal can do wonders to ease the stresses and strains of reentry into civilian life. The effectiveness of an emotional support dog is hard to overstate, with a canine providing loyalty, stability, and a laundry list of other therapeutic benefits.
Now that we’ve taken a look at how military dogs can help both on and off the battlefield, let’s meet some of the four-legged heroes that are best remembered for their service.
A hundred years ago, during World War I, Private J. Robert Conroy found a brindle puppy and named him “Stubby” after his short tail. Stubby quickly became a favorite of Conroy’s fellow soldiers and eventually was made the mascot of the entire 102nd Infantry, 26th Yankee Division. When the division shipped out for the battlefields of France, Conroy managed to smuggle Stubby along with him. Even when the private’s commander discovered him, the canine was allowed to remain with the unit after he respectfully gave the officer a salute. Talk about understanding how to please your superiors!
But Stubby was more than just a trained pet. His presence in the trenches proved to be literally lifesaving. He became adept at listening for and locating the wounded soldiers who were speaking in English. During a gas attack early one morning, his expertly calibrated nose detected the foul smell rolling across no man’s land before anyone else, and Stubby ran through the trenches, waking the soldiers. On another occasion he attacked and tripped up a German spy, causing him to be captured. Eventually, he was given a promotion to the rank of sergeant, the first canine to receive such an honor. After the war, the enormously popular Stubby went on to meet Presidents Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge.
Civil War Sallie
While dogs may not have been officially recognized until World War II, that doesn’t mean they weren’t busy making an impact on the battlefield before that point. Case in point, during the Civil War the 11th Pennsylvania volunteer infantry regiment received a puppy that they named Sallie. They took the dog to all of their battles, where she would stand at the end of the firing line and bark at the enemy. At the Battle of Gettysburg, she was separated from her boys as they retreated. When the unit returned to the spot after the battle, they found Sallie still guarding their wounded and dead comrades.
Sadly, Sallie would eventually be killed at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, just a few short months before the war ended. However, she was honored in memoriam by being included on the regiment’s monument on the battlefield at Gettysburg, where Sallie’s sweet, gentle figure can still be seen curled up at the base of the statue.
The most decorated dog of World War II turned out to be a German shepherd-husky mix that went by the name Chips. The brave canine trained for war and then joined the overseas action in a variety of campaigns throughout the war. However, there was one particular series of events that launched him into the history books. Chips earned multiple awards for his selfless actions during the aptly titled Operation Husky invasion of Sicily in 1943.
When his unit was pinned down by a machine gun nest, Chips valiantly broke away from his handler and dashed across the war-swept battlefield. He burst into the nest, attacking the surprised occupants and driving them out of their cover where they were quickly captured. Not one to rest on his laurels, Chips proceeded that very night to continue to protect the lives of his soldiers by sounding the alarm when enemies approached, leading to their eventual capture as well.
The incredible heroics were initially honored with a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart, but these were sadly revoked afterward due to a military policy that forbade animals from receiving awards. Happily, the well-deserved honors were reinstated posthumously 71 years later. You can read Chips’ full story here.
Air Force Nemo
During the Vietnam War, German shepherd Nemo A534 turned in yet another courageous performance when on guard duty one night. He alerted the local troops to approaching enemy soldiers, giving them enough time to rally and fight off a surprise attack. However, Nemo himself was wounded, being shot in the face, while his handler, Robert Throneburg, was also shot in the chest.
After Throneburg was wounded, Nemo continued to bravely protect his handler, keeping everyone—friend and foe—away for a long time. Both Nemo and Throneburg went on to recover from their wounds with Nemo being allowed to permanently retire after the traumatic ordeal.
More than Man’s Best Friend
There’s no doubt that dogs have played a key role in keeping many military personnel alive over the years. From sniffing out gas attacks to charging at machine gun nests and so much more, they have proved their skill and devotion time and time again, and their courage should be recognized and honored. Therefore, it's worthwhile to keep the sacrifices of these loyal and brave canines in mind whenever we welcome new dogs into our homes, including those with special needs.