Why War Dogs?

In addition to all the fine qualities that dogs have as team members, dogs can do even more. They have visual and olfactory sensory abilities that are literally superhuman, can go where a soldier cannot, and can often subdue or intimidate a foe more quickly with non-lethal force. Because of these traits, they have been successfully trained for many military duties and roles by modern armies for a century.

War Dogs: Sense of Smell

Among the dog’s abilities that far exceed a man is his sense of smell. Dogs are reported to have ten to twenty times the number of receptors in their nose, compared to a human, and the olfactory part of their brain (devoted to smell) is much larger. This gives them the ability to detect very faint odors and to discriminate between very slight differences in chemical composition.

This literally superhuman ability makes dogs ideal for tasks such as tracking, detection of explosives or narcotics, casualty location, and search and rescue. When there is little or no wind, a dog can detect intruders up to 200 meters away using its senses of smell, hearing, and sight. When placed to take advantage of odors carried on the wind the range is extended, to perhaps as much as 1000 meters. In unfavorable wind conditions, a dog can still detect by sound and sight. Of course, a dog’s capabilities are reduced by smoke, dust, heavy vegetation, and similar confusing factors.

Roles and Duties for Military Working Dogs

Over the centuries dogs have had many roles with the military, but in modern times specific duties have been defined where dogs can give the best service. While in the past they have done everything from catch rats to draw fire to expose enemy positions, today dogs are given humane tasks where their special skills do the most good.

On this page, the most common duties for Military Working Dogs are defined.

Sentry Dogs

These dogs worked on a short leash and were taught to give warning by growling, alerting or barking. They were especially valuable for working in the dark when attack from cover or the rear was most likely. The sentry dog was taught to accompany a military or civilian guard on patrol and give him warning of the approach or presence of strangers within the protected area.

Sentry dogs are trained to warn their handlers of the approach or presence of strange persons and are utilized for garding supply dumps, airports, war plants, and other vital installations. Their use has proved them to be valuable in any place where security against intruders must be maintained.

Of the 10,425 dogs trained in WW II, around 9,300 were used for sentry duty. Sentry dogs were issued to hundreds of military organizations such as coastal fortifications, harbor defenses, arsenals, ammunition dumps, airfields, depots and industrial plants. The largest group of sentry dogs (3,174) were trained in 1943 and issued to the Coast Guard for beach patrols guarding against enemy submarine activities.

Scout or Patrol Dogs

In addition to the skills for sentry dogs, scout or patrol dogs were trained to work in silence to aid in the detection of snipers, ambushes and other enemy forces within a particular locality. Only dogs with superior intelligence and a quiet disposition were selected for scout dog training. The scout dog and his Quartermaster handler normally walked point on combat patrols, well in front of the Infantry patrol.

Scout dogs could detect the presence of the enemy at distances up to 1,000 yards, long before men became aware of them. When a scout dog alerted to the enemy, the dog would stiffen its body, raise its hackles, prick its ears and hold its tail rigid. The presence of the dogs with patrols greatly lessened the danger of ambush and tended to boost morale.

Messenger Dogs

The most desired quality in these dogs was loyalty, since the dogs must be motivated by the desire to work with two handlers. They learned to travel silently and take advantage of natural cover when moving between the two handlers.

Mine Dogs

These dogs, also called the “M-Dog” or mine detection dog, were trained to find trip wires, booby traps, metallic and nonmetallic mines. Units were sent to North Africa in World War II. However, the dogs had problems detecting mines under combat conditions.

Casualty Dogs

Casualty Dogs, like search and rescure dogs, are trained to search for and report casualties lying in obscure places, casualties that are difficult for collecting parties to locate. In cases of severe shock or hemorrhage, minutes saved in locating such casualties often mean the difference between life and death.

Tunnel Dogs

In Vietnam there was a specialized requirement for tunnel dogs to detect amd explore the tunnels exploited by the Viet Cong. The tunnel dwellers feared the dogs and used tactics to confuse the dogs. For example they washed with GI soap and covered air vents with shirts taken from Americans so the dogs’ sense of smell would not be alerted.

Explosives Detection

In the War on Terrorism a common threat is explosives hidden on a person, in a vehicle, or roadside location. Explosives Detection dogs are trained to alert on the scent of chemicals used in explosives. With their superior sense of smell it is very difficult to package explosives in a way a dog cannot detect. Explosives dogs are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and in many other CONUS and OCONUS locations for this purpose

Breeds Used for Military Working Dogs

Early in World War II, as the Quartermaster Corps began training dogs for the Army’s K-9 Corps, more than thirty breeds were accepted. But later, with more experience, the list was narrowed to five: German Shepherds, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Farm Collies (short coat) and Giant Schnauzers. Rejected breeds included Great Danes, difficult to train because of their size, and hunting dogs because animal scents occupied their attention. Alaskan Malamutes and Huskies were still trained for Arctic duty as sled dogs.


Standard Breeds of U.S. MWDs Today

The vast majority of U.S. military working dogs in recent times are German and Dutch shepherds and Belgian Malinois, breeds chosen because they are very aggressive, smart, loyal and athletic.

German Shepherd dogs are preferred as the standard breed because of their unique combination of traits. Shepherds are intelligent, dependable, predictable, easily trained, usually moderately aggressive, and can adapt readily to almost any climatic conditions. While many dog breeds exhibit some or most of these traits, the Shepherd more than any other breed, most consistently exhibits all of these traits.

For specialized roles, detector dogs in particular, other breeds are used. Retrievers (Labrador, Golden or Chesapeake Bay) are the preferred breeds for One Odor Detector dogs.

All dogs trained and used by the U.S. military are procured and trained by the 341st Military Working Dog Training Squadron, Lackland AFB, TX.

The Diversity of MWD Jobs

Courtesy of of: Maria Goodavage, Author of:  “Soldier Dogs”.


The nature and nurture of military dogs is complicated because of their breeding and where they come from, to be sure, but it is necessarily diverse because there is such a range of jobs they do.  To understand which breeds of dogs get selected for which jobs in the military, it helps to know a little about the range of roles these dogs have. You might think “Seen one military working dog, seen them all” – but these dogs are as diverse as the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines they work beside.

Just about everything in the military has an acronym, from the sublime (COPPER for Chemo terrorism Operations Policy for Public Emergency) to the ridiculous (POO for Point of Origin; when a dog handler told me about how he had to go back to the POO in order to start his mission, it painted an odd picture.). Military working dog jobs are no exception. It is simpler to divide the dogs into some broad categories, and then tap into the acronyms

Single-purpose dogs are used for one purpose only: sniffing out explosives or narcotics (or in the case of combat tracking dogs, humans). They tend to be “sporting” breeds, like Labrador retrievers, golden and Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Viszlas, and various short-and wire-haired pointers. Jack Russell terriers and even small poodles sometimes make appearances.

Single-purpose dogs don’t need to be aggressive. They can be all nose, no bite. Some single-purpose dogs might get naturally protective, but as most handlers of dogs like Labs will attest, they’re more likely to lick you to death. A couple of the jobs  (CTDs and MDDs) tend to employ dogs more typically associated with dual-purpose work, like German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, and Dutch shepherds.

These dogs are trained to locate either drugs or explosives – never both. You don’t want to have to stand there guessing if Balco M492 is alerting to a stash of heroin or a pressure-plate IED. “When your dog makes an alert you need to know whether to run away and call the explosives people or whether to go arrest someone,” says Hilliard.

Types of single-purpose dogs and the jobs they do include:

EDD (Explosive Detector Dog) – This is your standard-fare single-purpose dog, used in all branches of the military. The handlers of these dogs are military police who spend months going through dog-handler school at Lackland Air Force Base.

NDD (Narcotics Detector Dog) – Just like the EDD, except this dog detects drugs instead of explosives.

SSD (Specialized Search Dog) – These dogs go a step beyond EDD work. SSDs are a special class of dogs trained to work off leash at long distances from a handler in order to find explosives. They work by hand signals, and in the Marines can also receive commands via radio receivers they wear on their backs. (The Air Force and Navy don’t have SSDs.) These dogs can be breeds that are usually reserved for dual-purpose, like German shepherds.

CTD (Combat Tracker Dog) – Explosives dogs and SSDs can detect where IEDs and weapons caches are located, but it’s up to the highly-trained CTDs to track down the person who stashed the explosives. This is a Marine program only. Although the job is in our single-purpose dog list, combat tracker dogs are more typically dual-purpose dog breeds these days. “Labs were too goofy for the work,” a longtime CTD trainer told me. CTDs generally work on a long retractable leash.

MDD (Mine Detection Dog) – These dogs do slow and steady off-leash searches for buried mines and artillery. This is an Army program only. Labs, shepherds, and Malinois are the preferred breeds for this job.

TEDD (Tactical Explosive Detector Dog) – Lackland doesn’t procure dogs for the Army’s TEDD program. Contractors do, and they generally buy them from U.S. vendors. The program is a temporary one created in response to a request from former general David Petraeus for an influx of special sniffer dogs to help with IED detection. Select infantrymen from deploying units are given short-term training on how to work with these dogs, who are trained by contractors.

IDD (IED Detector Dog) – As with TEDDs, this is a temporary program created to fulfill the urgent need for bomb dogs. It’s run by the Marine Corps, and accounts for the majority of sporting breed dogs in the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program. The dogs are bought from breeders and vendors around the U.S. by contractors, who train them and the infantrymen who will be their handlers. (The training of IDD handlers and TEDD handlers is far shorter than that of other MWD handlers – many say too short to ensure the safest and most effective dog teams.)

Dual-purpose dogs do both patrol work (protection, aggression when needed) and detection work, along with some basic scouting. Scouting is the ability to track human scent through the air. Dual purpose dogs are the most common type of dog Hilliard’s team procures for the DOD.

Most dual-purpose dogs are German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, and Dutch shepherds. The shepherds usually hail from Eastern Europe, and the Malinois from The Netherlands and other Western European countries.

The dogs the DOD uses are not usually pedigreed or registered. What the DOD wants is functionality, not pure breed lines. This can make dogs heartier and less prone to problems. The mixing of breeds is particularly prevalent in the Belgian Malinois.

Want a bigger Malinois? (Malinois have gotten notably larger in recently years.) The breeder won’t hesitate to mingle the Malinois with a Great Dane. Want a stronger dog with more reliable nerves than the more reactive and thin-nerved Malinois? Breed the Malinois to a German shepherd. Doc Hilliard says he’s also seen Malinois with very distinctive mixes of boxer, boxer-pit bull, and boxer-Bouvier as well.

At times this intermingling can make for dogs who are exactly on the cusp of one dog breed or the other, and it can be hard to tease apart the dog’s background. The difference between calling a dog a Malinois or a German shepherd, for instance, can come down to the type of head the dog has, or the dog’s body angles. A more sloped hind end might be the final arbiter in calling the dog a shepherd.

The list of jobs for these dual-purpose dogs is blissfully short compared with the alphabet soup that makes up their single-purpose counterparts’ job list. Some say it’s best for a dog to have just one job and specialize in it, but most handlers think dual purpose dogs work just fine.

PEDD (Patrol Explosive Detector Dog) – PEDDs are the backbone of the war-dog program. The dogs are used by MPs and other law enforcement across all services. In addition to sniffing out bombs and doing patrol work, these dogs have some basic scouting abilities.

PNDD (Patrol Narcotics Detector Dog) – These dogs are the drug-sniffing counterparts of PEDDs, and are also used in Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

Multi-purpose canines are the Cairos of the military. They’re used by Special Operations personnel. MPC is both a category and a job description. In addition to doing everything PEDDs can do, these super-high-drive dogs can be used in parachute or rappel operations. They sometimes wear waterproof tactical vests, night-vision or infrared cameras so handlers can see what they’re seeing as they work from a distance, and other highly specialized canine equipment. They’re extremely resilient, environmentally sound, and almost unflappable. As Arod says, “They can do all this and jump through a ring of fire and tear you to pieces if they need to.”

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) K-9 Corps

The U.S. entered the Persian Gulf War in January 1991 and there was the possibility that terrorists might try to attack the Central Intelligence Agency. Security was increased accordingly, including the establishment of the CIA K-9 Corps.

Like Military Working Dogs, those selected for CIA duty must go through 13 weeks of explosives detection training where they learn to detect 19,000 explosive scents with their sensitive noses. At the end of the 13 weeks, each dog takes a final exam with their handler where they are tested on ten explosive searches, indoors and outdoors.

Some K-9 corps members also take an additional 13 weeks of training in street patrol before reporting for duty assignment. The major abilities for street training are speed and accuracy. At the end of street training, teams must score 490 out of 700 points on the final exam in the following areas: Obedience Training, Agility Test, Article Search, Suspect Search, and Criminal Apprehension.

It is not stated if this training is conducted by the CIA itself or if they utilize the Military Working Dog training center at Lackland AFB.

Duties of CIA K-9 Corps Dogs

Upon successful completion of training, the dogs are assigned to guard the people of the CIA. CIA K-9 Corps dogs often travel and work cooperatively with other law enforcement teams, Federal, state and local. They have also participated in special assignments like guarding the 2002 Super Bowl in New Orleans and the 2002 Paralympics Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

There is speculation about the use of dogs in CIA field operations, such as the Special Activities Division that employs paramilitary officers. Nothing is said publicly about such operations, but the CIA is known to work closely with the military all over the world, including Special Forces of the military services. CIA dogs may be assigned in addition to or instead of the MWDs of the military unit involved.

There are also hints of the use of dogs for intelligence or counterintelligence operations including tracking and identifying suspects, fugitives, and subjects of surveillance.

A Dog’s Life in the CIA

CIA K-9 Unit dogs work 60 hours a week, on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The unit participates in the regional and national competitions held by the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA) each year. The dogs receive top veterinary care, spotless kennels, and they live with their caring handlers.

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