War Dogs: The Role of Canines in World War One

Dogs are a man’s best friend and for centuries, they have been helping humans around the world live and work. From herding and hunting to rescue and transportation, the belief that dogs are loyal, reliable and hard-working is universal. They have played a crucial role in creating a safer, cleaner and better society, but it was during the first half of the 20th century that canines perhaps took on their greatest role to assist mankind. With Armistice Day and Rememberance Sunday being this weekend, it’s a perfect time to have a look at just how much dogs helped during the First World War. 

Between the years of 1914 and 1918, thousands of dogs from family homes, dog pounds and police forces across the UK were recruited to help the Allies fight the central European forces in World War One. Taking on various dangerous job roles, these dogs were invaluable to the war effort and are often not recognised for their input.

To find out how war dogs helped the Allied forces to victory in 1918, Feedem — a leading UK supplier of grain-free dog food and pet products — has looked into the different roles war dogs played during the conflict and they played more of a role than you might think.  

War dogs during World War One

According to historical records, about 20,000 dogs were trained for duties in World War One, with roles ranging from transporting messages to detecting explosive devices. These dogs turned out to be so crucial to an Allied victory that the War Office even established the War Dog School of Instruction at the start of 1917 to help properly recruit and train future war dogs. These dogs were selflessly risking their lives for us. 

Before World War One, the main animals to assist soldiers were horses, as many battles were fought by cavalries. However, World War One was unlike any major conflict in human history. Between 1914 and 1918, horses were used primarily for transportation and the role of the war dog — which covered companionship, communication, tracking, and more — grew significantly in importance.

Military dogs in World War One were positioned in roles depending on their size, breed, intelligence, and training. Here, we’ve listed the top positions war dogs played and what skills they needed to be the best at their job.

Sentry dogs

Sentry war dogs were in charge of warning soldiers when they detected an enemy or stranger in the vicinity. A report from the Dundee Evening Telegraph in 1916 claimed that a sentry war dog, or watchdog, never barked and was instead trained to give a low growl when they sensed an intruder which is so clever. Easy to train and with a territorial nature, Dobermans were popular sentry dogs and usually this role involved a guard patrolling an area with his sentry dog on a short lead. This is probably why Dobermans have such a reputation nowadays.

Casualty dogs

Casualty dogs, or mercy dogs, also played a very important role in ensuring the safety and survival of the British forces during World War One. The main role of a casualty war dog was to carry medical gear and locate wounded soldiers on the battlefield, but the they were also trained to sit by a dying solder to keep him company – they really are man’s best friend!

This helped save so many lives, as some soldiers could treat their own injuries without having to wait for professional help that might be more desperately needed elsewhere on the field. Airedale terriers and bloodhounds were popularly used in this role, and the Airedale terrier was perhaps the most common war dog breed used by the British during the conflict overall which really surprised me. I don’t think that they get the recognition that they deserve.

Scout dogs

Scout war dogs, similar to sentry war dogs, were employed by the British to detect danger. The difference with a scout dog was that they had to survey the terrain in front of patrolling soldiers, rather than lie in wait for a hostile encroaching presence.

Scout dogs could sniff out unfriendly scents from around 1,000 yards away, which made them invaluable to the protection of the patrol. Also unlike a sentry dog, scout dogs wouldn’t growl or bark if they sensed danger. Instead, they’d stiffen their bodies, point their tails and raise their hackles as a silent warning, so that the enemy wasn’t alerted to the approaching Allies. Alsatians and Dobermans were among the most popular dogs for sentry and scouting duties – so the bigger breeds that are used in the Police Force today.

Messenger dogs

Communication at this time was constantly advancing, but still not as easy or reliable as it is today — even during peacetime. Consequently, another crucial war dog role was relaying key information. Human runners were easy targets for enemy forces and using vehicles always ran the risk of breaking down and churning up mud to create an even worse living and patrolling environment.

To alleviate this problem, soldiers would place notes inside tin boxes that were then tied around a dog’s neck. Quick and reliable, messenger dogs helped boost communication without the need to depend on technology. According to records, one messenger dog trained in Scotland once travelled more than 4,000 metres on the Western Front in less than an hour to deliver a message that had failed to get through via other methods of communication – what a hero!

 

Explosive dogs

During World War One, a range of dog breeds was used to help fight enemy forces including lurchers, retrievers, border collies, and English sheepdogs. Detecting undetonated explosives was a critical role in the British Army and a war dog’s keen sense of smell and loyalty made them fantastic for the job. Detector war dogs helped locate bombs before soldiers moved too closely to the danger, which saved many lives and vital medical equipment.

 

The thousands of war dogs during World War One went above and beyond the call of duty. Without these loyal and dependable animals, victory for the Allied forces is likely to have been far more difficult and they should also be celebrated this Armistice Day.

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