War Dogs: The Real Story Behind Police and Military Canines


Ricky, a Belgian Malinois at Maritime Safety and Security Team San Francisco, is shown outfitted in his vertical delivery gear consisting of a hoisting vest, eye protection and hearing protection during training at Coast Guard Base Alameda, August 16, 2017. (Photo courtesy: Coast Guard/Brandyn Hill)

Dogs are amazing animals. Fierce, loving, loyal and all-around awesome.  They’ve lived among us as companions for over 20,000 years. From the first grey wolves that bonded with ancient hunters to the canines that defended our soldiers on the battlefields of WWII, dogs have been a constant and welcome aspect of the human experience.

All modern dogs are part of a singular subspecies, which is directly linked to wolves, foxes and jackals. And although our pups have domestic temperaments, we all know those wild instincts stir inside of them.

When you combine those primal survival instincts with a dog’s loyalty and affability, it’s no shock that they make excellent partners in high-pressure situations, like combat and policing.



Utilizing dogs for military purposes dates back to ancient times. Civilizations such as the Romans, Greeks, Persians and Egyptians used canines in various roles during armed conflict. Sentries and scouts were the most common jobs for dogs during this period, but occasionally dogs would be sent into battle alongside soldiers.

Fast forward a few thousand years to the late 1800s; there, we find the first organized military dog training program, which was implemented by the Germans. During WWII, both the Axis and Allied armies were helped by dogs, which carried supplies to the frontlines, located wounded soldiers, and carried messages between platoons.

Here, in the United States, canines were used in unofficial military capacities dating back to the Civil War. It wasn’t, however, until WWII that the first “official” K-9 corps was established by the US armed forces.


Tommy, a Chief Explosives Detection canine stationed at Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team Kings Bay, receives applause Thursday, July 27, 2017, during his retirement ceremony in St. Marys, Georgia. Tommy has served in the Coast Guard for nine years and has been on 24 deployments. (Photo courtesy: U.S. Coast Guard/Anthony L. Soto)

Currently, there are in excess of 1,500 military dogs being utilized across all branches of service. They play invaluable roles in helping with patrol, search and rescue, tracking, detection of explosives and, of course, combat.  These dogs of war are held in such high-regard, that the military has implemented an unofficial hierarchical policy, whereby a dog is always one rank higher than its handler.


Lucca, a 12-year-old retired Marine Corps military working dog, visits Camp Pendleton Feb. 29, 2016. Before her retirement in 2012, Lucca completed two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan where she led approximately 400 patrols until she was injured by an improvised explosive device. No Marines were injured on any patrol she led, including her final patrol where the explosion cost Lucca her front left leg. Lucca received the Dickin Medal, a European award that acknowledges outstanding acts of bravery or devotion to duty by animals serving with the armed forces or civil defense. (Photo courtesy: U.S. Marine Corps/Caitlin Bevel)


For over 100 years, dogs have been used by law enforcement in some capacity. In 1899, Belgium was the first country to establish a formal police dog training program. And by 1910, neighboring Germany had police dogs working in over 600 cities across the country.

In the United States, the use of canines by police became prevalent in the 1970s. Presently, dogs are utilized in every major police force across America, with many of the dogs wearing standard-issue badges.


As you can imagine, the training of police dogs is a very arduous task. The first order of business is training the handler, who must first complete the requisite police academy training and have a few years of patrol experience. Once those requirements are met, the police officer is transferred to the special canine unit for intensive handler training.

With respect to the dogs themselves, each pup must pass a basic obedience program, which includes the ability for the dog to obey their handler without any hesitation. If a dog is trained in a foreign country, the officer will generally utilize those commands, even if that language is not the police officer’s native tongue.

Each dog is trained for either “single” or “dual” purpose.  Most “single purpose” dogs are used for tracking, personal protection or backup. The “dual purpose” canines can handle everything that a “single” one can accomplish with the added bonus of explosives or narcotics detection ability.



Photo courtesy: http://www.akc.org

German Shepherd 

They’re obedient, strong and very intelligent. And because of that, German Shepherds are a favorite for many in law enforcement. They excel at many aspects of policing, with particular prowess in the detection of explosives and narcotics. And, of course, apprehension of perps.

Labrador Retriever

Labradors are even-keeled dogs that are utilized for tracking of people and detection work. They are generally not used for suspect apprehension.

Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherd

The Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherd are both well-regarded in the law enforcement area for their exceptional abilities in the accurate detection of explosives, drugs and arson accelerants. These obedient, easily trained dogs also track suspects and apprehend dangerous fugitives.

Giant Schnauzer

A working breed developed by the Germans in the 1600s, the Giant Schnauzer was originally used to drive livestock to market and guard the owner’s property. These massive beasts became popular for military usage during the two World Wars. Now, they are used as “dual purpose” canines that can handle pretty much any police or military task to which they are assigned.

Military and Police Roles

The role of canines has developed over the centuries. And during the early days, dogs were used for a wide array of unspecified, often dangerous, tasks. But, in the modern age, canines have very specific roles, which are humanely designed to match that breed’s special skillset.


Due to a dog’s exceptional sense of smell, these animals can detect very faint odors and slight changes in the chemical composition of a substance. And because of their literal superhuman sense of smell, these dogs are critical in detecting the trafficking of illegal narcotics and in securing locations from potential explosive devices.


One of the most interesting and popular roles of police dogs is suspect apprehension. The animals are trained to bite the suspect in specific locations on the body. And to hold the suspect in place until the handler arrives to complete the arrest.

German Shepherds are the most famous suspect apprehenders, but the other herding breeds also conduct these type of operations. The intelligence and brute strength of these herding dogs make them ideal candidates for identifying and taking down a suspect.

Search and Rescue

Whether searching for a lost child stranded in the woods or for the remains of a wartime casualty victim,  these dogs are able to hyper-focus on their objective by placing all senses in a heightened state of alert.


Dogs are the most popular domesticated animal on the planet. And it’s no wonder. These furry creatures help keep us active, happy and secure. Their dedication to us in dangerous, high-stress situations deserves the utmost respect. Have you ever had the pleasure of encountering a police or military dog? If so, what’s the story behind the encounter?


My love for dogs has always been a strong bond for me.

Pictured below: My first rescue dog when I was two years old, and my rescue dog today, Odin. He clearly should have been a police or military dog, but he’s settled in as my buddy now.




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About jchasenovelist

Published thriller author, criminologist, and blogger.
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