Skip to main content

War-Dogs of First World War (WWI, First Great European War) 1914-1918

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
To the British the term " dog-cart" designated a trap with a box arrangement behind, but in Belgium the real dog-cart was in common use, though a British soldier driving one was a novelty.

To the British the term " dog-cart" designated a trap with a box arrangement behind, but in Belgium the real dog-cart was in common use, though a British soldier driving one was a novelty.

Animals in the Great War

The Belgian soldiers were very attached to the dogs which drew their mitrailleuse guns. Here is shown the sole remaining animal with the 14th Company, which helped in the defence of the coast.

The Belgian soldiers were very attached to the dogs which drew their mitrailleuse guns. Here is shown the sole remaining animal with the 14th Company, which helped in the defence of the coast.

Many animals played an important and invaluable part in the First World War.

War-horses, carrier pigeons, mules, donkeys, camels and many other species were utilised to their best advantage. But it was, perhaps, the war-dog which was deployed in the most diverse ways.

Dogs had been used from time immemorial as draught animals in Flanders, Belgium. Many of these solidly built dogs, which until then had dragged milk and other light carts through the streets on their daily chores, were requisitioned for military service, and harnessed to the quick-firing Maxim guns of the Belgian Army, and utilised for carrying messages.

It was therefore imperative that such faithful servitors should receive kindness and protection from danger. Many of them survived all the reverses of the Belgian Army.

Improvised kennels were made for them in the Belgian dunes. These generally consisted of a large hole dug in the sand, over which a wood covering of some kind was erected to shield them from stray shot and shellfire.

All other belligerents in the war made use of dogs in some way. Such a position of honour had its dangers, and the loss among these dogs was unfortunately severe, though not so drastic as that inflicted on the German spy-dogs.

The Germans trained dogs to approach opposing trenches and bark a warning if they were occupied. At first Allied soldiers imagined this to be friendliness and petted them.

They soon realised the true reason for their appearance, and any dogs seen on the battlefield were shot.

The Germans also employed dogs for the purpose of scenting the wounded. Others were attached to regiments, and were used to draw larger equipment placed on a small cart.

In the French army the animals were found not only effective for draught purposes, but were entrusted with such responsible work as sentinel duty and message carrying, and delivering tobacco to the front line. They even had their own trenches for some of these tasks.

When going into the danger zone, the dogs were provided with respirators, as many of them were lost to poison gas.

The French had a special training centre behind their lines where these dogs of war learnt their crafts to assist towards an eventual victory.

Late in the war, war-dogs were trained in England at Shoeburyness by Major Richardson whose breed of war-dogs was well known, and he supplied about thirty British battalions with animals for work on the Continent.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

E. H. RICHARDSON The Founder of The First British Dog Training School

Dog guard in a German trench.

Dog guard in a German trench.

Historical Use of War-Dogs

It had been known that dogs could be usefully employed as auxiliaries in the prosecution of war, for millennia. Both Greeks and Romans used them for offensive and defensive purposes and for maintaining battlefield communication.

Plutarch and Pliny told of war-dogs, and Strabo noted how dogs were armed with coats of mail, in Gaul. Camerarius, told that guard-dogs could discriminate Christians from Turks (not surprising considering their sense of smell).

In the Middle Ages and in early modern history there have been many stories, some apocryphal, of the participation of dogs in war.

In the Crimean War, dogs were employed on sentry duty; in the American Civil War they were used both as sentries and guards.

The British Army used Collies or Scottish shepherds in the War of the Transvaal, around 1900.

Dog sentinels were also an interesting feature of the Russian Army. They were used in the war with Japan in 1904, with much success in guarding railways.

In 1908 Lieutenant Jupin re-introduced war-dogs to the French Army. Germany, Russia and Italy soon followed.

In manoeuvres from 1911 to 1913, Belgium experimented with the use of dogs in simulated combat situations, with excellent results; and in 1914 utilised them in the First World War as draft animals and load carriers.

A common form of organization was the military dog squadron. France also used war-dogs as hunter troops.

Belgian dog-drawn machine-gun waiting tor its regiment. The mortality among these dogs was extremely high.

Belgian dog-drawn machine-gun waiting tor its regiment. The mortality among these dogs was extremely high.

Belgian soldiers placing a Maxim gun-carriage drawn some by dogs under some long grass on the sand-dunes.

Belgian soldiers placing a Maxim gun-carriage drawn some by dogs under some long grass on the sand-dunes.

First Uses For War-Dogs In World War One

About the time World War One broke out, several European armies adapted the prevailing use of dogs to pull small carts for milk deliveries and similar purposes, for military use.

In August 1914, the Belgian Army used dogs to pull their Maxim Guns on wheeled carriages, and for the transport of supplies. They also used them to carry their wounded, although this ceased as trench warfare took hold, after the first two months of the conflict.

The French had 250 dogs at the start of World War One. The Dutch army had hundreds of dogs trained and ready for use, should they be needed, by the end of the war (although the Netherlands remained neutral throughout the Great War).

WWI saw the first large scale use of war-dogs for military use, and this time it was organised, and concentrated on specialised operations.

Austro-Hungarian dog-team bringing up supplies to an entrenchment on the Rumanian front.

Austro-Hungarian dog-team bringing up supplies to an entrenchment on the Rumanian front.

Numbers of Major Richardson's famous Airedales were on active service with the Army, and, as shown in this photograph of a dog on sentry duty by the graves of two soldiers, were provided with gas-masks.

Numbers of Major Richardson's famous Airedales were on active service with the Army, and, as shown in this photograph of a dog on sentry duty by the graves of two soldiers, were provided with gas-masks.

An Airedale on duty in a church destroyed by the Germans.

An Airedale on duty in a church destroyed by the Germans.

Dogs in War

Contemporary authorities stated that dogs employed during the war of 1914-1918 could even detect soldiers from unfamiliar regiments. Instinctive fidelity and keen scenting power made the dog particularly suitable for training as an auxiliary in war, but it was necessary that the right sort of dogs were used.

Further, dogs quickly acquired a sense of danger; and, if unable to reach their destination, they made their way back to their kennels. They would never cross no-man's-land to the enemy. Stray horses and mules also exhibited this instinct for hurrying to the rear. One which, no doubt, was in every soldiers' mind, but had been trained out of them.

Dogs had a vital part to play as the complexes of trenches spread throughout the Western Front. Despite their suitability, no 'modern' system of war-dog training began until the latter part of the 19th century.

About that time Germany began to consider the possibilities of using dogs for war purposes, and began training them, mainly due to the championship of the animal-painter, Jean Bugartz.

France, too, made some progress and some official encouragement came forward; but in England, apart from the private efforts of Lieutenant Colonel E. H. Richardson, no serious undertaking took place, and it was not until 1917 that a British war-dog training school was established at Shoeburyness, Essex.

Britain Started with Just One War-Dog

Types of Dog Suitable for War Training

In determining suitability for war training, a particular dog's physical condition was the first to be considered.

Preferred dogs were / had:

  • good temperament,
  • good disposition,
  • medium build,
  • greyish or black in colour; white dogs and those of “check” colouring were obviously unsuitable for war purposes, constituting too conspicuous a target,
  • good eyesight,
  • keen sense of smell,
  • intelligent,
  • strong; chest needed to be broad, the legs sinewy and the paws of firm construction, and
  • agile.

Sex played a part. A bitch in heat could, at any time, throw a pack into excited confusion. Although trials proved them to be more apt at learning and more trustworthy, they were not suitable for war purposes.

Castrated dogs lacked courage and temperament and were useless for work in the field.

Dogs chosen for war training were usually less than one year old and not more than four years old.

Deutsche und Hunde

Puppy mascot of the Artist's Battalion

Puppy mascot of the Artist's Battalion

"Gibby," the mascot of a Canadian regiment, and his C.O. The dog had been gassed twice, but still went into action.

"Gibby," the mascot of a Canadian regiment, and his C.O. The dog had been gassed twice, but still went into action.

Dog Breeds Suitable for War Training

Lots of dog breeds were used across the various belligerent countries. The most popular type of dog were medium-sized, intelligent and trainable breeds.

Two native German dog breeds, in particular, were used, due to their superior strength, agility, territorial nature and train-ability;

  • Doberman Pinscher were used because they were both highly intelligent and easily trainable, and possessed excellent guarding abilities. Being of slight frame and extremely agile, their dark coat allowed them to slip undetected through terrain without alerting the enemy. They were employed most frequently in Germany.
  • German Shepherd Dog (GSD) were used also because of their strength, intelligence and train-ability, being eager to please their masters.

In Germany there was, at first, a great difference of opinion as to the most suitable breed for training:

  • Poodles were originally decided upon, because of their high degree of intelligence. However, poodles were prone to the excesses of weather, and though they had sharp scent, they were extremely short-sighted.
  • The St. Bernard was considered; the record of its ancestors at the Hospice was known and distinguished; but that breed was lighter in build than the St. Bernard of the day.
  • The Pointer was next; but although it was intelligent and physically strong, its hunting instinct was so deep-rooted that it proved unsuitable.

The German authorities, from the outset, had insisted that:

a military dog cannot be produced from cross-breeds”.

Many different breeds saw active duty, depending on the job at hand.

  • Bulldog, Bloodhound, Collie, Retriever, Doberman, Airedale, Jack Russell, Wire-haired Fox Terrier, Sheep-dog and German Shepherd were all used in various ways best suited to each breed characteristic.
    Purebreds did seem to have any advantage over mixed breeds; what was important was that they displayed their true character.

The Collie, pure-bred for centuries, was, in the late 19th century, regarded highly in Germany for war purposes. Jean Bugartz, in his book on the subject ["Der Kriegshund und seine Dressur" Twietmeyer, Leipzig, 1892; "The war-dog and his dressage (training)"], champions the qualities of the Collie.

Later, however, Collie's fell out of favour. The largest proportion of dogs employed with the German army were GSD's. Some contemporary accounts stated that the Germans placed some 6,000 war-dogs in the field, at the outbreak of war; however, according to the German Society for Ambulance Doges (Oldenburg), of 1,678 dogs sent to the front up to the end of May 1915:

  • 1,274 were GSD's,
  • 142 Airedale terriers,
  • 239 Dobermans and
  • 13 Rottweilers.

These proportions were reported to have remained constant throughout the war.

Belgians used dogs to drag their guns.

Belgians used dogs to drag their guns.

Nurses attending the wounds of their mascot, a present from an officer-patient.

Nurses attending the wounds of their mascot, a present from an officer-patient.

A dog of war. Airedale terrier trained to carry a load of shells for the use of the light field artillery.

A dog of war. Airedale terrier trained to carry a load of shells for the use of the light field artillery.

Dog Breeds Utilised by Allied Forces

Many types of dogs were used. Thus, of a total of 340 dogs sent to France from the British training school within a certain period:

  • 74 were collies,
  • 70 lurchers,
  • 66 Airdales,
  • 36 sheep-dogs, and
  • 33 retrievers,
  • the remainder made up of 13 different breeds.

During the First World War (and Second) the following breeds were used:

  • Collie, Airedale, German Shepherd, Doberman, Boxer, Mastiff, Irish Wolfhound, Rottweiler, Poodle, Saint Bernard, Great Dane, Mastiff Abruzzo, Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Bouvier des Flandres, Riesenschnauzer, Bulldog, Newfoundland, Briard, Beauceron, Belgian Mastiff, Dogue de Bordeaux, Belgian Shepherds, Bloodhounds, Amstaff, Pitbull, Vizla, Malamute, Husky, Hovawart, Caucasus shepherd, Dhepherd dogs and hunting dogs of various breeds.

Other breeds associated with WWI were smaller terrier breeds, that were most often employed as 'ratters'; dogs trained to hunt and kill rats in the trenches.

It was estimated that by 1918:

  • Germany had employed 30,000 dogs,
  • Britain, France and Belgian over 20,000,
  • Italy 3,000, and
  • Russia had used thousands also.
The mascot dog of a regiment at the front listening attentively to a recruitIng appeal on the gramophone.

The mascot dog of a regiment at the front listening attentively to a recruitIng appeal on the gramophone.

"Biddy," a mascot which went through Heligoland and Dogger Bank fights.

"Biddy," a mascot which went through Heligoland and Dogger Bank fights.

War-Dog Training Facilities

A central kennel and training centre was established in France at Étaples. The training course lasted about 5 or 6 weeks.

From Étaples the dogs were posted to sectional kennels behind the front line, each sectional kennel consisted of about 48 dogs and 16 men. From these kennels the dogs and their keepers in the proportion of one man to three dogs were sent up for duty in the trenches.

British war-dogs, which were placed under the signal section of the Royal Engineers, were employed principally in maintaining communications, though sentry-dogs did valuable work, especially in Salonika; but a British war-dog school was not established until 1917.

The French army war-dog training school was established at Satory about the same time as the English school was set up at Shoeburyness. Shepherd-dogs of various kinds, Airdale terriers and Scotch collies were mainly employed. Each French infantry battalion was allotted six dogs, the allotment being made from the Army Headquarters kennels.

War-Dogs of World War One

"Kitchener" was the proud nickname given to this pet of one of the Army Service Corps (A.S.C.) transport sections at the front.

"Kitchener" was the proud nickname given to this pet of one of the Army Service Corps (A.S.C.) transport sections at the front.

Transporting food and sometimes ammunition, with the help of a small cart.

Transporting food and sometimes ammunition, with the help of a small cart.

Roles and Functions of Military Dogs

Military dogs in World War One were positioned in a variety of roles, depending on their size, intelligence and training. Generally, the roles fell into the category of

  • sentry dogs,
  • scout dogs,
  • casualty dogs,
  • explosives dogs,
  • ratters, and
  • mascots.

During the Great War vast numbers of dogs were employed as:

  • sentries;
  • messengers;
  • ammunition carriers;
  • food carriers;
  • scouts;
  • sled dogs;
  • draught dogs;
  • guard dogs;
  • ambulance dogs;
  • ratters;
  • mascots;
  • Red Cross casualty dogs; and, even
  • cigarette dogs.

A German infantry regiment was allotted a maximum of 12 dogs, while a battalion might have six, the allotment being made by the Messenger Dog Section.

'Dogs as Messengers': Prophetic Article From 'Chums' 1892

"The experiment of training dogs to carry messages and to act as sentinels in the army has been made in Germany, and , it is said, with very encouraging results. The dogs have now been in training for some time, and have made really wonderful progress."

"The kind found to be most suitable for this work is the shepherd's dog. The plan adopted is to accustom each dog to regard one of the soldiers as his master, the conduct of his training being in this man's hands."

"When on duty the animals are kept with the sentinels."

... ... ...

"When it is considered how much smaller an object a dog is than a man for an enemy's fire, and how close to the ground he can run, it seems not unlikely that dogs may yet become of great service in military operations."

- 'Chums' 1892.

Trained dogs were used extensively in the French Army as companions to sentries on night duty, and they proved very valuable.

Trained dogs were used extensively in the French Army as companions to sentries on night duty, and they proved very valuable.

War-Dogs as Sentry dogs

According to Lt. Colonel E. H. Richardson, commandant of the World War One British War Dog School, the qualities necessary in a sentry dog were:

"... acute hearing and scent, sagacity, fidelity, and a strong sense of duty."

Although the sentry's mission was less spectacular than many wartime canine functions, it saved the most human life.

These dogs patrolled on a short leash and with a firm hand. They were usually trained to accompany one specific handler (guard) and were taught to growl, bark or snarl as a warning signal to indicate unauthorised presence in a secure area, such as a camp or military base.

Dobermans were traditionally used as sentry dogs and are still widely used today as guard dogs.

While in the front trenches, it was sentinel dogs, that gave the soldiers advance warning of approaching patrols, preventing the enemy from getting close enough to use hand grenades.

War-Dogs on Two Fronts

War-Dogs as Scout dogs

Scout dogs had to be quiet and disciplined. For this reason they had to be highly trained. Their role was to work with soldiers on foot patrol, scouting the terrain, and detecting enemy troop patrols.

They could achieve this sooner than any man, being capable of detecting the scent of the enemy up to 1000 yards away, .

They were trained not to bark, which would have drawn attention to the squad, but to stiffen, raise their shackles, and to point the tail. This would indicate that the enemy was in the vicinity.

Scout dogs were widely used because they were highly efficient in saving a patrol from detection.

war-dogs-of-wwi-first-great-european-war-world-war-one-1914-1918

Caption: French Red Cross dog having his wounded paw dressed by an Army doctor. This dog, struck by a stray bullet while searching for wounded behind the firing-line, wears an expression of patient optimism, almost as though aware that he had suffered in his country's cause.
Dogs played useful parts with the French Army, some as sentries and others as Red Cross helpers. In this latter capacity it was their duty to search for wounded men who might have been overlooked, possibly through having crawled into undergrowth. When the dogs found a soldier they took his kepi or something else belonging to him, and hurried back with it to the ambulance workers.