Opinion Articles

Military working dogs, past, present and future

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In May 2014, British Army dog Sasha became the 29th canine to receive the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Dickin Medal.  The Labrador and her handler, Lance Corporal Kenneth Rowe, were killed nearly six years ago while patrolling for explosives in Afghanistan.  In March 1947, an Alsatian patrol dog with the 13th Parachute Battalion received the same award for service in the Second World War.  Bing was ‘a fully-qualified Paratrooper’ and joined the battalion when they jumped over Normandy on D Day, 6 June 1944. The 70th anniversary of D Day offers an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which Bing, Sasha and other dogs contributed to the British war effort and other conflicts.

Since the first Dickin Medal in 1943, the PDSA has conferred the award on 65 animals, including dogs, pigeons, horses and a cat, many for work carried out during the Second World War. Prior to that conflict, the British Army employed dogs on guard, sentry and messenger work during the First World War. By 1918, the Messenger Dog Service included around 300 dogs trained to deliver messages from the front lines to unit headquarters. During the Second World War, dogs were recruited and trained by the British Armed Forces to serve as guards and on patrol; the war also saw the first use of mine detection dogs in the British Army. In total during the war, the Army and Ministry of Aircraft Production employed some 3,500 dogs for guard, patrol and mine detection duties.    

Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, the Home Office turned to a dog to locate holes in a series of buried cables at a Post Office receiving station in southeast England, which could receive long-distance radio signals. A Labrador called Rex was supplied by H.S. Lloyd, a civilian dog trainer who became the Chief Instructor of the Army’s War Dogs Training School upon its establishment in 1942.  Rex located 14 holes in the cables, which were buried three feet below the surface. Encouraged by Rex’s performance, the Army began training dogs at the school to detect non-metallic mines which had proven problematic for detectors.  Although trainers believed that mine detection dogs relied on scent to locate mines, a British military study in 1947 found ‘no clear indication by what sense the dog detects the mines.’  Nonetheless, using food as a reward, trainers taught dogs to locate mines laid above and eventually below ground.  The dogs alerted handlers to mines by pointing or sitting. 

Following the Allied invasion of Normandy, four Dog Platoons were deployed to northwest Europe, where they worked with Royal Engineers to locate landmines. In addition to being able to locate non-metallic mines, the dogs were found to be ‘the quickest method of locating minefields’ in northwest Europe. The 13th Parachute Battalion taught four patrol dogs to parachute from aeroplanes. Each dog had its own harness and static line parachute which opened automatically during descent. With the expectation of an edible reward, the dogs learned to jump immediately after their handlers.  In the 9th Parachute Battalion, dogs were taught to jump before their handlers.  Glen, an Alsatian, was known to enjoy parachuting. On D Day, however, Glen refused to jump due to the heavy anti-aircraft fire over Normandy and had to be pushed from the aircraft by his handler, Emile ‘Jack’ Corteil.  In an interview with the Imperial War Museum, paratrooper James Baty recalled that:

‘[Glen]was trained to jump out…to stand still as soon as he hit the ground.  Of course

he loved jumping, but when it came over to…Normandy, all the flack coming up…he must

have had a premonition because he wouldn’t jump.’

Experience gained with mine detection dogs during the Second World War paved the way for the use of canines to locate other objects. In 1946, for example, the British Army employed detection dogs in Palestine to seek out buried arms which detectors failed to discover.  The dissolution of the British Empire in the latter half of the twentieth century, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early twenty-first century, provided further opportunities for the use of military dogs. During the 1950s, the British Army established guard dog units in Hong Kong, Singapore and Cyprus. The Malayan Emergency saw the use of tracker dogs to assist the British Army and Royal Air Force Police in the pursuit of guerrilla forces in the Malayan jungle.  Furthermore, detection dogs were used extensively in Northern Ireland.    

Technology has yet to adequately replicate the military capabilities of the dog.   In June 2010, the government devoted some £2 million for ‘enhancements to [British] military working dog capability’ to further combat the use of IEDs in Afghanistan.  Today, scientists are not certain how detection dogs locate explosives, although smell is considered to be the primary sense employed.  Although no Dickin Medals were awarded to dogs in the last half of the twentieth century, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a resurgence: apart from Sasha, nine dogs have been decorated since 2000. Addressing the House of Commons in March 2013, Mark Francois, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, acknowledged their ‘important and valuable service’ on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and noted that ‘dogs have played a significant role in counter-improvised explosive device work…reducing human injuries and fatalities.’    

At present, the duties of military working dogs range from the detection of explosives, weapons and drugs to the defence of military personnel and property. As of June 2011, the British Armed Forces included more than 600 dogs, and the Army’s 1st Military Working Regiment, based in Germany, employs around 200 canines and 280 personnel. Prior to active duty with the British Army, Royal Air Force or Royal Military Police, all dogs undergo training at the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray.

Almost 70 years after Bing was awarded the Dickin Medal for jumping over Normandy, Sasha’s posthumous award reflects the continued usefulness of the military working dog, which seems likely to remain a mainstay of the British Armed Forces in the immediate, and perhaps, distant future. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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