Dogs take their jobs seriously: All members of the Postal Service rightly deserve to be barked at, no squirrel may enter the yard unchased, and scraps of food dropped from the kitchen table must be summarily Hoovered up. That said, the dog’s position in human society was once tightly woven into more essential functions, be it herding livestock, retrieving hunted game, or signaling the presence of trespassers. The bond between people and dogs was forged through partnership and collaboration — and in times of conflict, too.
From ancient Egypt through modern times, dogs have played a role in the theater of war. Before you let your imagination run wild with legions of loyal Labradors in coats of mail charging into battle, slobbering in the wind, dogs were enlisted for such attacks with exceeding rarity. The historical record is packed with instances of camels, elephants, and horses marching into large-scale conflict, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, dogs worked jobs more suited to their natural talents: guarding, patrolling, tracking, and acting as envoys and sentries. In 19 BCE, when the king of the Garamantes tribe of the Sahara made his way back from Roman exile, he was accompanied by 200 dogs in his protective detail — and they weren’t toy poodles. After all, dogs were not bred exclusively for war, but those used for hunting and guarding were most adaptable to the harsh realities of combat. The Lydian Greeks, in circa 600 BCE, employed a horde of dogs against their Cimmerian foes. Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BCE was said to include enormous numbers of Indian hounds. Ancestors of the British mastiff, Greek Molossus, Irish wolfhound, and Arabian saluki were used for attack in various contexts across centuries of history.
Even in situations where dogs were called to battle, their presence was often strategic. The Achaemenid King Cambyses II moved on the city of Pelusium in 525 BCE, and his plan to sow confusion in the opposing Egyptian ranks was executed to perfection. Knowing that his enemy considered certain animals sacred, Cambyses flooded his front lines with sheep, cats, dogs, and other animals. Whether the Egyptians broke formation out of religious concern — or out of sheer panic at the sight of an unholy multi-species regiment rushing full steam ahead — is unknown.
The dogs of war weren’t isolated to ancient Greece and Egypt. When Caesar’s forces expanded across Western Europe in the second century, they encountered several Gallic and British tribes that used large mastiffs as bodyguards. In 101 BCE, when the Romans defeated the nomadic Cimbri at Vercellae, mastiffs protecting the women, cattle, and wagons were unleashed in a massive horde as a last resort against the Empire’s forces. The Romans were impressed enough with mastiffs that they began breeding them, trading pups across the continent; well into the Middle Ages, more than a thousand years later, it was common for royal courts to send the dogs as gifts. Think about that the next time you send an Edible Arrangement.
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Canine armor developed from its original use of protecting hunting dogs from large game, but the equipment was adapted for war-time — sometimes in outlandish fashion. The Ancient Greeks of Ionia utilized armored war dogs, and medieval Finns outfitted their furry friends with protective gear, like spiked collars, and trained them to attack the muzzles of invading Russian horses, which would get spooked enough to throw their riders. There are some astonishing descriptions from 11th to 16th century Byzantium of dogs wearing armor designed to carry vases full of oil. The vases would be lit ablaze as the dogs were set loose on a village in hopes of setting fires that would flush out the enemy. Mauryas in India tried a similar strategy, attempting to burn down thatch-roof enemy settlements in 300 BCE, tying bags of flammable powder to the tails of dogs and monkeys.
Both the Spanish and the English employed war dogs in their often brutal colonial campaigns in the Americas and Caribbean, but by the 1900s the role of dogs began to change to fit the evolving nature of warfare. During World War I, the Belgians used dogs to move carts and wagons carrying supplies, wounded soldiers, or even large gunnery.
Also during this period, particularly in the United States, dogs began appearing as mascots on recruiting posters. The most famous of these WWI-era pups is Stubby, an olive-drab-wearing mutt that wandered into training camp at Yale University. When the soldiers shipped out to France, Stubby joined them. The stub-tailed canine first pulled his weight by sniffing out a German spy. Later, he warned entrenched soldiers of incoming artillery shells and imminent gas attacks. As reported in the dog’s 15-paragraph obituary in 1926, Stubby often ran into the so-called no man’s land between trenches to stand by wounded soldiers until medics arrived. Upon Stubby’s return to the U.S., the battlefield veteran was regularly pro-filed in newspapers and toasted at conventions across the country. General John Pershing awarded Stubby a gold medal in 1921 — recognition for his service in 17 battles and four major Allied offensives throughout World War I.
Dogs remained very much in the fray during the ravages of World War II. The Soviet military used Samoyeds to pull wounded soldiers on sleds over snow. Much less effectively, dogs were strapped with magnetic mines designed to detonate when they ran under invading German tanks; the mines also tended to go off near Soviet tanks. On both Axis and Allied sides of the conflict, dogs were used for sentry purposes, as well as for guarding fixed positions. In particular, the U.S. Marine Corps sent Doberman pinschers and German shepherds to the Pacific theater for tracking enemy movements through dense forests and jungles
Another famous American war dog, a German shepherd-col-lie-husky mix named Chips, made a name for himself in World War II. Chips participated in the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. At one point, he and his handler were pinned down under enemy machine gun fire when the dog escaped his position and charged the protective pillbox where the gunners were holed up. Under attack, the four Italian soldiers were forced to surrender to U.S. forces. That same day, Chips participated in a raid that captured 10 more Italian soldiers.
Dogs continued to serve, fighting in the Vietnam War as well as other more recent conflicts. Most notably, a Belgian Malinois named Cairo was part of the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Man’s best friend, of course, harbors no natural predisposition for war. Dogs simply have an innate desire to want to be part of some-thing larger than themselves — to be useful, to belong. As history shows, dogs are time and time again willing to give their all to any task we ask of them. They are absolutely loyal to their pack leaders, which resonated as much with the ancient Romans and Egyptian pharaohs as it does with us.
Next time your dog barks at the Amazon delivery van, just remember that they might as well be sounding the alarm about enemy movements descending on your camp’s position. Don’t chide the watchful rascal — throw that soldier a bone.
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