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The Dogs of War

May 30, 2014
Picture of Marine Corporal John Dolezal posing with Cchaz, a Belgian Malinois

The Dogs of War

Out in front of America’s troops, combat canines and their handlers lead the way onto the most dangerous battlefields on Earth.

By Michael Paterniti
Photograph by Adam Ferguson

Here is Marine Corporal Jose Armenta in his tent on the night before getting blown up in Afghanistan. He jokes with Mulrooney and Berry and the medic the guys have nicknamed “Christ.” He feeds and waters his dog, Zenit, a sable-coat German shepherd. He lets Buyes, who will be dead in three months, ruffle Zenit’s fur, for the radioman is crazy about the dog.

Then he takes Zenit outside in the waning light of this dusty, desert otherworld to train.

They’re happiest like this. Jose has Zenit sit, which the dog does obediently, and then Jose jogs 50 yards down and hides a rubber toy, a Kong, up against a mud wall, covering it with dirt. On Jose’s command, Zenit bursts forward, zigging in search of it, tail wagging. It’s an intricate dance. Voice commands met by precise canine action, always with the same end goal in mind—to find the toy. Tomorrow, on patrol, the objective will be finding not a toy but an improvised explosive device, or IED, one of the Taliban’s most brutally effective weapons against American troops here in what many consider the most dangerous province in one of the world’s most dangerous countries. And no dog can find every bomb every time.


For the past three months Jose’s been stationed at Patrol Base Alcatraz, at the edge of a town called Sangin in Helmand Province, without a “find.” Despite his optimism—the man always beams a disarming smile—the lack of finds is beginning to wear on him almost as much as the 100-degree heat, which feels even hotter rucking 75 pounds of gear.

As a Marine dog handler, Jose is a perpetual outsider, assigned to platoons that have been together for years, tight-knit combat brotherhoods that regard newcomers, especially dog handlers, with a high degree of circumspection. His job is to accompany that platoon, to clear a path through hostile territory for his fellow marines. But as thankful as they may be, Jose knows it’s natural for them to wonder: Is this guy any good? Will he fit in? How will he respond in that first firefight?

At this moment in August of 2011 the stated mission in Sangin is to secure the 320-foot-high Kajaki Dam, to keep the Taliban from blowing it up and flooding the Helmand Valley. The marines of Third Recon, in groups of a dozen or so, take turns disrupting the enemy, mapping active pockets of Taliban fighters. Jose and Zenit are asked to accompany practically every mission. Each time he and Zenit go out beyond the wire, they’re walking point along with a marine carrying a metal detector, making themselves the first targets as Zenit scours the area for any whiff of nitrate that might signal a buried IED. As exhausting as it is, Jose always says yes.


Maybe there’s a little chip on Jose’s shoulder, or maybe he feels there’s a lot to prove—to himself, to the marines of Third Recon, and to his family back home. Maybe he’s just doing his job, or maybe he needs just one find to allay whatever doubts he harbors about his—and Zenit’s—ability to do the job. In this place especially, the threat is palpable. Sangin is littered with IEDs and teeming with enemy fighters tucked behind thick mud walls. It’s where British forces, before pulling out of Sangin altogether in 2010, lost more than a hundred troops. It’s been a graveyard since for many Americans, and a place where numerous U.S. troops have received disfiguring injuries.

This is what a dog handler tries not to dwell on: the risk associated with the need to find bombs and with the possibility of missing one. On base you sometimes hear them go off in the distance, set off by a goat, an unsuspecting villager. Sometimes frantic locals will rush a bleeding kid up to Alcatraz for medical help. And the recent news about two fellow dog handlers, Jeremy and Jasco, in his deployment, has been bad. Both were blown up and lost their legs. Jose is clear about this: He’d rather die than lose a limb or some vital body part. He’d rather get waxed than be half a person. What you do to take your mind off the fear is just what Jose does now, as he has done for the past two years: You train your dog, do your job, leave the rest to fate.

The next morning, August 28, Third Recon knows that the Taliban have been busy. Alcatraz sits on a rise out in the cornfields, not far from a wadi, and intel has it that IEDs have been planted everywhere. “We knew someone was going to get hit on that mission,” Sgt. Ryan Mulrooney will say later. “Every day something was getting blown up. We knew going in there that it was a pretty risky movement.”

So for the first time since deploying to Afghanistan, Jose puts on his “blast briefs,” underwear made of Kevlar material to limit genital injuries, and he mounts his helmet cam hoping to document his first find. Then he puts an IV in Zenit to keep him hydrated in the heat.


The team moves out at 10 a.m. in ranger file, and Jose guesses it’s already 120 degrees. The marines work down the hill slowly, and when they hit the 611 highway, Jose feels a surge of adrenaline. His mouth goes cottony as he commands Zenit, orchestrating the dog’s every movement. The team veers through the corn to avoid the road, until they hit the wadi that runs parallel to the highway, eight feet deep and ten feet wide, empty of water.

Jose guides Zenit from bank to bank. Mulrooney, working the metal detector, calls out, “I think I got one here.” Jose approaches, looks at the humped, loose dirt with a wire showing, fixes Mulrooney with a smile, and says, “Yup.” The team leader is notified. Jose moves on, spies another device, and calls it out. Sensing a pattern, he sends Zenit to the far side of the wadi, where the dog freezes, tail wagging, nose suddenly working overtime. The change in behavior marks the spot. After nearly a hundred days out here, it’s their first IED as a team.

In his mind Jose throws an invisible high five and lets out a silent whoop. Trainers say, “Emotion runs through the leash.” Jose knows he needs to remain calm, to keep Zenit focused, but how can he not be excited? The team leader is notified again. Jose and Zenit continue down the wadi in the deathly heat. The sun blisters down on the men in formation slow-walking in each other’s footsteps, using shaving cream to mark safe spots. Just like that, three in a row. The riverbed is full of explosives—but where’s the next? With that question, Jose’s elation gives under the weight of duty. He and Zenit are the ones responsible for finding out.

Zenit—a 78-pound German shepherd with an irrepressible love for ball retrieval—was born on Halloween, 2007. He was bred by a private contractor in Europe, who gave him his odd name (pronounced ZEE-nit), the meaning of which, if there was a meaning, Jose never learned. Having passed a battery of medical tests, Zenit was procured by the U.S. military just after his first birthday and shipped to the kennel at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. There working dogs are initially trained by the 341st Training Squadron in “drive building, grip development, and environmental and social stability,” according to the Department of Defense. Days are regimented, the dogs released only at allotted hours for food and water, exercise, and training. It’s during these training sessions that the marines evaluate what role a dog is best suited for: patrol, detection, or tracking. Though the military resists discussing individual dogs, records indicate that Zenit spent 13 months in the Lackland kennels. Because dogs have short attention spans, his lessons would have lasted up to an hour or two each day, with some as short as three to five minutes at a time. At the course’s end Zenit was certified for explosives detection and patrol.

Yet when the two-year-old Zenit was finally paired with Jose on Okinawa, Japan, in 2010, the dog was still very much raw material. Having been passed over for deployment with his previous dog, Jose felt extra pressure to succeed with Zenit.


Not all military dogs are suited to combat. Some wither in the heat or become too excited by the sounds of gunfire or explosions, even after they’ve been desensitized to them in training. Some are too loyal, too lazy, or too playful. Each dog is its own particular, sometimes peculiar, universe. Still, certain breeds generally do better than others on the battlefield, such as German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and especially the Belgian Malinois, which is known for being fearless, driven, and able to handle the heat.

But what works in a given environment may not work in another. History suggests that each battle situation calls for its own breed and tactics. Benjamin Franklin encouraged the use of dogs against the Indians. They “will confound the enemy a good deal,” he wrote, “and be very serviceable. This was the Spanish method of guarding their marches.” (Spanish conquistadores were said to have used bullmastiffs against Native Americans.)

During the Second Seminole War, starting in 1835, the U.S. military used Cuban-bred bloodhounds to track Indians in the swamps of Florida. Dogs were said to have guarded soldiers in the Civil War. During World War I both sides used tens of thousands of dogs as messengers. In World War II the U.S. Marines deployed dogs on Pacific islands to sniff out Japanese positions. In Vietnam an estimated 4,000 canines were used to lead jungle patrols, saving numerous lives. (Nevertheless, the military decided to leave many behind when the U.S. pulled out.)

At the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military had a force of roughly 2,500 military working dogs (MWDs). Some have entered our national lexicon as heroes in their own right: Cairo, a Belgian Malinois hailed for his work with the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden. And Rex, a shepherd; his handler, Mike Dowling, wrote a book about their harrowing exploits in Iraq, saying, “It was Rex who gave me the strength to get up and to carry on.”

This age-old bond between man and dog is the essence of our fascination with these teams: The human reliance on superior animal senses—dogs are up to 100,000 times more alert to smells than humans are. The seriousness of the serviceman’s endeavor, in contrast to the dog’s heedless joy at being on the hunt or at play. The selflessness and loyalty of handler and dog in putting themselves in harm’s way—one wittingly and one unwittingly—to save lives.

The image of dog and marine living as Lassie and Timmy, however, is not entirely accurate. In general, the military bureaucracy regards a working dog as a piece of equipment, something Jose understood the first time he saw Zenit’s ID—N103—tattooed in his ear. After their training sessions in Okinawa, Jose always returned Zenit to his kennel according to protocol, and he knew it was vital that he establish himself as the alpha in tone and action. “Dogs are like toddlers,” says Marine Gunnery Sgt. Kristopher Knight, who trained Jose and Zenit at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. “They need to be told what to do. They need to know that their primary drives—oxygen, food, water—are taken care of. Two betas will never get it right. One must be the alpha, and it must be the handler.”

The truth was, until Afghanistan and that August day in 2011, Jose would have repeated the party line. If Zenit stepped on an IED and was killed, Jose was pretty sure he wouldn’t have shed a tear. Theirs was a strictly professional relationship and needed to remain that way. If Zenit got blown up, Jose would start all over again with another dog.

Jose Armenta grew up tough, simply because nothing came easy. His family lived in East Los Angeles, where his parents were affiliated with gangs and split up when Jose was young. His mother, who was of Puerto Rican heritage, cared for the children as best she could; his father, of Mexican origin, came and went. One of Jose’s earliest memories is of the car accident that spared him and killed his little sister. He was five; she, four. The rent was often overdue, and sometimes his family simply jumped to another house, another school—15 in all. He was always the new kid, the outsider. In high school he lived in his garage, cranking heavy metal. He played drums in a band. He wore his hair in a Mohawk and pierced his nose.

But even the extremes of Jose’s rebellion were relatively tame: ditching class, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, playing video games. Living in a violent world of real and wannabe gangsters, of random shootings, of drug dealing, he wanted to escape. What he wanted most was the opposite of that world: He wanted to be a marine.

In July 2007, at 18, he enlisted and found himself at Camp Pendleton. Having grown up rootless and without religion, he immediately fell in love with the military’s sense of tradition and ritual. He was nicknamed “Socks,” for his civilian uniform of baggy shorts and tube socks pulled up to the knee. Upon graduating from boot camp, he signed up for military police training and was eventually assigned to the U.S. base on Okinawa. As a class standout, he was also offered the chance to go to Lackland to begin training as a dog handler.

Jose had always loved dogs. During his erratic upbringing, they’d been ballast. At various times he’d owned a Dalmatian, a pit bull, and a Pekingese–chow chow mix named Bandit, legendary for once biting a friend on the posterior. But Jose understood that a military dog was an instrument he had to master, just as a technician had to understand sonar on a submarine or a drone operator had to learn to control a Predator.

The military, with its sharp edges and unyielding discipline—the thing that was saving him from the streets and his parents’ life—seemed a little more humane in those moments when he was rewarding a dog by roughing its neck fur or giving it some fawning praise. Though he instantly loved the work, he was also inspired by its higher purpose. One bomb found in the field might equal several lives saved.

Jose’s first impression of Zenit was that he seemed too sweet and a little unruly, still full of puppy energy. Jose already had a dog, a Malinois, but he was eager to try a shepherd and picked out Zenit himself.

A new working dog in the Marines learns to search for IEDs in small, incremental steps. After mastering basic obedience, the dogs are taught to recognize a range of odors associated with explosives, including ammonium nitrate, which is used in the majority of IEDs in Afghanistan.

Then they begin to practice an exercise known as “birding,” which is designed to let the handler direct the dog’s movements from a distance. First a handler unleashes the dog and orders it to move toward a hidden “bird launcher,” a remote-controlled catapult loaded with a tennis ball. Adherence to voice commands and hand signals is crucial and often hard-won. When the dog comes close to the launcher, the handler triggers it, and the ball rockets into the air. The dog gives chase and returns the ball to the handler, who praises and pats the dog.

As the dog gets better at following directions, the handler begins hiding items scented with all types of explosive materials in the surrounding terrain. By constantly moving the launcher and spreading scents both near and far, the dog becomes adept at searching large areas and alerting the handler to everything that smells like an explosive.

Eventually there’s no bird launcher, no tennis ball, just the scents. After finding each one, the dog is called back and rewarded with the Kong. And that’s what the process boils down to for a dog. An IED search is a game—identify a scent and get a toy.

Zenit was a motivated seeker—and perfect partner. In the fall of 2010 the pair was selected for deployment and sent to Yuma Proving Ground for a final three-week, boot-camp-like crystallization of everything a handler and a dog need in a war zone and for one final test to prove they are ready. In a fake Afghan village a handler and his dog must search out a complicated array of IEDs. Some are scented for the dog to find. Others are unscented but left exposed for the handler to spot. If together they find more than 80 percent, the pair receives final approval to go “downrange.”

“Jose was a bit of an East L.A. hood rat when he came into the corps,” says one of his supervisors, Sgt. Alfred Nieto. “But he and Zenit really knew what they were doing—that wasn’t in doubt. I think they grew up a lot together.”

After passing the training course at Yuma, the two boarded a transport, spent one night in Germany, and then flew to the Marines’ main base, Camp Leatherneck, in Afghanistan. From there Jose and Zenit were sent to Alcatraz. One moment they were in a fictional Afghan village in the desert of Arizona, the next they were in a real one, in Helmand Province, on their own.

Now it’s three months later. They’re in the wadi outside Sangin surrounded by IEDs. The finds are rapid-fire, oscillating between Mulrooney and Jose and Zenit. I got one … Over here … Yup.

Two years of training with your dog, three months in-country, every day with Zenit at your side, eating MREs, packing your gear—and your dog’s—humping, working, waiting, waking at midnight to make sure Zenit pees and poops in the designated spot, and suddenly everything, your life as a soldier and handler, your life as hood rat and outsider and striving human being, gets compressed into 15 minutes and 60 yards.

Jose believes he’s onto the pattern. It seems the Taliban have buried IEDs at the access points to the wadi, assuming the troops would feel safer out of sight down in the dry riverbed than exposed in the open fields. It’s all happening so quickly now. He takes deep breaths to tame his excitement and maintain focus.

A dog’s nose generally works best—or is most sensitive—in cool, calm weather. Odors become more volatile at higher temperatures, and wind can dilute and disperse them over a broad area, camouflaging their source. That’s the good thing: Down here there’s no wind. But it’s midday, bone-dry, and so fryingly hot Jose can taste the salt of his sweat as it trickles to his lips.

Zenit is working the far bank, tuned to Jose’s commands, ears perked, feet scrambling, excited too. The dog is looking for all those scents it knows will yield his toy. Where are they?

Over here a wide path leads from the berm into the wadi, and Zenit moves past it without any change in behavior. Jose follows at a distance, gauging his own steps. The men behind them follow at a distance, marking a shaving-cream route based on Jose’s progress.

At the path he veers from the most trafficked area and walks up a little rise. He takes a step, then another. Which is when the earth gives, and a deafening roar fills his ears.

When his eyes open, Jose is lying on his back. All he can see is the sky. He’s been blown 20 feet back into the wadi. He knows exactly what’s happening but can’t comprehend any of it. His mouth is full of dirt, and his body yowls, as if on fire. He can’t breathe. Mulrooney is the first to his side and cuts off his vest. Jose keeps repeating, “I fucked up. Do I still have my legs?” And then: “Where’s Zenit?” Mulrooney says, “You’re good, man, you’re going to be fine.”

There’s a procedure out here when someone gets “got”—that’s what the men call a hit like this. The marines secure the area; the medic puts a T-POD, a tourniquet at the waist to stanch the bleeding, on Jose; Buyes calls in a chopper; and everyone works to beat the “golden hour,” the time within which the military endeavors to get a wounded soldier off the battlefield to increase his odds of survival.

But the closest chopper is already ferrying another wounded marine out of the area and takes two hours to arrive. Jose has lost a lot of blood but somehow stays conscious, asking again for Zenit. The dog, initially 20 feet from the blast, knows something has gone wrong. Zenit lies down next to Jose, his ears pinned to his head, which he lays on his paws. He stays there as they work to save Jose before the chopper arrives. According to protocol, both handler and dog are loaded on board and whisked from the spot.

A faraway light—Jose remembers that. He remembers letting himself slip toward it, overcome by a very tired feeling. This was on the chopper. He remembers sensing Zenit nearby. He remembers thinking about his three younger sisters and brother (never having had role models himself, he wonders who will be theirs), his fiancée (how will she find out?), and then his sister who died (is he about to see her?). He remembers turning from the faraway light, shaking off sleep, and reentering his body.

What followed wasn’t easy. He woke up in Germany, and ten days later he woke up again in Walter Reed hospital. There were 12 operations, a move to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. Both legs had to be amputated above the knee. He slept 20 hours a day for a month. He dreamed that someone performed experiments on him with dolphins. He woke thrashing, calling for Zenit, only to learn that N103 hadn’t accompanied him home, had been reassigned to a new handler, also by protocol.

“I was furious,” Jose says. “And jealous. I never blamed Zenit for what happened. We were a team. If it was anyone’s fault, it was my own. I just wanted my dog.”

In different ways, it seemed, they were both itemized gear, until one of them didn’t work anymore. Back in Afghanistan, Zenit had been returned to Camp Leatherneck, where he soon went through what’s called a validation trial with another handler and then went on more than 50 foot patrols with other units. He had one more IED find.

At home, in the months after the operations, Jose waited for his incisions to heal, then worked to strengthen his core and what remained of his legs. He was given “shorties,” introductory prosthetics without knee joints so he could learn to balance and stand—and get used to the pressure on his legs. Later he received prosthetics with knee joints so he could learn to walk again.

Physical recovery is one thing; mental recovery is a much different matter. Jose’s wife, Eliana, whom he married six months after getting injured, remembers some very dark days: Jose, at 24, in a wheelchair in the house, drapes drawn, trying to come to terms with his new life. “I went from being this badass fighter to a young guy in a wheelchair,” Jose says. “Your mind doesn’t just make an easy switch. I’m not sure it ever will.”

Meanwhile, Jose was intent on getting Zenit back. “He was like my worn-out shield,” he says. “Every scratch tells a story. And nothing felt right without him.” Jose wasn’t the only one feeling a nagging sense of incompleteness. Some injured handlers had been able to adopt their dogs after the animals had been discharged. Others had begun asking for their dogs even though the canines remained on active duty.

No formal program exists in the military to reunite dogs with their injured handlers, and some of those handlers have found the process inscrutable and frustrating at a time when they needed clarity. For Jose, there were calls and paperwork, excruciating months of waiting. Eventually Zenit was sent to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in California. More months passed, and finally in June 2012, after the Marine Corps approved the adoption, Jose and his wife road-tripped the three hours to the base. He approached Zenit in his wheelchair, and the dog covered him in slobbery kisses. “I couldn’t stop smiling,” says Jose. “For days. Actually I’m still smiling. It felt like the beginning to this new life.”

It’s twilight in San Diego. Jose is seated by the pool at his house, drinking a beer, taking a break from his prosthetics, throwing a tennis ball for Zenit. The dog took immediately to eating steak and sleeping on the couch when he first arrived. Jose spoils him as he never could before. The German shepherd’s glossy, sable coat flashes in the sun as he chases down each toss with happy zeal, then returns the ball to Jose, who keeps up a patter of “Good boy.” It’s a long way from war, yet the war seems ever present.

“For a long time I beat myself up over that day,” says Jose. “I kept wondering what I could have done differently. I think the IED was offset from where I had Zenit searching or was just buried too deep. They always say that no dog is 100 percent accurate.”

For more than a year after that day in the wadi Jose had to learn how to walk on his new legs. He went to rehab several times a week. “He always came in joking and upbeat,” says his physical therapist, Dawn Golding. “You could hear him cranking his motivational music when he walked down the hall.” Sometimes when he’s out for dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings, a kid may see his plastic-and-metal legs and ask if he’s a Transformer. “Nah, man,” says Jose. “This is what happens when you don’t eat your vegetables!” And then he flashes that huge smile.

He’s learned to sail and ski and has been on outings to Colorado and Alaska. He works as a dispatcher for the military police, on the 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift. He comes home to his wife, who is newly pregnant, and they take Zenit to the beach. “He’s like my quiet partner,” says Jose. “He bridges three worlds: the person I was before Afghanistan, the one I was there, and the one I became after. I joke that when he dies, I’ll get him stuffed and put him by the bed. But really I can’t imagine it. I don’t know what I’ll do then.”

Jose—brother and husband and soon-to-be father—cocks his arm and releases the ball, which arcs into the darkening sky like some forlorn hope. Before it takes a second bounce, Zenit has it in his mouth, racing to return it to his master.

via The Dogs of War.


A photo of a soldier and a dog in 1919.

A French soldier and his dog, both wearing gas masks, head to the Western Front in 1919. During World War I, both sides deployed tens of thousands of messenger dogs.


Rebecca Frankel

for National Geographic


Editor’s note: This is the first of a five-part series.

As long as men have been fighting wars, dogs have likely been somewhere on or near the battlefield. And more often than not, dogs have contributed bravely on the front lines, whether officially trained to do so or motivated by loyalty to soldiers.

The history of war dogs is deep: The Corinthians used them with success against the Greeks. The Romans used dogs to guard their legions and raise alarms, as did Attila the Hun, who placed them around his camps for added protection.

The United States military has lagged behind the rest of the world’s armies in using dogs, even though the idea was introduced early on. Benjamin Franklin made a somewhat lackluster attempt to advocate for using dogs (though more as weapons) in 1755.

Beginning with the Revolutionary War and through World War I, dogs had a mostly unofficial presence alongside American soldiers, coming to combat either as a beloved pet of a general, as a mascot, or as the stray-made-companion of an obliging soldier.

It wasn’t until the onset of World War II that the U.S. War Department, emulating successful war dog programs in Europe, finally set into motion the military dog program that would evolve (and lapse and evolve again) over the next several decades. Started in World War II and continuing through Korea and Vietnam, today the Military Working Dog Programdeploys dogs to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the coming days, we take a look back at a handful (of the many thousands) of war dogs whose stories are powerful testaments to the important roles they played in saving lives—and lifting spirits. (Read “The Dogs of War” in the June issue of National Geographic magazine.)

Ernest Harold Baynes, a reporter who documented the use of animals during World War I, wrote, “The fame of the war dogs may well rest on the splendid work they actually did; it needs no support from the stories of what some of the sentimentalists would like to believe they did.”

A photo of French troops under shellfire at the Battle of Verdun.

French troops endure shellfire during the 1916 Battle of Verdun.

Satan Saves the Day

During World War I, at the 1916 Battle of Verdun, a small contingent of French soldiers found themselves boxed in by German forces.

They had been told by the French command to hold their position until reinforcements could be sent. For days they had managed to hold off the Germans, but no one had come to relieve them. Telephone and telegraph lines were down, and no homing pigeons remained to send word.

The scorched and cratered terrain beyond their trenches was too exposed for any human to cross—seven men had already been cut down trying to deliver messages to command. And although one dog had managed to successfully deliver seven messages, he too had been killed.

With food and ammunition depleted and the men’s hopes waning, the Germans unleashed a fresh onslaught of artillery and gunfire. The French troops cautiously peered over the top of their trenches. A large, black animal was bounding in their direction. From a distance it was difficult to tell exactly what the charging four-legged creature was. It was wearing a monstrous gas mask, and something was stretched across its shoulders that extended almost like wings.

A photo of a war dog jumping over a trench to deliver a message.

A dog leaps over an Allied trench to deliver a message. Dogs were especially well suited to navigating the obstacles of trench warfare.

Then one of the soldiers, a handler named Duval, recognized the animal as his own—a messenger dog named Satan. Duval called out to the dog, urging him on. Leaping over the cratered earth, Satan raced toward the sound of his handler’s voice so fast that some of the men later swore he was flying.

The Germans unloaded their arsenal in an all-out attempt to stop this one dog. But Satan continued on, maneuvering in the crisscross pattern he’d been trained to follow, even as bullets snapped the air around him and exploding shells threw up shrapnel and chunks of smoking earth.

A bullet clipped the dog and he stumbled. Then another caught him in the leg, breaking it, and he faltered again, this time hitting the ground.

Seeing his dog go down, Duval climbed out of the trench, exposing himself to enemy fire so that he could call once more to Satan. Duval was shot dead within seconds. But, having heard his handler’s voice again, Satan mustered the strength to lift himself off the ground. He started to run again, this time on three legs, his lame limb hanging useless as he ran until, finally, he reached the safety of the French trenches.

The men lifted the limping dog and gently removed the mask, pulling a tube from around his neck to read the message inside: “For God’s sake, hold on. We will send troops to relieve you tomorrow.” The winglike contraption on Satan’s back was a harness balancing two small baskets over the dog’s shoulders, each one containing a carrier pigeon.

The French commander scrawled two identical notes describing the German battalion’s position. The notes were put in small metal tubes and tied to the pigeons’ legs. The two birds lifted into the air, soaring into the sky. The German snipers were waiting for them. A shot picked off the first bird, but the other somehow made it through the spray, flying in the direction of its coop.

Soon the sound of roaring French guns could be heard. The message had been received.

via Dogs at War: Three-Legged Dog Delivers Crucial Message in WWI.


A photo of a Marine giving instructions to his war dog partner

A marine gives silent instructions to his dog during the fighting for control of Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, in 1944.


Rebecca Frankel

for National Geographic


Editor’s Note: This is the second in a five-part series.

On one morning in November 1943, in the jungles of the Pacific island of Bougainville, Marine PFC Rufus Mayo was in a panic, scanning the scene around him. Desperate for help, he yelled to another marine—where was Caesar?

At dawn the Japanese had mounted an attack on the marines. The dog handlers had brought their dogs into their foxholes, resting easier knowing their dogs were there to keep watch. Caesar, a large German shepherd, had heard the attackers coming before the men had heard them, and in his instinctive reaction to protect his handler, Mayo, sleeping beside him, the dog had launched out of the foxhole.

When Mayo realized what was happening he shouted at Caesar to stop and come back. But when the dog turned to obey, a Japanese soldier opened fire, sending three bullets into his body. A battle ignited, and in the chaos Caesar went missing.

Afterward, Mayo and another marine searched for the dog. They found a trail of blood, leading them back to the battalion’s command. The dog had managed to return to his other handler, PFC John Kleeman, and collapsed behind a bush.

Mayo rushed to him, cradling him gently. The marines around them moved quickly, breaking down two poles and attaching a blanket to build a makeshift litter to carry the dog to the hospital tent.

While the doctors worked to remove the bullets, his handlers paced outside. Two bullets could be removed, but the surgeon felt it was too risky to take out the third, which had lodged near the dog’s heart. In the end, the dog would prove stronger than that bullet, and after only three weeks of rest and recovery, he was back on active duty.

A photo of a wounded German Shepard, thought to be Caesar, being carried by Marines.

Marines carry a wounded German shepherd believed to be Caesar to the hospital tent on Bougainville.

Caesar would prove the value of a dog’s role in war several times over the course of his service in World War II. During one deployment, heavy rains rendered the marines’ walkie-talkies unusable, and Caesar ran messages back and forth repeatedly between his handlers while evading sniper fire.

On another occasion, Caesar saved Mayo from a grenade attack. In a letter home, the handler wrote to his family, “I would not give Caesar up for a general’s commission.”

Like the other 10,000 dogs that would serve in the United States military during World War II, Caesar was donated in a show of patriotism and civilian solidarity by his owners, the family of Max Glazer, who lived in New York City, as part of the Dogs for Defense program.

He was legendary in his Bronx neighborhood for delivering groceries, carrying packages in his mouth back to the Glazers’ fourth-floor walk-up. And once he was told to “take it to Mom,” Caesar couldn’t be diverted from his task.

A photo of a group of soldiers with their war dog partners.

A group of marines pose with their dogs, which were trained to find Japanese snipers, carry messages, and protect against ambushes.

When the draft came, the Glazers’ three sons left home one by one. And, after the family saw the military’s call for dogs, it seemed to make sense that the canine member of their family should enlist as well. Caesar—obedient, loyal, and vigilant of strangers—had all the makings of exemplary soldier. And like many other families, it was not easy for them to watch their sons—or their dogs—leave for war. When the Glazers sent Caesar off, there wasn’t a dry eye in the family.

Caesar was one of the dogs who made up the very first Marine Dog Platoon attached to the Second Marine Raider Regiment and deployed to Bougainville in the fall of 1943. The war dog platoon consisted of 55 men and 24 dogs, three of which were German shepherds, the rest Doberman Pinschers—these dogs would forever after be known as Devil Dogs. Of the platoon members who deployed and served on Bougainville until January 23, 1944, only four did not return—two dogs and two handlers.

In a report to his superiors, the commanding officer of the Marine Raider Regiment wrote that the war dog platoon had been an “unqualified success.” First on the list of the successes he recounted was: “Not one marine was killed while in a marine patrol led by a dog.” Among others were how the dogs made it impossible for the enemy to make surprise attacks at night or infiltrate their camps undetected; how the scout dogs had “alerted to enemy ambushes and snipers”; and how they were so trusted by the Marine Raiders that these men “vied nightly to dig foxholes for the handlers in order to get the handlers and their dogs to bunk down with them.”

Before they had stormed the beaches on November 1, 1943, Lt. Col. Alan Shapley, the commanding officer of the Marine Raiders, reportedly turned to his men and said, “I want you men to remember that the dogs are least expendable of all.

via Dogs at War: Caesar, One of the First Marine Dogs in the Pacific.


A photo of Judy, a dog that was a POW, and her handler, Frank.

Frank Williams grooms Judy, the English pointer with whom he spent three and a half years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.


Rebecca Frankel

for National Geographic


Editor’s Note: This is the third in a five-part series.

The sea was slick with oil, littered with debris, and crowded with panicked men who moments before had been aboard the S.S.Van Warwyck when it came under attack.

But there in the water was a dog, swimming to the foundering men, guiding them to floating pieces of the wreckage or letting them hold on to her back while she herself swam them to safety.

It was June 26, 1944. The men were prisoners of war and so was the dog. Her name was Judy.

She too had been aboard the ship, and in an effort to save her life, her adoptive caretaker, Leading Aircraftman Frank Williams of the Royal Air Force (RAF), had pushed her through a 10-inch porthole and into the water 15 feet below. He then lost sight of her as he made his own escape. For more than two hours, he swam amid the chaos and debris, searching for her.

Judy, a purebred liver-and-white English pointer, had been born seven years before in Shanghai, where she had become a mascot for a British Royal Navy ship based there. By January 1942 she was aboard theH.M.S. Grasshopper, a 585-ton gunboat stationed in Singapore, when the Japanese took that city. The boat managed to escape the harbor and sail for the Dutch East Indies. It was reportedly two miles from safety when it was bombed by Japanese planes and the passengers had to abandon ship.

The survivors were marooned on an island in the South China Sea for two days without food or water, and it was Judy who led them to a freshwater spring, sniffing it out during low tide and digging under the sand to bring the drinkable water up to the surface.

Unfortunately, after commandeering a Chinese junk that took them upriver into Sumatra and then hiking 200 miles across the island, the men, with Judy in tow, unknowingly wandered into a Japanese village and were captured and marched to a POW camp.

Refusing to leave her behind, the men smuggled Judy with them, keeping her hidden behind rice sacks and away from the eyes of their captors. Eventually, they ended up in the Gloergoer POW camp in Medan, Indonesia. And it was there that Judy met Williams in February 1942.

He’d been watching the dog since his arrival at the camp, eyeing the way she hunted for food, snapping up the maggots the men would toss from their bowls. He saw that, although she was always a welcome presence among the prisoners, she didn’t belong to any one man. One day he called her to him and held down his bowl of rice, giving her the whole of his portion. When she was finished eating, she lay by his feet and didn’t leave. From then on she was Williams’ dog.

Judy quickly earned herself a reputation as the protector of not only Williams but of all the prisoners in the camp—garnering the appreciation of the men and the disdain of the prison guards.

The uplift she afforded the POWs alone was enough to draw the ire of their Japanese captors, but it was the way she fearlessly intervened when the guards would beat a prisoner that put her hazardously close to death. Without hesitation she would fly to the side of the man taking the beating, snarling and growling to protect whomever it was, which usually meant the guards would pause from hitting the man and turn their aggression on the dog, hitting her with the butts of their rifles.

Knowing that this wouldn’t be tolerated for long, Williams believed that the only way to keep her from being shot was to get her official POW status. And so he devised a plan. He waited for the camp’s commandant to get his fill of saki, knowing the Japanese officer was a happy, pliable drunk. Williams’s calculation—and nerve—paid off; the commandant agreed and from then on Judy was POW 81A.

Although this new distinction did save her from execution on multiple occasions, Judy was never out of danger for long. Over three long years as a POW, she provoked prison guards and the wild animals she encountered in the jungle surrounding the camp, barking at tigers and surviving a battle with a crocodile.

And then in June 1944, after the prisoners were herded onto the doomedVan Warwyck, she—and Williams—managed to survive yet again, although they were soon recaptured by the Japanese and held until the end of the war.

A photo of a dog named Judy who was a POW, receiving the Dickin Medal.

In 1946 the British government awarded Judy the Dickin Medal, which honors the extraordinary wartime service of animals.

When they were finally liberated in August 1945, Williams thought his days of hiding Judy were over—that they were finally free, not only of interment and beatings, but also of the fear of being separated. But he was wrong.

When they arrived at the dock to board the S.S. Atenor, the ship that would deliver them home to Britain, he noticed a sign forbidding any animals from boarding the ship. To leave her behind now was inconceivable. The other men from the camp went into action and held the dog back while Williams went aboard. Then they distracted the guards and smuggled Judy onto the ship.

Eventually, they made it home to England together, where they were met with fanfare and fame. Judy was awarded the United Kingdom’s Dickin Medal, which honors the wartime service of animals. In February 1950, she contracted cancer and died at age 13. Williams buried her in a specially made RAF coat.

Williams said that every day in the prison camp he thanked God for Judy because she gave him a reason to keep living. “All I had to do was look at her and into those weary, bloodshot eyes,” he said, “and I would ask myself: ‘What would happen to her if I died?”’

via Dogs at War: Judy, Canine Prisoner of War.


A photo of Stephen Reichenbach with his dog in Vietnam.

Marine dog handler Steve Reichenbach with his dog, Major, on a patrol north of Danang in late 1966.


Rebecca Frankel

for National Geographic


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a five-part series.

It was a beautiful day. Twenty-two-year-old Marine Sergeant Steve Reichenbach was working his way up a hill, his scout dog Major moving along beside him.

In fact, he wasn’t supposed to go out on another mission. It was supposed to be his last day in Vietnam, his last day with Major. The replacement handlers were already in country, ready to pick up the leashes as soon as Reichenbach and his fellow handlers left Vietnam to make their way back home. But when the request came in for a dog team to go out with a group of Marines on a patrol mission, Reichenbach said he’d go—to work once more with Major.

At 90 pounds, Major—a Great Dane-Shepherd mix with a creamy off-white coat—had an intimidating presence. After they first started running missions together, Reichenbach began to notice that once the enemy saw his dog coming, they would start tripping their ambushes early. Major’s size alone was enough to scare them off.

Unlike most of the other Marine dog handlers who had been sent to Vietnam in 1966, Reichenbach hadn’t trained with Major before deploying. Instead he had been paired up with the dog once he arrived in country. The handler Major had come with to Vietnam had been killed a few weeks before Reichenbach arrived. But despite the fact they were paired out of convenience, Reichenbach and Major meshed from their first meeting.

The young man and this dog had similar temperaments: They were both mellow, relaxed, even-keeled types who didn’t waste much energy getting excited about much of anything. A quiet dog, Major never barked, never growled. He was never ruffled by the noise of the fighting around him. Reichenbach never saw Major out of sorts, except for the time they came across a cat—a kitten that weighed no more than three pounds. But as soon as Major caught wind of this little creature, he went crazy, moving so fast to chase the cat he nearly jerked his handler to the ground.

Watch: War Dogs in Vietnam

On their last day together, they marched along up the hill, which was mostly bare, offering no brush or trees for cover. After a while, one of the Marines in the company stepped into a booby trap—a deep pit lined with sharp spears—and one of the spears went through his boot and into his foot. While the medic was attending to the wounded man, Reichenbach turned around to walk away with Major and was hit with a bad feeling—suddenly he just knew that something wasn’t right.

And then a mine exploded. A tail of shrapnel sprayed out behind it, catching six of the men and killing four of them. Reichenbach was hit in his upper right leg and left hip, his wounds bleeding freely.

And then, the dog that never growled, that was never put off by the sound of snapping gunfire or artillery shells, planted himself at Reichenbach’s side and bared his teeth. Major would not let anyone come near his handler.

The other men, working fast to get Reichenbach medical attention, finally got a muzzle on the dog. The company commander, Captain Walter Boomer, hoisted the large dog up and put him on the chopper, right on top of Reichenbach. As the chopper descended back at the base, the first thing the waiting medics saw was a big white dog bearing down on them.

It was the last time Reichenbach would see Major. The handler spent the next three months recuperating in a series of different military hospitals before finally returning home to the United States. Meanwhile, Major was immediately paired up with the replacement handler. And, as one of Reichenbach’s fellow Marines would tell him later, when this new handler went to meet his new dog, Major was still covered in Reichenbach’s blood.

A photo of Stephen Reichenbach and his dog in Vietnam.

Reichenbach was paired with Major, a Great Dane-Shepherd mix, when he arrived in Vietnam, soon after the dog’s first handler was killed.

Reichenbach never had another dog. After the war ended, he didn’t try to track down Major the way that some handlers did, sending inquiries after their dogs, hoping to adopt them (all unsuccessfully). Someone sent him an email once, saying they’d found a record noting that Major died of a jungle disease that had been killing off their dogs. But even if Major was still alive by the time the United States forces pulled out of Vietnam, he, like all but a few of the dogs still in country, would have been left behind.

And many of these military dogs met with an unhappy end—likely euthanized by the South Vietnamese Army, with whom they were left, or worse. Many of the handlers didn’t find out for years that their canine partners never made it out of Vietnam alive.

This is one of the darkest parts of war dog history, especially considering how valuable they were to U.S. troops. Roughly 4,000 dogs served in the war, leading patrols with their handlers through dense jungle terrain. Overall, they are credited with saving upward of 10,000 lives.

After he got out of the Marine Corps, Reichenbach never had another dog, but he still thinks of Major. Whenever some website asks for the name of his first pet as a security question, Reichenbach always lists Major, even though he wasn’t really his first dog or really a pet. He was something more.

“He was a good puppy,” he says. “He deserved better than he got. But,” he pauses, thinking for a moment, “it was a useful life.”

via Dogs at War: Left Behind in Vietnam.


A photo of Bill Wynne holding Smoky the dog.

Bill Wynne holds Smoky, the Yorkshire terrier he adopted in the Philippines while serving with the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.


Rebecca Frankel

for National Geographic


Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final part in this series.

Every day waves of Japanese planes attacked the Allied airfield atLingayen Gulf on Luzon, the largest of the Philippine Islands.

The onslaught was taking a toll on communication, and the American commanders urgently needed to run telephone lines through a pipe that stretched roughly 70 feet underground from the base to three separate squadrons, but they lacked the proper equipment.

The pipe was just eight inches in diameter, and the only way to put the lines in place would be to do the job by hand—having dozens of men dig a trench to get the wires underground, a dangerous job that would’ve taken days and left the men exposed to the constant enemy attacks.

So instead, they pinned their hopes on an unconventional solution: send a tiny Yorkshire terrier through the pipe with kite string tied to her collar. The string could then be used to thread the wires through the pipe. Calling to her, coaxing her forward was her owner, Corporal Bill Wynne, a 22-year-old Ohio native, who’d adopted her while he was in New Guinea.

The little dog reached the other side, the communication network was established, and she was credited with saving the lives of some 250 men and 40 planes that day. But in the years to come, the little Yorkie would achieve much greater acclaim for her healing effect on wounded soldiers.

A photo of Smoky the dog crawling through a small pipe in World War Two.

Bill Wynne (left) and linesman Bob Gapp send Smoky into a pipe to help string telephone wire beneath an airstrip heavily targeted by the Japanese. She is credited with saving 250 men and 40 U.S. planes from possible destruction over a three-day period.

Finding Smoky

When Wynne first set eyes on this dog in March 1944, while he was stationed with the U.S. Army Air Corps in Nadzab, New Guinea, she’d seemed almost too small to be taken seriously, weighing a mere four pounds, standing only seven inches tall, with a head the size of a baseball.

One of his tent mates had found her in an abandoned foxhole on the side of the road and was willing to sell her. She was underfed and scrawny. And because another soldier had thought the small dog was too hot under all her fur, he’d crudely sheared her, leaving her once-long, silky hair sticking out in uneven tufts.

But Wynne, who had been around dogs all his life, quickly decided to keep this scraggly little animal, and so he shelled out the soldier’s asking price, two Australian pounds ($6.44 U.S.)—a fair chunk of his overseas pay—and called her Smoky. And during the next year and a half, Wynne and the little dog would survive air raids, typhoons, and 12 combat missions together.

Not long after Wynne adopted Smoky, he caught dengue fever and was sent to the 233rd Station Hospital. After a couple of days, Wynne’s friends brought Smoky to see him, and the nurses, charmed by the tiny dog and her story, asked if they could bring her around to visit with other patients who had been wounded in the Biak Island invasion. During the five days he spent in the hospital, Smoky slept with Wynne on his bed at night, and the nurses would collect her in the morning to take her along on patient rounds, returning her at the end of the day.

Wynne had noticed what a powerful effect the dog had on the soldiers around him, how Smoky lightened the mood, not only with her presence but also with her personality. They laughed as she chased the wildly colorful Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies that, with a wingspan of 14 inches, were far larger than she was. And of course, they loved the tricks Wynne had taught her mostly to relieve the tedium.

The duo’s repertoire started modestly enough with basic commands, and Wynne soon had his diminutive charge playing dead. When Wynne would point one finger at her and yell “bang!” not only would Smoky fall over to the ground at the command, but she also would lie there listless while Wynne came over to poke and prod her and even as he lifted her from the ground.

Eventually, he trained her to walk a tightrope, ride a handmade scooter, and even “spell” her own name—Smoky would pick up the large cutout letters in her mouth as he called them out to her.

A photo of Smoky the dog visiting a war veteran.

A Red Cross worker brings Smoky on patient rounds at a U.S. Army hospital. The four-pound Yorkie became a popular and effective diversion for wounded men in the Philippines as well as back home after the war.

Trailblazing Therapy Dog

Word of their act spread, and while Wynne and Smoky were on convalescence furlough in Australia, they were invited to perform at a few hospitals. As he watched the men in wheelchairs holding Smoky in their arms, he could see the difference that the tiny dog was making. “There’s a complete change when we came into the room,” he says. “They all smiled; they all loved her.”

Smoky was hardly the only dog aiding in the recovery of wounded veterans in the aftermath of the Second World War. At an Air Force convalescent home in Pawling, New York, the medical staff witnessed the remarkable effect one dog had on a reluctant patient, completely changing his mental outlook. After that, they brought more dogs into the hospital and eventually built a kennel on the grounds to house them all.

The trend caught on, and in much the same way patriotic owners volunteered their dogs to serve with American forces fighting overseas, they brought their pets to serve as hospital dogs to provide uplift for injured soldiers as they recovered from their wounds. By 1947 civilians had donated about 700 dogs. In many ways, these dogs were the firsttherapy dogs, whose curative abilities were not only recognized but also harnessed to great effect.

After the war was over, Wynne and Smoky continued to tour hospitals, bringing their act to recuperating soldiers back home. Smoky retired in 1955, and she died in her sleep two years later in 1957 at the age of 14.

As Bill Wynne remembers it, for the wounded soldiers Smoky was a complete diversion—something to pull them away from what ailed them, something they could await with happy anticipation. In his mind her ability to make a difference was really quite simple: “She was just an instrument of love.”

via Dogs at War: Smoky, a Healing Presence for Wounded WWII Soldiers.



 Last week, I wrote a five-part series for National Geographic that featured the stories of five dogs, each with an exceptional story of bravery on the battlefield — each of them loyal beyond even the most wild expectation of what we might assume a dog would do for a human he loved. Being that this weekend is Memorial Day and it seems fitting to celebrate them again, here.

There was Satan, the French messenger dog who ran through the cratered trenches of World War I — a gauntlet of German artillery fire — while French soldiers watched with baited breath, as this dog was their only hope to send word for rescue.

And then, Caesar, the German shepherd dog from Brooklyn (in the photo above) whose family watched their three sons and their dog volunteer for service, was among the first Marine dogs deployed during World War II. Perhaps the most moving detail (to my mind at least) of this dog’s harrowing story as it unfolded at its most dramatic point in the jungles of Bougainville, was that after Caesar was injured, the men in his unit — roughly a dozen, and men who weren’t his handlers — stood at the ready, wanting to be the ones who carried him to safety.

There was Smoky, the tiny Yorkshire terrier, pulled from an abandoned fox hole, adopted and cared for by soldier Bill Wynne who, by happy accident, realized that even a small dog could raise the lowest spirits of the wounded men recovering in the field hospitals during World War II.

On his last day in Vietnam, handler Steve Reichenbach decided he would be the one to volunteer for another patrol so he could have one more mission with his dog Major. And when the mission went terribly wrong, Major, the mellow dog who never barked, did something Reichenbach had never seen him do before. 

And last, there was Judy, who may have one of the most incredible documented stories of any war dog in history. Originally a British Navy mascot, she is the only dog ever officially classified as a POW and she risked her life daily in those camps as she couldn’t bear to look on and watch any of them take a beating. 

But Frank Williams, the man who took her in and looked after her in the POW camp, said there was one thing Judy did for him that was loomed larger than any other heroic measure she performed during their time together — acts that included guiding men in the water to safety after a ship sank, or finding spring water for marooned men to drink. In the end, Williams believed, it was this more than anything else that saved his life:

Williams said that every day in the prison camp he thanked God for Judy because she gave him a reason to keep living. “All I had to do was look at her and into those weary, bloodshot eyes,” he said, “and I would ask myself: ‘What would happen to her if I died?”’


via Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Remembering Satan, Caesar, Judy, Major, and Smoky – War Dogs of History.


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