Uncle Sam Needs to Borrow Your… Dog?

Black and white newspaper photo of a young boy dressed in uniform saluting while looking into the camera. He is holding an American flag. Beside him a German shepherd sitting up on his hind legs.
“So Long, Pal. Little Billie stands at salute as his playmate, Pal, prepares to march off to war. Pal is one of 60 dogs in the Chicago area recruited for army service by Dogs for Defense.” Star Press, January 14, 1943, p. 4.

Star Press (Muncie, Indiana), January 14, 1943, p. 4.

Before the US entered World War II, the US Army had only a few sled dogs that they used in arctic regions. The military was not convinced that dogs would be useful in war. After the Japanese attacked the US home front, civilians including those from the dog show world established the Dogs for Defense program.[1] In July 1942, the responsibility for training the dogs was transferred to the Quartermaster Corps, and by the fall, dogs were being trained for the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. Dogs for Defense remained active in procuring dogs until March 1945, when the Quartermaster Corps took over. [2]

Enlisting America's Dogs

Owners volunteered over 40,000 pet dogs for wartime service, spurred in part by the 1942 War Dogs movie (which is available to watch online). In some cases, those enlisting in the military also enlisted their dogs.[3] At first, only certain purebred dogs were recruited. After training trials and a shortage of purebred dogs, the criteria were changed to include some 30 breeds and cross-breeds including German Shepherds, Dobermans, Boxers, Labrador Retrievers, and St. Bernards. The criteria were shortened again in 1944 to just seven breeds.[4] Dogs that did not meet military requirements (or whose family did not want to volunteer them) could be enrolled in the doggy Home Guard. For a $1 fee, dogs got the rank of private or seaman (depending on branch of service selected); for $100, they got the rank of general or admiral. The money supported the Dogs for Defense program, and even President Roosevelt’s dog, Fala, enrolled.[5]

Black and white text showing amounts to donate to get a certain rank (Army/Navy) for your at-home dog. Eg: Private/Seaman $1; Corporal/Second Class Petty Officer $3; Major/Commander $20; Major General/Vice Admiral $75; General/Admiral $100.
“Dogs For Defense Enlistment Ranks In War Dog Fund.” Knoxville News-Sentinel, April 21, 1944, p. 17.

Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tennessee), April 21, 1944, p. 17.

A Different Kind of Obedience Training

After meeting basic requirements and passing a preliminary physical, 18,000 of the volunteered pet dogs were sent to one of several Army training centers.[6] These were located at Fort Robinson, Nebraska; Front Royal, Virginia; Camp Rimini, Montana; Cat Island, Gulfport, Mississippi; and San Carlos, California. Temporary training centers were also setup at Fort Washington, Maryland and Fort Belvoir, Virginia for training dogs for mine detection. An installation at the Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland researched nutrition and worked on an Army dog ration.[7] The first formal military training manual for dogs in warfare was written by Alene Stern Erlanger, a dog breeder and organizer of Dogs for Defense. It was published by the US War Department as TM 10-396 Technical Manual: War Dogs, on July 1, 1943.[8]

Dogs on Duty

After training, war dogs and their handlers (who also received training) were ordered to their posts. A total of 10,368 war dogs went into active service: 7,665 to the Army and 3,174 to the Coast Guard.[9] War dogs fulfilled many duties, including as sentries/guard dogs, silent scouts on reconnaissance patrols to identify threats; messengers to carry important information, emergency supplies, or pulling communication wires between outposts; and finding wounded soldiers on the battlefield.[10] A total of fifteen Quartermaster war dog platoons were organized. Each platoon included 18 scout dogs, 16 messenger dogs, 20 enlisted men, and 1 officer. The hearing and smelling abilities of the war dogs made them especially useful in the thick jungles of the Pacific.[11]

Black and white newspaper photos. Left: kennel crates and dogs fill a hillside. Right: a uniformed trainer and a dog on the lookout under a bush.
Dogs for Defense training in San Carlos, California. Left: Hills above San Carlos dotted with K-9 Corps dog houses. Right: A trainer and his dog on lookout. Hartford Courant, May 7, 1944, p. 69. East Hartford (part of Greater Hartford, CT) is an American World War II Heritage City.

Bonnie Wiley, “Canine Warriors Hound the Nips.” Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), May 7, 1944, p. 69. (The derogatory term for the Japanese was in common use during the war; it is no longer an appropriate term.)

Color photo of a granite memorial with the dogs’ names inscribed on it. A statue of a Doberman sits on top, looking alert. A fence surrounds the memorial. There are trees and flowering bushes in the background.
The Marine Corps war dog cemetery on Guam. It is in memory of the 25 war dogs who died during the liberation of Guam. 24 of the 25 are buried here. The 25th was buried at sea. Photo by Dawn C. Montgomery, US Department of Defense, 1996.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 6493413).

Returning Home

After the war, despite the time and cost involved, the military re-trained surviving dogs for civilian life. Dogs were returned to their owners if possible. The rest were adopted out, with priority given to servicemen and families whose pets had been killed in action. At the end of the war, 559 war dogs serving with the Marines survived. Five hundred and forty of them were adopted out (or remained with their handlers); the remaining 19 were euthanized – 15 for health problems, and only 4 because they couldn’t be retrained.[12] The first official war dog monument in the United States is the National War Dog Cemetery on Guam. It honors the 25 war dogs killed when the US Marines retook Guam from Japanese forces in 1944.[13]

This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. It was funded by the National Council on Public History's cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.

More From This Series

Last updated: November 16, 2023