Von Stephanitz, a captain in the German army's cavalry, felt that the versatile German shepherd had great potential as a police dog as well as a war dog. He was right. The German shepherd's history as both a military and police dog is exemplary. The breed's skills and accomplishments have set the standard for all other working breeds for more than a century.
Impressed by work performed by police dogs in England (Airedales), the Imperial Prussian Army subsidized the formation of training clubs to develop top-notch war dogs. A wide range of dog breeds were being used at the time, including gun dogs, poodles, Airedales, farm collies (called smooth collies today), Dobermans, and German shepherds. The dogs were trained as sentries, messengers, and medic dogs, also known as Red Cross dogs, comfort dogs, or Sanitätshunde.
Medic dogs were trained to pull off the Bringsel, a sort of short leash that was part of the Prussian uniform, from a wounded soldier and bring it to a medic. The dog then led the medic to the soldier. While the soldier was being treated, the medic dog would comfort the injured — hence, the name “comfort dogs.”
German shepherds were so good at the varied work they were required to perform that in 1887, General von Goltz supposedly recommended discontinuing the use of all other breeds. However, his recommendation was not enacted.
World War I
The German army began World War I with 6,000 trained military dogs, many of which were German shepherds. Germany also called on loyal German shepherd owners and breeders to offer trained dogs for the war cause. By the end of the war, it is estimated that more than 30,000 dogs served in Germany's army.
German shepherds were used during the war in many capacities. The dogs delivered messages to maintain communications and carried ammunition and medical supplies in backpacks. Shepherds also guarded and herded livestock that was kept near the front lines to feed Germany's army. Perhaps the German shepherd's most famous position was as a sentry (stationary alert) and a scout (moving alert) dog. The dogs didn't bark but rather quietly whined or growled to alert their handlers that someone was approaching. German shepherds also patrolled prison camps to prevent prisoners from escaping or communicating with their comrades.
Both the French and British armies also trained and used German shepherds for military service, though in much smaller numbers than the German army. The dogs used by the Allies performed similarly to their German counterparts, and they did so with unswerving loyalty and courage.
Why was a British shepherd named Tommy awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French army?
While serving valiantly as a military K-9 in World War I, Tommy was wounded three times. He also narrowly survived being gassed after his handler, who was working for his Scottish regiment, didn't get Tommy's mask on quickly enough.
It would be years before the German shepherd flourished again in Germany as it had during the Great War. Thousands of German shepherds, as well as many noted breeders, were killed during the conflict. Additionally, near the end of the war, the country suffered a tremendous famine, causing both people and dogs to starve.
For the German shepherds that survived the war and the famine in Germany, there were more hurdles to overcome. Surviving shepherds were often sterile or gave birth to higher numbers of stillborns. Postwar veterinary care and access to medicine was virtually non-existent.
As a result, canine diseases ran rampant. Still, German shepherd breeders in Germany — and in the United States, England, and many European countries — worked to restore the breed.
World War II
The entire world witnessed the abilities of the German shepherd during World War I. Americans serving in the armed forces told incredible tales of the dogs they had seen; some even brought puppies and adult dogs home with them. As a result, the breed began rising in popularity as a canine companion in the United States. Despite having seen the magnificent work of the German shepherds, however, the United States military did not institute a war-dog program after World War I, and they entered World War II without experienced dog handlers, trainers, or an active training facility.
American Corporal Lee Duncan and other members of the 136th Aero Division were on a scouting mission when Duncan discovered five German shepherd puppies at an abandoned German war-dog station. Duncan's pup, Rinty, became the unit's mascot and, later, one of the country's most beloved canine movie stars: Rin Tin Tin.
At the first rumblings of war in Germany, breeders were immediately concerned with the future of their prized shepherds. Some breeders discretely shipped their esteemed dogs out of the country. Breeders from urban areas — remembering the food shortage of the past war — tried to move their dogs to area farms where it was hoped that food would remain more plentiful. Others reportedly euthanized their dogs as an alternative to slow starvation.
Nevertheless, Nazi Germany began rebuilding its trained wardog program under the guise of police-dog training. When World War II began, Germany was estimated to have more than 200,000 dogs trained and ready for military work, the majority of which were German shepherds.
Back in the United States, even after entering the war, military leaders weren't convinced the military dog could be of any benefit in a war without trenches. In fact, it took an aggressive civilian group, Dogs for Defense, to prod the military into working with quality dogs (donated by owners and breeders) and train under experienced, volunteer dog trainers.
Within months, dogs were guarding civilian war plants and quartermaster depots. The experimental program soon expanded to include trained sentry, patrol, messenger, and mine-detection dogs.
The Marine Devil Dogs of World War II are often remembered as Doberman pinschers; however, three German shepherds were members of the First Marine Dog Platoon. In fact, a large male German shepherd in this platoon, Caesar, carried the first war-dog message in a conflict in the Pacific.
The United States initially used more than thirty breeds for military work, but by the fall of 1942, the list was pared down to seven breeds, with the German shepherd a number-one choice. One service branch, the coast guard, used only female German shepherds on their beach patrols.
The tasks that the German shepherd was asked to perform during World War II were very similar to those assigned in World War I. There were a few unusual positions, such as the British “para pups” — military dogs that were trained to parachute with England's airborne army and SAS units. The dogs also helped the soldiers detect the enemy while working behind enemy lines.
One shepherd, Brian, was attached to a British parachute battalion that landed in Normandy. Later, Great Britain awarded Brian the Dickin Medal for gallantry and devotion to duty. Brian also became a fully qualified paratrooper based on his number of successful jumps.
The German shepherd's name has changed many times throughout the centuries around the world. For example, during World War II, the German shepherd was referred to as the Alsatian Wolf Dog in England and as the Shepherd Dog in the United States.
Though the German shepherd served valiantly on both sides during World War II, the massive loss of canine life in Germany was devastating. Fortunately, those who loved these dogs showed the same courage, ingenuity, and tenacity as their beloved breed. German breeders, as well as those in Great Britain, other parts of Europe, and the United States, once again helped the German shepherd rise above adversity.
Post-World War II
After hostilities ceased, the American military downsized its military dog program and found itself with thousands of war dogs without jobs. The dogs were shipped back to the United States and returned to their original owners. If the owners were deceased, the reactivated Dogs for Defense assisted in placing the dogs in homes. Dogs for Defense received more than 17,000 requests to adopt roughly 3,000 homeless war dogs. Of all those placed in homes, only four were reportedly returned due to inappropriate behavior.
In 1951, when aggression broke out in Korea, U.S. scout-dog platoons were called into action. The dogs, primarily German shepherds, were extremely successful. One shepherd, York, was given a distinguished service award for performing 148 combat patrols.
From 1960 to 1975, German shepherds served in the U.S. military, primarily as patrol and sentry dogs. In 1965, the first military dogs and handlers were sent to Vietnam. Five years later, when American troops were returning home, military dog handlers were told that their dogs — who had served so valiantly beside them — could not return. It is estimated that the number of dogs left in Vietnam numbered more than 1,000, with fewer than 120 dogs making it back to the states. (The U.S. Marine Corps did find ways to bring back all their dogs.)
The forced abandonment of dogs in Vietnam so affected dog handlers that they banded together to prevent this from happening again. Today, no dog is left behind, and rather than euthanizing dogs once they are too old to serve, the military is working to place these valuable dogs with experienced dog handlers and their families.
Today's military dog is multifaceted. Some German shepherds are trained as patrol dogs, whereas others work primarily as narcotics and/or explosives detection dogs. Due to the breed's versatility and ability to understand the commands and body language of several different handlers, the German shepherd will likely remain one of the military's chief resources.