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Paw Prints in the Field: The History of K9 Veterans

Military Working Dogs

Military members stand at attention as the service flags are raised at the U.S. Military Working Dog Teams National Monument Oct. 28, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. JBSA-Lackland is the home to the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program and is where the U.S. Armed Forces has been training its military working dog teams since 1958. It is the world's largest training center for military dogs and handlers and is also home to the largest veterinary hospital for military working dogs.

Military Working Dogs

Senior Airman Jordan Fuller, 802nd Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler, and his MWD, Rocco, perform maneuvers Feb. 23, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Medina Annex. Handlers regularly practice obedience training with their working dogs to increase their team cohesiveness.

Military Working Dogs

U.S. Air Force Security Forces military working dog handlers take part in the Air Education and Training Command Defender Challenge team tryout at Joint Base San Antonio-Medina Annex, Texas, Jan. 28, 2020. The five-day selection camp includes a physical fitness test, M-9 and M-4 weapons firing, the alpha warrior obstacle course, a ruck march and also includes a military working dog tryout as well. A total of 27 Airmen, including five MWD handlers and their canine partners, were invited to tryout for the team. The seven selectees to the AETC team will represent the First Command at the career field’s world-wide competition that will be held at JBSA-Camp Bullis in May 2020.


Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland is known as the hub for U.S. Military Working Dog training for all of the armed forces. The kennels on JBSA-Lackland and JBSA-Chapman Training Annex are where each dog gets their start. But the history of military working dogs begins even further back than Lackland.

“It’s believed that Egyptians used them in battle as early as 4000 B.C.,” wrote Lisa Rogak in her book The Dogs of War. “Some accounts report Egyptian soldiers using dogs to carry messages tucked into their collars, while other tribal warlords trained dogs to both patrol and attack the enemy.”

It wasn’t only Africans that were benefiting from working dogs on the battlefield, though. In Europe, people had recognized the value of dogs in the military as well.

“The Romans used them,” said Tracy English, 37th Training Wing historian. “Actually, going back before the Romans, depending on the type of dog, [the British] would put spikes on their collars and the dogs would be the first to run right into the group of ‘bad guys’ per se. And with the spikes on, they were taking out calves and ankles. And the dogs were vicious because after that, they’re going after jugulars.” 

“Dogs are invaluable,” said Kenneth Neal, JBSA-Lackland Security Forces Museum docent and former Air Force K9 handler. “The best thing anyone can have with them in combat is a dog. They are what is called a force multiplier, meaning that the dog is taking the place of people that normally would perform other duties, but the dog is doing all those other people’s work.”

“Currently, U.S. forces utilize military working dogs in a variety of professions such as security, law enforcement, combat tracking, and detection (i.e., for explosives and narcotics),” wrote Nolan A. Watson in the Borden Institute’s 2019 historical book,  Military Veterinary Services. 

“The amount of training that we put into this is night and day compared to what we had before,” English said. “They have an obstacle course for dogs jumping over barrels and walls and what not. There are facilities that look like warehouses from the outside, but if you go inside, they have rooms that were built like a small office. And if they're training a dog to sniff a bomb, they'll hide that chemical compound somewhere in the room and they train the dog to walk and sniff everything.”

Canine veterans have been invaluable in international conflicts for centuries. But of course, they win a lot more than foreign battles. Dogs win your heart, Neal said.

“A dog is family, you know,” Neal said, very seriously. “I had some bad times during my career and I talked to my dog and I felt better. The dogs don't judge you. They love you. You can do almost anything and the dog will come right back to you and sit in your lap, nuzzle up and say, ‘Scratch my ears!’”

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