Every November 11, our nation honors the brave men and women who went to war to defend our country. The DogWatch team joins in this salute, and thanks all veterans for their courageous service. In honor of this important day, DogTails is devoting this week’s post to the subject of veterans. With so many heroes to praise, we turn our attention to the subject we know best: dogs.

Dogs have played an important role in the United States military since the early 1800s. These service dogs have many roles, both on the battlefield and off. They are messengers, trackers, scouts, guards and even mascots. A wide variety of breeds – including German shepherds, pit bulls, St. Bernards, retrievers, blood hounds and even Yorkies – have been chosen based on their abilities and suitability for service.

With so many dogs serving over the years in various capacities, we cannot possibility fit all of their history into one post. So we’ve chosen a few remarkable examples of canine combatants, in an effort to show the important ways they helped the brave soldiers they stood beside each day.

In World War Two, the U.S. government recruited pet dogs for aid in the Pacific front. Thousands of dogs, many of them German shepherds, collies and doberman pinschers, were recruited for service, with the understanding that they would return home after the war. The best-selling author Susan Orlean wrote about these civilian pet recruits in her book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, and appeared on the popular radio show “This American Life” in 2012 to discuss this program. You can listen to the fascinating story here. (Note: This story includes some of the graphic realities of war.)

The dogs served many roles during the war, including some who were trained as scouts, using their keen sense of smell and hearing to alert their handlers of dangers ahead. Cap. William Putney, a commanding officer of one of the “Dog Platoons” who fought in the battle for Guam in 1944, wrote that the dogs “saved hundreds of lives, including my own.” After the war, the surviving dogs were retrained and returned to their homes and their former families.

These WWII dogs paved the way for the increased number of Dog Platoons during the Vietnam War. It is estimated that the dogs and their handlers averted more than 10,000 casualties. In all, over 4,000 dogs served in the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, only 200 dogs came home from the war. Some of the surviving dogs who did not return were euthanized or left in Vietnam, despite the protests of their handlers.

In the years following the war, the dogs’ handlers wanted to thank the dogs who worked alongside them and helped protect them and thousands of others. The veterans worked to establish a War Dog Memorial at the March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, CA, and at four other locations. They also pushed for legislation to create an adoption program for war dogs. President Clinton signed that legislation into law in 2000, ensuring the dogs now serving will have a home when they have finished their battlefield jobs.

In the past decade, thousands more dogs have served alongside U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. These dogs, known as Military Working Dogs (MWD), are specially selected and go through five months of training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX. The most common breeds of MWDs are Belgian Malinois and German shepherds. One of the primary tasks that modern war dogs perform is explosive detection. To see photos of some of these dogs and their handlers both on the battlefield and back home, click here to view this slideshow from The Atlantic.

In addition to their work in combat, dogs also perform a crucial role helping soldiers once they have returned home from war. Dogs assist veterans with physical and mental health challenges. Canine Companions for Independence is one of many non-profit groups that trains assistance dogs to help wounded veterans gain their independence back.

Thanks to the efforts of decades of war dog handlers and their allies, more and more of these dogs are finding homes at the end of their careers. Some dogs even return home to live with their former handlers, continuing the bond they forged while at war.

Again, thank you to all of the men and women – and dogs – who served our country so bravely. We salute you.

Image credit: “Honoring military working dogs” by The U.S. Army is licensed under CC BY 2.0.