The real dogs of war

By Jess Teideman 7 November 2013
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Until recently, war service dogs awarded the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross hardly ever came home.

FOR DECADES OF GLOBAL conflict, four-legged diggers have served alongside Australia’s troops — and most were not returned home.

Stories continue to surface about the unending loyalty of a dog to its human pack. The Australian War Memorial in Canberra has started to catalogue these stories, along with other records of animal acts of bravery, for an upcoming exhibition, ‘A is for Animals’.

Australian Military forces enlisted the help of man’s best friend during World War I when German shepherds were given the task of watching over valuable military equipment. In Vietnam, the Australian Task Force included dogs in combat tracker teams. Their mission was to search the jungle for the enemy, and eleven were left behind, as it was against policy to return a service animal to Australia.

A dog’s keen sense of smell aided our soldiers in detecting mines, in a similar fashion to the bomb detector dogs of today. They were often used to search for and aid the wounded. During World War II specially designed gas masks were made for the canine division.

In 1943, a special medal was created to honour the dogs who have fought and fallen in combat. 18 canine comrades have so far been awarded the Dickin Medal — the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross — for their acts of heroism and bravery. The medal, a bronze medallion that bears the words ‘For Gallantry’, was first received by three pigeons that served in the Royal Air Force during WWII. White Vision, Winkie and Tyke were honoured for delivering messages that contributed to the rescue of a ditched aircrew.

Today, more than 10 breeds of dog have found a place within our armed forces. The most common are the German and Belgian shepherds, the labrador and the Aussie mutt. The troops that currently inhabit Afghanistan have even adopted dogs as mascots for their Battalion. Sabi, a black labrador trained in explosives detection, made headlines with her recovery after spending 14 months MIA.

So what makes the canine useful in the art of war? A dog’s qualities of loyalty, intelligence and devotion are highly valued in their role as pets, and these traits are also attractive to the armed forces. Among their many duties, our enlisted buddies have helped carry messages through the trenches, laid telephone wire, and carried ammunition and medical equipment from place to place.

There are some heart-warming stories of Aussie service dogs that have been smuggled home. As more stories surface and international news channels pay tribute to heart-warming war-dog stories, hopefully more of these military mutts will find secure homes, post-service.