German Shepherd Canines in the Military: an Abbreviated Historical Survey

The legacy of German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs) in the military is one of intelligence, loyalty, and bravery. From their origins as working dogs in the German Army to their vital roles in both World Wars, GSDs have demonstrated their exceptional capabilities.

This article provides a glimpse into the remarkable history of these canine heroes in military service.

How the German Shepherd Breed Came to Be and the First Tests

Captain Max von Stephanitz of the German Army made the German Shepherd Dog (GSD) into a working dog between 1899 and 1914. Stephanitz worked for many years to make sure that his dogs had the intelligence, loyalty, determination, and tenacity that the military and police needed. Stephanitz gave these new dogs to German police departments to show how good they were. This was the first K9 Corps.

During this trial time with the German police, these new dogs showed a lot of promise in areas like obedience, tracking, and protection. Stephanitz thought that the German army could also use these dogs. After these early tests with the German Police, Stephanitz tried to get GSDs added to the German Military. Stephanitz and his new German Shepherd Dogs couldn’t have picked a better time to get them.

World War I

German Shepherd Dogs started working for the German military at the start of World War I in 1914. They did a lot of different things on the battlefield and inside the German Army. These new dogs were used as guards, messengers, and people who carried ammo. They showed how good they were at helping hurt troops on the battlefield. They even led soldiers who were hurt or blind off the battlefield and to safety and medical help. This last thing the new breed did led to the first seeing-eye dog, which is a very important job that the GSD still does today.

Soldiers on both sides of the war were at first amused by the use of dogs on the battlefield, but they soon became amazed. They saw these new dogs do many brave things in difficult and dangerous situations. Soldiers were so pleased with how well the dogs did their jobs that after the war, the Germans, the Americans, and the English all started to train their own German Shepherd Dogs for use in the military. When World War II broke out in 1939, GSDs would be put to the test again.

World War II

During WWII, the Germans used GSDs again, and the U.S. also started to use them. Most of the time, U.S. GSDs were used as messengers to help forces talk to each other on the battlefield. During the war, GSDs were also used as guards and to find people who were lost. All of these jobs were done well by the GSDs. This led to a lot of K-9 training camps being set up, where GSDs started training regularly to join the U.S. Military.

Starting in August 1942, the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps set up dog training schools in Front Royal, VA, Fort Robinson, NE, Cat Island (Gulfport), MS, Camp Rimini (Helena), MT, and San Carlos, CA. At first, the K-9 Corps would train 32 different kinds of dogs.

By 1944, though, the military had cut the list down to seven dogs: German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Siberian huskies, farm collies, Eskimo dogs, and Malamutes. The only breed on that list that is still trained by the U.S. Military today is the German Shepherd Dog (GSD). Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retrievers are two new breeds that are being trained and used as Military Working Dogs (MWDs).

Formal Training

The “basic training” that dogs got at these K-9 Camps, which ran between 8 and 12 weeks, helped them get used to life in the military. After the first twelve weeks of training, the dogs would go on to a more advanced course of training in one of four areas: Training for a sentry dog, a scout or patrol dog, a messenger dog, or a dog that can find mines.

After the dogs and their masters passed the specialized training, they would be put into groups called “War Dog Platoons.” During World War II, the military sent 15 War Dog Platoons to the European Theater of War and the Pacific Theater of War. Seven served in the European Theater, and eight served in the Pacific Theater. People say that when a War Dog Platoon was on patrol in the Pacific Theater, no units were ever ambushed because of the K-9s that were part of those groups. During WWII, many of the dogs that were taught and sent to war were German Shepherd Dogs.

The Korean War

After World War II, the military stopped and shut down most of the War Dog Programs because nobody was interested and they didn’t have enough money. The 26th Scout Dog Platoon, on the other hand, stayed mostly together and moved from Front Royal, Virginia to Fort Riley, Kansas in 1948. On December 7, 1951, it was decided that the Military Police Corps would be in charge of teaching dogs. The 26th Scout Dog Platoon went back to Colorado, this time to Fort Carson.

During the Korean War, the only active War Dog Platoon was the 26th Scout Dog Platoon. From June 12, 1951, to June 26, 1953, it served with honor and glory in Korea. Three Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars for Valor, and thirty-five Bronze Stars for good service were given to platoon members. In General Order No. 21, issued on February 27, 1953, the Department of the Army accepted what the platoon had done.

Scout Dog York (011X), who was part of the 26th Infantry Scout Dog Platoon in Korea, did a great job. York went on 148 battle patrols. The last one was the day before the Armistice was signed, which ended the war for good. The War Dog Training Center moved from Fort Carson, Colorado, to Fort Benning, Georgia, on July 1, 19571.


During the early stages of the Vietnam War, German Shepherds were mostly used as guard dogs on Air Force bases. But as the war got worse, the US Marine Corps made a deal with the US Army so that the Army could train German Shepherds to be spy dogs. This would be the first time the Marines had used spy dogs since World War II. In February 1966, two Marine platoons of spy dogs were sent to Vietnam.

The Marines kept their dogs at Camp Kaiser, which was near Da Nang. The camp was named after the first Marine spy dog to die in Vietnam. When the 25th IPSD arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in June 1966, the first Army scout dog platoon was sent there. Twenty-two Army Scout Dog Platoons, including the 47th IPSD, and four Marine Scout Dog Platoons were sent to Vietnam between the end of 1965 and the beginning of 1969.

Dogs Are Comrades, Not Equipment

During the Vietnam War, more than 9,000 handlers and 4,000 dogs fought. The end of the dogs’ lives after the war, however, is a sad and shameful part of our military’s past. At the time, the military saw the dogs as tools, and after the war, they got rid of them in the most cost-effective way possible. The dogs were given to the South Vietnamese troops, but they didn’t want them and didn’t know what to do with them. In the worst case, they were killed or left to fend for themselves. One of the worst and most shameful things that could have happened to the beautiful and brave dogs who had helped our soldiers on the battlefield.

A lot of people were upset by this sad event. In reaction, the military promised that they would not get rid of military working dogs in the same way again. In the end, Congress passed a law that lets service dogs retire with respect. In November 2000, Clinton signed H.R. 5314, a bill that changed Title 10 of the US Code. This made it possible for former military handlers and other qualified people to adopt retired military working dogs.

Now, these service dogs who saved people’s lives can finally look forward to a happy and comfortable retirement.

Author’s Note:

A former Vietnam MWD Handler here at MWDTSA says that GSDs worked both as Scout Dogs and as Mine & Tunnel dogs in Vietnam. IHS fever made the US troops decide not to bring GSDs home, since it affected most US-bred dogs, including GSDs. All dog groups except the AF were disbanded after Vietnam. Due to the “overbreeding” of American GSDs, the AF started to favor the Malinois and even started a breeding program for them.

German Shepherd Dogs: 9/11 and Beyond

German Shepherd Dogs have been a part of the US Military’s Military Working Dog program since the end of the Vietnam War, through the Cold War, and into today’s world of global terrorism and asymmetric dangers. A recent article in the New York Times said, “German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are the most common breeds of dogs used by military operators because they have the best overall combination of strong sense of smell, endurance, speed, strength, courage, intelligence, and ability to adapt to almost any weather condition.”

There are about 600 dog teams in the Army right now. They have served in Iraq and Afghanistan3. Since the K-9 Corps was made, these dogs’ bravery and loyalty have saved lives and kept people from getting hurt.

German Shepherds make up a lot of these teams, and they have many jobs and responsibilities. Today, German Shepherds are used by Special Operators to do HALO jumps and by Navy SEAL Teams to get in from boats. These dogs are still important members of our military and guards of our freedom who show a lot of patriotism.

German Shepherd Dogs will probably be a part of our troops for a long time to come. They have done a great job in a lot of different wars and battles around the world. If you happen to meet an MWD team, thank them for their service to our country.


German Shepherd Dogs have etched their pawprints in military history, showcasing unwavering dedication and valor. Their service during World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and beyond has saved countless lives.

Today, GSDs continue to stand as steadfast defenders in modern conflicts, embodying the essence of courage and patriotism. Let us honor and appreciate these extraordinary companions who have stood by our troops’ side with unwavering loyalty.

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