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A French sergeant and his dog wear gas masks on their way to the front lines in World War I. With their sensitive noses, dogs were able to recognize gas attacks and bark a warning to troops in the trenches before humans could smell the chemicals.


Dog Held Hostage by Taliban Part of Long Line of Combat Canines

For centuries, dogs have gone to war. But it's rare to hear of a canine held hostage by the enemy.

The dog is surrounded by Taliban fighters. Its eyes dart back and forth. Its tail wags tentatively. It is a military dog that apparently belonged to Western forces in Afghanistan and is being held hostage. A video of the dog, surrounded by gun-toting Taliban, has surfaced this week.

It appears that the dog was deployed by British forces. The dog's name and gender are not certain but its breed is believed to be Belgian Malinois, known for being fearless, driven, and able to handle the heat, making it especially well suited for places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The Malinois is often used by U.S. Special Operations troops, typically trained to detect explosives or narcotics.

The military does not typically report on dogs that may have been taken hostage. But there was an instance that made headlines during World War II. A British ship's dog, named Judy, was captured by the Japanese and registered as a prisoner of war. Despite being sentenced to death, the pure-bred pointer survived and returned to England, where she was awarded a medal "for magnificent courage and endurance." Her barks were broadcast on the BBC.

Dogs have played a key role in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military has had a force as large as 2,500 dogs. Some breeds are better suited than others for combat. Some wither in the heat or struggle with gunfire or explosions, even after they've been desensitized to them in training. Some are too loyal, too lazy, or too playful.

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In the U.S., it was Benjamin Franklin who reportedly first encouraged the use of dogs in conflict, in this case against the Indians. "[They] will confound the enemy," he wrote, "and be very serviceable. This was the Spanish method of guarding their marches." (Spanish conquistadors were said to have used bullmastiffs against the Native Americans.)

During the Second Seminole War of 1835, the U.S. military employed 33 Cuban-bred bloodhounds to track Indians in the swamps of Florida. Dogs were used as messengers in the Civil War and scouts during the 1898 Spanish American War.

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German troops take cover with a dog during World War I.

During World War I, thousands of dogs were used as messengers. In World War II, U.S. Marines deployed dogs on Pacific islands to sniff out hidden Japanese positions, and as many as 5,000 canines were used to lead jungle patrols in Vietnam, saving an estimated 10,000 lives.

Canine Heroes

Today, military working dogs (or MWDs) have entered our national narrative as heroes in their own right. The most visible are known by their mononyms—Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, who was hailed for his work with the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden. Or Rex, a German shepherd, whose handler, Mike Dowling, wrote a book about their harrowing exploits in Iraq, saying, "It was Rex who gave me the strength to get up and to carry on."

This bond, of course, is the mythic essence of our fascination with these teams: The human reliance on superior animal senses (dogs have 220 million olfactory receptors to our five million); the seriousness of the endeavor in contrast to the dog's naive joy in being on the hunt; the selflessness and loyalty of trainer and dog in putting themselves in harm's way—one wittingly and one unwittingly—in order to save lives.

The image of dog and soldier living together like Lassie and Timmy, however, is not entirely accurate. If anything, dog handlers do their best to abide by the military's edict that a working dog is just another piece of equipment.

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U.S. Marines and a combat dog evacuate in Vietnam.

"Dogs are like toddlers," says Gunnery Sergeant Kristopher Knight, previously one of the military's top dog trainers. "They need to be told what to do. They need to know that their primary drives—oxygen, food and water—are taken care of. Two betas will never get it right. One must be the alpha, and it must be the handler."

Updated 2/21/14.