The Vietnam War was an era unto itself. It was an unpopular war. Those who served were tainted by the My Lai massacre, and all were labeled as baby killers. Due to the openness of military operations, and the misinformation and misdirection presented by the upper echelon, the media had a field day. Even the use of War Dogs, and the conflicting stories surrounding the end game of their deployment, meant these K-9 heroes were Dead On Arrival in Vietnam.
Military Working Dogs (MWDs) were approved for deployment in Vietnam in March 1965. By July of that same year, the first 40 dogs with their handlers were on station in Tan Son Nhut, Ben Hoa, and DaNang. By September 1966, that number was increased to 500 MWDs with twice that number in handlers dispersed over 10 U.S. military bases. From 1965 to 1973, there were as many as 5,000 MWDs with their handlers, Veterinarians and Vet Techs. The War Dogs were trained to fulfill five different functions demanded throughout all branched of the military.
The five obligatory functions required specialized training for each group of MWDs. Some of the dogs fulfilled similar roles, but dedicated tasks kept these animals on point for their jobs. The dogsí roles were as follows:
Scout Dogs -- If one would ask the Infantry, these were the true War Dogs. These dogs were all German Shepherds, and due to the job they performed, they suffered the greatest number of losses. Their job, along with their handler, was to walk point. Point means you patrol ahead of the rest of the platoon to be the first to detect and encounter; enemy movement or ambushes, booby traps, land mines, underground tunnels, base camps, and cashes of food, weapons, and medical supplies. These dogs provided silent early warnings.
Tracker Dogs -- These dogs were either black or yellow Labrador Retrievers. The team consisted of one dog with three or four handlers. The MWD had excellent tracking skills. Once the enemy was engaged and then fled, a Tracker Team was brought in along with a larger infantry force. The Tracker Team would trace the enemyís scents and blood trails for reengagement.
Sentry/Patrol Dogs -- These dogs were only German Shepherds, and worked with a variety of handlers. They were the first line of perimeter defense around strategic military facilities. These MWDs were so effective that in their first 1 Ĺ year of use, not a single Viet Cong Sapper (sabotage specialist) penetrated a Sentry Dog guarded facility.
Mine/Tunnel Dogs-- The dog and its handler worked with Combat Engineer Units. The MWDs were trained to detect and locate underground tunnels complexes, mines, and booby traps in and around roadways, bridges, and buildings.
Water Patrol Dogs -- The Navy chose to use mostly water breed dogs. The MWDs were utilized on slow trolling patrol boats. The dogs alerted on the scent of the enemyís breath, from underwater divers using reeds, snorkels, and other breathing apparatus. The dogs saved lives and reduced underwater sabotage.
The MWD Teams were so effective in their performance of their duty that the Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army placed a bounty on the War Dog Teams. One could say they were wanted Dead or Alive, but preferable dead.
As an infantryman with the 1/46 of the196th Infantry Brigade, this authorís platoon had the opportunity to work with a Scout Dog Team on several occasions in 1971. Prior to the handler and his dog working with us, we received the following instructions:
*Do not approach within 20 feet of the dog or the handler. Let the handler approach you.
*Do not attempt to pet or feed the dog.
*Do not address the dog in any way.
*If the handler is wounded and needs a medic, kill the dog.
*If the handler is KIA, kill the dog.
The handler and the dog worked silently. The handler communicated with the MWD through a series of hand signals, and the MWD communicated with the handler through a variety of signals such as head, ear, and tail movements, sitting and lying, and even the bristling of the fur on the dogís neck. The MWDís training must have involved severe punishment for failure because the dogs seemed very nervous during work time, and tired within 30 to 60 minutes. This meant we could only use the dog team first thing in the morning, and again in the late afternoon. The handler and the dog were inseparable; they lived together, slept together, ate together, and played together.
In conversations with a couple of the handlers, they related the fact that the MWDs would be killed when they (the handlers) rotated back to the United States. One said it was because the dogs carried diseases not found in the U.S.A. and the risk was too great to allow them to return. The other handler told me the dogs had to be killed by order of the World Health Organization. There are many stories like this that circulated among the handlers.
The most likely scenario is that it was not cost effective to ship the dogs back to the U.S. and have them retrained. The MWDs were reclassified as military equipment which would make them disposable. A few of them were transferred to the South Vietnam Army, but they did not want them. Some of the dogs were transferred to military posts outside the U.S., and very few actually made it to the States. The rest were euthanized. Thousands of War Dogs were shipped to Vietnam, and utilized to serve and protect our troops. Little did they know, they were Dead On Arrival.