War Dogs in Vietnam

Lance Corporal Ralph H. McWilliams and his scout dog, Major, Vietnam, November 1967
Lance Corporal Ralph H. McWilliams and his scout dog Major, Vietnam, November 1967.

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Military Dogs during the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War saw a big increase in the use of dogs in direct combat roles. Jungle patrols were very limited in what the soldiers could see and hear, even more so at night. Their dogs were invaluable in extending the senses by the much superior canine ability in hearing, smell and signt.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army Infantry Center, Headquarters Detachment Scout Dog (at Ft. Benning, GA) supervised handlers and dogs for the scout dog training program with two attached platoons, the 26th Infantry Platoon (Scout Dog) and the 51st Infantry Platoon (Scout Dog). The 51st IPSD was later split to equip and man the newly activated 58th Infantry Platoon (Scout Dog). The 58th deployed to Vietnam in February 1968.

Scout dogs were trained for jungle combat in a twelve week course that started with obedience and then taught voice and body signals. They were trained to alert differently for the scent of a living person or an inamimate but unfamiliar object. There was specialized training for daytime or night scouting, detecting tunnels, mines, trip wires and booby traps, and guard duty.

Some dogs were specialists in one skill while others were cross-trained to perform in multiple tasks. (See War Dog Roles and Duties for more details.) Dogs were used for detecting enemy infiltrations into airfields and base camps, alerting on snipers and ambushes, sniffing out hidden enemy base camps, locating enemy underground tunnel complexes, and finding hidden caches of enemy weapons, food, and medical supplies.

As one example, in 1966-67 Police Field Force K-9 teams accompanied joint U.S. and Vietnamese units conducting cordon and search operations in Military Region IV (photo, right showing part of team composed of six Police Field Force members and a security element of men from the 199th light Infantry Brigade). After the military unit had cordoned off the area, the police entered the hamlet, checking the identification cards of all inhabitants as well as making a complete search, assisted by dogs, of the area for tunnels, personnel, weapons, and supplies. A representative of the Combined Intelligence Staff accompanied the unit on these operations and provided photographs of Viet Cong as well as the blacklists for the district concerned. Offenders were arrested, and the remainder were released.

Vietnam K-9 units, the dogs and their handlers, were credited with saving thousands of lives in the war. There are countless stories of how the dogs prevented an ambush, discovered deadly mines or booby traps, or sounded the alarm against infiltrators. (See Famous War Dogs for some Vietnam stories.) These dogs were so effective that the VC offered bounties for killing military working dogs and their handlers.

Three to four thousand scout and sentry dogs served in Vietnam, largely German Shepherds. Sadly, at the end of the conflict, in a decision that remains painful decades later, most of the in-country dogs were euthanized. Fewer than 250 dogs were returned to the United States or other locations.

Recommended Book about War Dogs in Vietnam

Video about War Dogs in Vietnam

In 1999, the Discovery Channel program War Dogs , about Military Working Dogs in Vietnam, was released on video. It is available from Amazon by clicking the link.

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