Royal Ulster Constabulary officers with police dogs intervene in a sectarian fight between Protestants and Catholics in Keady, Northern Ireland in August, 1986.
Dogs have protected us since they first started joining hunting parties and hanging around our campfires thousands of years ago. These days, dogs are an important part of law enforcement. K-9 units track and apprehend suspects, do sentry duty, carry messages, check for drugs and explosives, and perform search and rescue missions. Here’s a timeline of dedicated (and sometimes deputized) dogs:
Art and sculpture shows that the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Greeks used dogs in warfare to repel enemies. The early dogs of war were often equipped with scary spiked collars. The Roman Legions used large dogs (similar to mastiffs) for sentry work, carrying cargo, and battle.
The first recorded use of dogs in police work was in St. Malo, France, where they guarded dock installations. In medieval times, dogs wore coats of armor or mail, defended troops and supplies, and went into battle (some of them trained to attack horses).
The origin of the first modern police dog: the London Metropolitan Police used bloodhounds to search for Jack the Ripper in 1888.
Police in Ghent, Belgium, formally started training dogs for police work.
Germany had police dogs in over 600 large cities.
World War I
Germany alone placed some 30,000 service dogs in the battlefields. An estimated 4,000 dogs were killed in action during this war.
South London introduced two specially trained Labrador Retrievers to accompany bobbies on patrol.
World War II
In the years before the war, Germany had begun to build a canine force. By 1939, the Nazis had an estimated 50,000 dogs (German Shepards, Pinschers, Sheepdogs, and Rottweilers) specially trained as pack-carriers, first-aid scouts, messengers, as well as reconnaissance and fighting. The U.S. military appointed a “Dogs for Defense” agency to find and train dogs for sentry, attack, messenger, scout, and casualty duties. During the London Blitz, dogs were trained to search for survivors at bomb sites.
American troops used dogs to clear caves and tunnels of Vietcong forces, as well as to find booby traps and mines.
Dogs began to be common in U.S. law enforcement. In some departments, dogs even have their own badges. Assaulting, injuring, or killing a canine officer carries the same penalties as the same crimes carried out against human officers. Dogs killed in the line of duty may be afforded a complete police funeral, including a bagpipe tribute.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) announced a new award, the AKC Paws of Courage medal, to honor working dogs who put their lives on the line and were killed or severely injured in the line of duty. The 2017 honorees were four valiant German Shepards: Aren (stabbed and killed during apprehension of a suspect), Jethro (shot investigating an alarm at a store), Patrick (became severely ill during explosives training), and 12-year-old Tryko, who was stabbed in the mouth, suffering lacerations and blood loss. He recovered in about a month and returned to work. On June 6, 2017 Bretagne, a 16-year-old Golden Retriever, became the last of the search dogs used at Ground Zero on 9/11 to pass away (due to kidney failure, among other ailments). She also worked as a searcher after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ivan. Firefighters lined the path to the animal hospital and saluted as Bretagne was walked in and then when her flag-draped body was carried out.
For information on how you can help these working dogs, check out Project Paws Alive, a nonprofit that provides lifesaving bullet-proof vests, first aid kits, vehicle heat alarms, and cooling vests to law enforcement. Dogs for Law Enforcement (DLE) is a nonprofit raising money for training that can help prevent Police Canine Teams from being injured or killed in the line of duty. The National Police Canine Association (NPCA) is a nonprofit offering training and certification.
Dogs usually retire and live with their handlers but if you’re interested in adopting, contact your local police department or K9 officer training facility for information.
For more on the dog breeds that help law enforcement, read our post Who’s a Good Boy (or Girl)?
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(Image: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)