Thursday, June 30, 2011

Messenger Dogs: Soldiers in the Great War

An Australian officer saw one for the first time on the Aisne in June 1918:

“He was coming from the front-line trenches—a little Welsh terrier. The ground was in a terrible condition and absolutely waterlogged. The little creature was running for all he was worth, hopping, jumping, plunging, all with the most obvious concentration of purpose. I could not imagine what he was doing until he came near and I saw the bulging collar. I had heard about the message collars. As the dog sped past I could not help but notice the terribly earnest expression on his face.”

Captain von Stephanitz said that dogs could cover five kilometers in a quarter of an hour, and described one dog near Peronne that lost a hind leg while carrying a message but completed the assignment on three legs before dropping dead.  

World War I

Electronics have largely made messenger dogs obsolete, so it takes some imagination to realize the importance of this assignment for war dogs in prior times. During the First World War, the messenger dog was the most elite canine servant along every front, and those armies that used them significantly limited their human casualties.

Although using dogs as message carriers was known from antiquity, Edwin H. Richardson exaggerates only slightly in saying that messenger dogs were particularly a product of the Great War, and Richardson devotes almost half of the nearly 300 pages of his book, British War Dogs, to describing the training and use of messenger dogs by the English, French, and German armies.

The typical messenger dog was taught to return to his handler, whom Richardson calls a “keeper.” Training was based on what Richardson called the dog’s homing instinct. If it were desired to have a message delivered from a forward station to battalion headquarters in the rear, the handler and the dog would go to battalion headquarters, then the dog would be taken to a station near the front by another soldier unfamiliar to the dog. When the message for headquarters was ready, it would be put in the dog’s collar and the dog released to return to his keeper at headquarters.

That was the most common type of messenger dog. A liaison dog, which took about twice as long to train, recognized two handlers, and could be directed by either to return to the other. These dogs could be sent back and forth continually between the front to battalion headquarters. Although Richardson trained some liaison dogs, he noted that this “more difficult system” entailed “a considerably greater wastage of life, both among the men themselves and the dogs, as the position of the keeper in the front line is fraught with risk, and the dogs are also required to run a double journey over the danger area.” The Germans, having more dogs trained for messenger work, and having devoted more time to training them going back to the period before the war, made greater use of liaison dogs.

Edwin H. Richardson

Lieutenant Colonel Edwin H. Richardson was not a shy man and portrays himself as fighting for years against institutional ignorance about the value of war dogs. Even before the war, he states that “I was the sole person who took any interest in trained dogs for the army and police, and the outflow from my kennels constituted the only source of supply.“

When World War I began, Richardson tried to persuade the powers that be to let him train sentry dogs, already known to be in use by the Germans. His idea having been rejected, he began training ambulance dogs, but this came to little because the Germans did not respect “the inviolability of the sacred symbol of the Red Cross, whether on man or beast, hospital or ship.” Also, the nature of the Great War was that it involved little movement, often only glacial change in the positions of the front lines, which did not suit ambulance dogs that could be used primarily in finding the wounded after a battlefield was controlled. Richardson concedes that the “only ambulance dogs that were used with any success were those with the German army when the Russians were retreating on the Eastern front.”

British Messenger Dogs

Although the Germans had been using messenger dogs since the opening of the war, it was not until 1916 that Richardson was asked if he could train dogs to carry messages between an “outpost and the battery, during heavy bombardment, when telephones are rendered useless, and the risk to runners is enormous.”

In his book about dogs in World War I, Richardson expresses his enthusiasm for the idea of using dogs as messengers, but in his earlier book, War, Police and Watch Dogs, published in 1910, he had been far more skeptical:

"There is a system of canine service used to a certain extent in the German Army, but personally I am not greatly in favour of it. The idea is to train the dogs to run to and fro with dispatches carried in a small case on the neck; but my experience tends to show that too much is expected of the dog, and although dogs are found that are sufficiently intelligent to discriminate direction under very difficult circumstancdes, still the result is too uncertain, and the teaching partakes too much of the trick-training to be of practical value."

Despite such earlier reservations, Richardson began teaching two Airedales, his favorite breed, Wolf and Prince, teaching them to carry messages homeward for two miles. Sent to the Royal Field Artillery, 56th Brigade, the commanding officer soon sent an exuberant report describing how the dogs had run from the front during an attack to brigade headquarters, “travelling a distance as the crow flies of 4,000 yards over ground they had never seen before and over an exceptionally difficult terrain.” The dogs, released two hours apart, each took under an hour to carry their messages over the two and a half miles of the battlefield.

More dogs were immediately requisitioned. Richardson and his wife opened a dog school at Shoeburyness and began training men and dogs in courses lasting five weeks, after which they were sent to war zones. Richardson goes into considerable detail about the training system he developed. He found that the selection of the handler (keeper) was even more important than the dog. Prior experience was not necessarily useful because the training of messenger dogs was “so different from every other kind of dog work that practically anything that a man has learned before about dogs has to be forgotten before he is qualified to be trained himself, and to train others.”

Richardson considered patience an essential quality in a trainer, and dismissed any trainer or handler who was incapable of working gently with the dogs:

“Coercion is of no avail, for of what use would this be when the dog is two or three miles away from its keeper? In fact, it may be said that the whole training is based on appeal. To this end the dog is gently taught to associate everything pleasant with its working hours. Under no circumstances whatever must it be roughly handled or roughly spoken to. If it makes a mistake, or is slack in its work when being trained, it is never chastised, but is merely shown how to do it over again. If any of the men under instruction are observed to display roughness or lack of sympathy with the dogs, they should be instantly dismissed, as a promising young dog could easily be thrown back in his training, or even spoiled altogether, by sharp handling.”

Distances and Distractions

Dogs began by being separated from the handler for short distances and for short periods of time, which were built up until a dog might not be released for 12 hours to cover a distance of three and a half to four miles. More than 12 hours was not considered advisable to separate a dog from his handler. Dogs were familiarized with trenches so that they could remain in them for extended periods, as shown in the second picture.

Dogs were first taught to return to one location, then to different locations:

“First of all, they are trained from a fixed base, and then from a movable base. It was always interesting to observe how the different dogs thought out the return journey, when under training. Sometimes they would be taken out by a roundabout route by road, and certain dogs would always return by the shortest way, which sometimes took them straight across country. Others, on the other hand, quite as clever, chose to take the longer route back on which they had been brought outwards, because they thought they could run quicker on the smooth road unmolested by obstacles of any sort. I noticed that the most cunning and elderly dogs generally did this. In the field, it was much the same. The most experienced dogs generally took what they judged was the easiest route homewards, even though it might be somewhat longer.”

Dogs had to be taught to cross quite varied terrain:

“They must be taught to travel along high roads, amongst lorry and other traffic, through villages, and past every sort of camp and cook-house temptation. They must be taught not to be afraid of water, or of any inequalities in the ground. To aid the dogs in overcoming all these difficulties, all sorts of artificial obstacles are introduced into the route of the dog's journey over and above those he would meet in the ordinary way. Barbed wire entanglements, palings, fences, water dykes, smoke clouds, made by harmless means, etc., should intercept its homeward journey, and it must be induced at all costs, one way or another, to surmount these difficulties by going over, through, or under. It is left to the dog to choose, but come he must.”

Specifically as to water, Richardson says that the dog has to cross a stream “either by jumping or swimming, or wading.” One picture shows a dog training to jump over a canal. Another shows messengers jumping over barbed wire.

Gunfire and Artillery Fire

Battlefields are noisy places, and a dog had to be capable of working with noise and even while under fire (as is still required of American military dogs). Richardson describes how the tolerance to gunfire is built up:

“The first training each day is the firing drill. The entire parade of dogs, excluding the new arrivals, are led to a large shed, where a certain number of keepers are drawn up with rifles loaded with blank cartridges. Several rounds are fired, and many of the haughty spirits that have been making such a display on the parade ground are now inclined to put up a sorry show. Much gentleness is, however, extended at this lesson, and any dog that shows timidity is taken further off until it gets accustomed to the firing. This they very soon do, and the old hands proudly stand right under the firing keepers. After this there is a system of bomb-firing, which is a further call upon nerve force, and has often to be carried on for some time. The dogs are also trained to run among the keepers who are firing their rifles from a recumbent position across the road by which the dogs have to come. They are also taken to the batteries and accustomed gradually at varying distances to the sound of 18-pounders up to the 12-in. guns.”

Richardson says that it “is a good plan to feed the dog with tit-bits during the firing. It is remarkable how soon most dogs get accustomed to the heaviest firing.” To teach dogs to deal with a smoke barrage, bundles of straw or hay are set afire and the dogs must be able to run through it.

Theo F. Jager, writing on the training of war dogs for World War I, mentions the importance of training stealth, which distinguishes the training of war dogs from that of police dogs, particularly messenger dogs:

"While the police dog is always ready to announce a culprit through loud and incessant barking, the army dog should remain silent. He must be taught that barking is a nuisance. His future duties as a scout or message bearer require that he travel silently and screen his whereabouts. In the open field work he should be taught to avoid the higher land, to go over open spaces on a run and to advance just as a soldier would, always well covered. If the trainer will keep this forever in mind and avoid to lead or even exercise with the more advanced dog in exposed areas, the dog will soon realize, that to gain his approval, he must hunt up the lower or protected and covered spots. The wide open fields that sometimes have to be crossed, should always be covered with trainer and dog at a run. The dog will do this as a matter of habit later on when the plain is fireswept and he carries a message of importance."

Pictures here show dogs learning to pass a barricade during rifle fire, and a messenger dog running past an explosion in a field.

People and Other Dogs as Distractions

One of the most serious obstacles could be a village and the other dogs in it. Richardson describes the draconian measures that were taken to protect the messenger dogs from such interference:

“The villages present the greatest temptation to the dogs on account of the ash-heaps, foodshops and also the allurement of pleasant chats with local canine busybodies, who thoroughly delight in holding up a messenger dog, which may be conscientiously endeavouring to do its duty. The difficulty of the village dog at the front was one, which had to be taken seriously into consideration, and it would be better in future to face this situation in a more practical manner. In France, there were such large numbers of stray dogs in the devastated areas, that their presence was sometimes a serious menace to the successful working of the messenger dogs. In order to remedy this state of affairs, large numbers of these dogs were ordered to be destroyed by the G.O.C. in the various districts. This order was, from many points of view, considered a stern necessity at the time, but was a pity, as if it had been realized at first, how valuable the services of dogs would become to the Army, and how unequal would be the available supply to the demand, every one of these dogs would have been of use in some form or other, either to the British or the French Army.”

Richardson considered that situations such as this made some level of shyness useful in a messenger dog:

“There are some dogs which, while they are very plucky in every other direction, have a strain of timidity in their natures in relation to strange people, and these dogs often avoid villages if they can, and put themselves to great trouble to go round them instead. This disposition in the messenger dog is of great value, as it is, therefore, saved much temptation.”

Richardson credits his wife with having kept him from rejecting a particularly timid dog name Tweed that eventually proved a particularly effective messenger dog. She is shown with some of the dogs she trained amid the kennels the dogs lived in.

Livestock, however, would seldom be encountered near the front lines, and Richardson took this into account during training:

“An important question arises when selecting a suitable training site, in connection with live stock. No time must be wasted by breaking the dogs to sheep, cattle, etc., for the obvious reason, that they do not have temptations of this sort on the battlefield, all herds and flocks having been cleared by the fleeing inhabitants or by the enemy. Therefore, the immediate vicinity of the training ground must not be too much of a pasturage ; thus the young dog, when it commences its training, is not distracted by any temptation to chase.”

One possible distraction was found not to be a factor. Dogs almost never crossed the lines and went into enemy-controlled territory. Richardson attributes this to the fact that neither the land nor the people would smell familiar. Jager, writing as World War I raged, however, insists that some dogs did cross lines:

"On several occasions the German messenger dogs have run into the French trenches. At first the French soldiers did not realize they were carrying messages, and they were allowed to pass unmolested. Since the real use was discovered the dogs are now immediately shot."

Specialized Gear

Messenger dogs were given a leather collar on which were their registered numbers and a message carrier made of two parts that were held together by a piece of string.

“The message carrier (which is always to be kept on the collar) is made in two parts which fit one into the other ; the two parts are held together by a piece of string. When a message is to be placed in the carrier, the dog's collar should be pulled round so that the carrier is uppermost, the two halves of the carrier pulled apart, the message inserted, the two halves pushed well home and tied together and the collar slipped round so that the carrier is under the dog's neck. The dog should then be released without his chain [leash].”

The last picture below shows a message being put on a dog’s collar at the front.

The German Experience

Richardson cannot keep himself from the occasional reference to the Huns, but credits the Germans with foresight concerning war dogs, seeing “the large organization of police dogs” as “a camoulflaged system of service, always available in the event of war.” The breed clubs in Germany were, he admits, more advanced in their thinking than the clubs of England:

“The Germans have, however, always made a feature of training dogs in connection with their clubs. In our own country, we have our gun dog and sheep dog trials, but this particular aspect of the education of dogs is carried on in Germany on a much larger scale. During the Herrero War—the German West African Colony—sixty trained dogs were sent out with the troops from Germany, and many experiments were made with them. These tests must have been considered to be of a promising nature, as after that time, the whole question of dog training in Germany was taken up much more seriously, and under Royal and official patronage.

“All these aforementioned dog clubs were now amalgamated, and formed one huge Association, which called itself ‘Der Verein für Deutsche Schaferhunde.’ The Crown Prince was president, and the affairs of the organization were directed by military officers. Branches were inaugurated all over Germany, and in Austria as well, and shows were constantly held to display the training standards attained. The association kept and issued annually a list of dogs under training, and against each entry was inscribed notes relating to that particular animal's capabilities. This book was open for all to purchase, who wished to do so, but the fact was that the whole association was a war organization, and each of the branches was ordered to keep a secret register of those dogs considered especially suitable for war purposes.”

Thus, when the war broke out, dogs already in the army were sent straight to the front, and dogs on the lists of clubs were mobilized immediately. Almost 6,000 dogs were deployed in the first months of the war, with orders directly from General Erich Ludendorff. Training establishments were opened in various towns, with qualified trainers already available, who served under officers who did not need to learn the value of the dogs, unlike the situation with the English army. Dogs captured in the advance into Belgium and France were sent back to Germany to be trained for war. German owners of suitable dogs could be paid up to 50 marks for a dog. As messenger dogs, Germans preferred German shepherds, Dobermans, Airedales, and Rottweilers.

The basic training of the German messenger dog was that of the liaison dog, unlike the British program which only used a small portion of liaison dogs. As did Richardson in training British messenger dogs, the Germans focused on teaching dogs to deal with a large number of distractions. German dogs were to be kept busy: “A dog must run its message route two or three times a day. This must be done for practice, even when there is no occasion for sending information.”

Captain von Stephanitz describes the German use of a relay system:

"In cases where the distances were too long for one dog, stages were arranged, between which dogs ran to and fro.  If any of these despatch stages had to be moved, the dogs sought out the new place by tracing out the track of the leader or the deputy leader.  When a despatch stage was organised in a permanent way, the dogs would run over the accustomed route by sight only; they made short cuts and regular 'passes'. This system fo dog posts worked so well and with such certainty that, Regiments outside the fighting area availed themselves of its possibilities to save despatch riders and cyclists."

The Germans were also concerned with interference with messenger dogs and made intentional troubling of dogs by troops a punishable offense.

Precise rules specified where dogs were to be kept awaiting work:

"Immediately the dog reaches the attendant, or his assistant, its dispatch collar should be taken off and not put on again until the moment that the animal is sent back. The putting on of the collar will thus be a sign to the dog that its journey is beginning. Should the attendant have to take the message brought by the dog a little further (e.g., from the telephone exchange to battle headquarters), the dog should not be taken with him, but tied up and left behind at the terminal point of the route, in order that this point may be retained by the dog as a fixed datum for its return.”

Every German army headquarters on the Western Front had a Messenger Dog Section (Meldehundstaffeln). Such sections had to serve army groups on the Eastern and South-eastern fronts. An infantry regiment was to have a maximum of 12 dogs allotted to it, and an independent battalion, six. Richardson praised this wide distribution of messenger dogs, and stated that the British system of confining messenger dogs to the signal service (Royal Engineers) was a mistake. The French also distributed dogs to infantry units.

When not working, according to Captain von Stephanitz, the dogs were often use to capture the rats in the trenches, assisting the snappers and terriers that were supplied for rat catching. They were also used to carry ammunition, rations, and carrier pigeons, and sometimes to unroll cables and wire.


The Americans did not join the war until it was half over, and viewed the British canine units with envy. One sergeant reported that “I had great trouble to prevent the Americans from appropriating the dogs, as they had no dogs of their own, and they all spoke of the great success of them everywhere."


Richardson was not at the front but includes a great many dispatches he obtained from the War Office. He recounts how dogs could continue to work after being wounded:

“A black retriever dog called 'Dick' had a wonderful record.... While carrying a message in the Villers-Bretonneux sector he was wounded very severely in the back and shoulder. The dog completed his run in good spirit, and was ultimately sent to the section kennel for treatment from the veterinary officer. As no foreign bodies could be located in the wounds they were stitched up, and he was soon healed up and at work again. He did his runs in the line as well as before, and seemed all right when we moved to the 8th Corps. A day or two after moving the dog was seen to be suffering, and the attention of the vet. was called to his state. After a few days' observation, the veterinary officer concluded there was some foreign body in the wound, and so, as poor Dick was on the point of death, he was ordered to be destroyed. At the post-mortem examination it was discovered that a rifle bullet was resting between the shoulder and body, while near the small of the back a piece of shrapnel was found lodged close to the spine. Through all his sufferings the dog carried out his duties cheerfully and most faithfully until he was overtaken by death."

Another handler describes how hard the dogs worked:

“After we had got the kennels fixed up, orders came for 8 men and 24 dogs to go up the line. I was amongst them and next morning went to Gentilles Wood, where I was attached to the 47th London Div. The dogs did splendid work there, and were working day and night. I lost one dog there, an old collie—he had carried 5 messages that day and was on his way back with his 6th one, when he was killed by shrapnel.”

Arranging a Temporary Truce

One dog was credited with bringing about a temporary truce. A wire haired terrier was seen crossing the no-man’s land between British and German troupes, coming to the British side across shell holes, water, wire, and the noise of bombardment. The British soldiers were so impressed that they fed the dog, only to see him return across the no-man’s land to the German side. This began to be a regular occasion.

One day, when the dog was on the British side, a British soldier was wounded in the no-man’s land. The commander had an idea. After feeding the terrier, he attached a message to the dog’s collar: “Will you allow us to bring our man in?” In a few minutes the dog returned with an answer: “Will give you five minutes.” Two soldiers went out and returned with their wounded comrade. As they came back, the British gave a cheer to the Germans by way of thanks.


Although Lemish reports in his book on war dogs that the Americans used some messenger dogs in the Pacific Theater in World War II, Richardson is no doubt correct that World War I was the war of the messenger dog. The Americans apparently did not pick up the value of positive reinforcement in training war dogs, as demonstrated in their failure to get dogs to work effectively as mine detectors in the Second World War. The British, continuing Richardson’s emphasis on gentle and positive training, were much more successful.

The rigorous training standards of the breed clubs of Germany do much to explain the development of the war dog training programs of Germany in the First World War. One of these clubs, the German Shepherd Club of Germany was also responsible for the idea of using dogs as guides for the blind after the war.

Sources: E.H. Richardson (1920). British War Dogs: Their Training and Psychology. Skeffington & Son, Ltd. London; (1910) War, Police and Watch Dogs. William Blackwood & Sons. Edinburgh and London; M.G. Lemish (1996). War Dogs: Canines in Combat (1996). Brassey’s Washington DC (describing the French use of messenger dogs in WWI); A Biography of E.H. Richardson, website posting of K-9 History: The Dogs of War; A. Sloan and A. Farquhar (1925). Dog and Man: The Story of a Friendship. Hutchinson & Co. London;; T.F. Jager (1917). Scout, Red Cross and Army Dogs (Arrow Printing Co. New York) (at 23 discussing the risks of messenger dogs); v. Stephanitz (1923). The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture. Anton Kampfe, Jena, Germany. 

Although not strictly a source, I should acknowledge that I would not have thought of this title had I not long ago read Mark Helprin's brilliant novel, A Soldier of the Great War (1991).

The opening quotation is adapted with considerable freedom, but hopefully not with any change of critical fact, from a passage in Richardson’s book.

Additional Note. Ingrid Bahlenberg informs me that modern messenger dogs are still being trained in Scandinavia, and that messenger dog trials are a canine sport in Finland and Sweden. Dogs compete in relays between different stations that are up to two kilometers apart.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting reading. In Sweden (and even Finland) we are still training messenger dogs for competition. The dogs have two handlers and are sent back and forth. The first distance is 1,1 kilometre nd the last one 2 kilometres. During their run there are also gunfiring as a disturbance. In competition the dogs might wait 1-2 hours between the runs. I have often wondered for how long it would be able to wait and the dog still would remember his duty.