Saturday, July 16, 2011

Red Cross, Iron Cross: Ambulance Dogs in World War I

Kaiser Wilhelm II knew the value of Red Cross dogs (Sanitätshunde). Visiting a hospital behind German lines on the eastern front, he saw a soldier on one cot, a dog beside him on the next. He was told the story:

"Lieutenant von Wieland led a party of men in an attack on the Russian trenches. Seeing the task hopeless on account of the Russian fire, he, wounded, sent back the men who had set out with him and lay there in the blood and muck and filth of the battlefield: The Russian fire was so murderous that no one dared bring him in. Presently a dark form bounded from the German trenches, rushed to Lieutenant von Wieland's side, grasped his coat between his teeth and, foot by foot, dragged him to safety. Once, but only for a moment, did he loosen his hold, and that was when a bullet creased him from shoulder to flank. The blood gushed from the wound, but the dog took a fresh hold and finished his job at the edge of the trench where willing hands lifted the lieutenant down to safety. They had to lift the dog down, too, because just then a bullet broke both his forelegs.”

The emperor gave each an iron cross, handing one medal to the man and tying the other to the dog’s collar. A picture of the lieutenant with his dog, Steif, was included in Theo Jager’s book, Scout, Red Cross and Army Dogs and is the second picture here.

Numbers and Breeds

Jager, writing his book on military dogs as the war raged, estimated there to be 10,000 Red Cross dogs on the various fronts by late 1916, the highest numbers of which were in the German and French armies. The Russians had great numbers of trained dogs as well, though Jager does not estimate how many were used for mercy work.

Jager did not think any particular breed was particularly predictive of the value of a war dog:

“It is character and training that is wanted; nobody has time in days of war to worry about ancestry. Character is the hardest thing to breed and the aristocrat with a shifty eye goes into the discard. In time of need democracy asserts itself. Size, weight, and health may be determined. Then comes training—and there character shows.”

A note on terms is necessary. While many references to ambulance dogs clearly refer to dogs whose functions were those of most Red Cross dogs, to reconnoiter battlefields for the wounded, some references to ambulance dogs are more specifically meant to apply to a dog or team of two dogs that could pull a stretcher, usually mounted on wheels. I use the broader definition here.


Captain von Stephanitz, in his book on the German shepherd, described the ambulance dog as a “German product.”  He explained that it was originally intended to amalgamate messenger and ambulance dog training, "but it was soon realised that a combination of such different tasks was not suitable. So far as I know, a man from Dusseldorf, the animal painter Herr Bungartz, was the first to call attention to the necessity of making a radical distinction between these two types of Army Service dogs. In 1893 he then founded the "Deutscher Verein fur Sanitatshunde" (the German Society for Ambulance dogs)...."

Stephanitz wrote that the Medical Department of the Ministry of War had at first shown little interest in the use of ambulance dogs, but a demonstration was held in July 1914 "on the range at Zossen under conditions as nearly corresponding to those of war as possible.  In this trial, which was continued throughout the night, dogs of the Ambulance Dog Society and of the Berlin Police Department had been allowed to compete, besides the dogs of the SV [the German Shepherd Society]." The demonstration was successful and ambulance dogs were introduced gradually as the war unfolded.  The Ministry of War established the Ambulance Dog Replacement Depot at Fangschleuse near Berlin "for the purpose of keeping up the strength of the dogs in the various establishments."

To increase the supply of police dogs, the police dog authorities were approached:

“[C]areful tracking, which was the characteristic of the work of the Police dogs, in the Security Service (and especially that of the Country Police), corresponds exactly to the work required of the Ambulance dog.  When the searching Police dog barked on finding a man and did not merely content himself with pointing him out, this barking was allowed by the first trainers of the Ambulance dog.  These Police dogs, moreover, should be allowed to ‘point’, or at any rate this method of detection could be developed in them in case of need. The Police dog could not be dangerous to a wounded man, and he was trained not even to bite a criminal when he had found him.”

To put this in modern terms, a dog trained in suspect apprehension would not be useful, but one trained to a passive alert could be used.  Stephanitz also argues that the dogs were able to distinguish the particular smell of the wounded. The postcard above shows an ambulance dog leading a medic to a wounded soldier. 

Stephanitz saw ambulance dogs as unsuited for trench warfare, but useful for open warfare:

"In trench warfare or in defensive actions, there is little opportunity for the Ambulance dog to function.  His real chance comes when the troops are advancing in the open.  An opportunity for such open warfare was only given, after the first two weeks, on the Easter, the South Eastern and the Southern Fronts.  There, that is to say, in Russia, Roumania, and the Balkans, Italy, and even in Asia Minor, our Ambulance dogs fully justified the confidence placed in them, whenever they arrived in time and in sufficient numbers.  It is not yet known, and probably never will be, how many thousands of wounded owe to them their lives and their restoration to health, but the future of the Ambulance dog with the Army is now everywhere assured."

Dogs were deployed particularly at night when the battles were not raging and it was impossible to try to find the wounded with lights, which would expose soldiers to the enemy.  “The Ambulance dogs must run to, fro, and about in an area of something like 220 x 54 yards, smelling out the tracks of the wounded, and announce them to their leaders. “  Stephanitz asserts that well-trained dogs never pointed out corpses. 

Although the easiest way for a dog to announce that it had found a wounded soldier was to bark, it was determined that the enemy, who could shoot in the direction of the sound.  “The greatest silence therefore is just as imperative as the avoidance of any light, and thus the return of the dog to make his report is the only possible method.”

The problem was what the dog should bring back.  As shown in the picture here, dogs were first taught to bring back objects, such as a soldier’s cap, but this soon presented problems. 

“If the dog does not find any object close to the man which he can take up, he will try to tear off such a proof of identification from the wounded man himself.  This might not only be a serious matter of anxiety to a seriously wounded man—especially when the dog tries to drag something off—but might cause him to make repelling motions which might incite the dog to snap at him.” Thus, a leather ‘sausage’ was hung from the dog’s collar by a leather strap.  The dog (sometimes the wounded soldier) put this object, also called a ‘bringsel’ (the object to be brought) into his mouth and returned to the ambulance dog leader, nicknamed the “Wow-Wow-Lieutenant.”  The leader then leashed the dog and it took him back to the wounded man. 

The bringsel method was devised by a psychoanalyst named Pfungst from Berlin, who according to Stephanitz, “had no experience with dogs at all.”  Stephanitz preferred that the dog be trained to return on finding a man and just lead the leader (handler) to the wounded man.  He explained his objection to the bringsel:

“The first condition of success is that the dog should conduct his search without anything likely to hinder him.  A dog who must be able to overcome every obstacle in his way, who in case of need must jump or swim, and at all events must gallop more often than not, must not be let or hindered by anything in his movements, for in his search, he must force himself through jungle and high crops, through dense under-growth and hedges, through high thorns, vines and tangled nets of wild growth, through barriers of branches or barbed wire, in fact, everywhere where man cannot go and penetrate. Even a simple collar, however, involves the danger that he may become caught and that he will be unable to get loose again in spite of all his efforts.  This generally means the end, not only of the dog, but also, which is the principle thing, the search for the wounded is made impossible.” 

Stephanitz does not suffer fools lightly.  He describes efforts to put objects on dogs even more dangerous than the bringsel:

“Well meaning theorists wished to hand on our Ambulance dog—after the picture of the well-known St. Bernard dog ‘Barry’ with that inevitable little cask of cognac on his back—a wonderful collection of leather equipment, surmounted by a mighty Red Cross, and hung with little bells and lanterns; nay, they even wished to pack on his back rainproof covers and groundsheets, emergency Field Dressings, bottles with ‘a drop of comfort’, maps and emergency rations, and even to put rubber galoshes on his feet.  The grim earnestness of the War soon did away with all such contraptions….” 

Jager, in his book, agreed with E.H. Richardson that the Germans did not respect the Red Cross insignia of men or beasts, and saw the saddles the dogs wore as a target for German snipers.  From the account of Stephanitz, it appears the Germans believed the same lack of respect to be true of the English.  Jager knew how effective the German ambulance dogs were, and quoted from the diary of a captured German Red Cross worker:

“We left for the battle field at two o’clock in the morning. We could only work on the lead, as we were less than 400 meters from the French lines. 'Treu,' my dog, in a short time found five wounded, three severely wounded and two slightly wounded, which even with the sharpest eyesight you could not have found, they were so well hidden. They had been out on the battlefield for a day and a half.”

German soldiers rescued because of Red Cross dogs established a hospital for sick and wounded animals at Jena.


The Bulletin of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America also reported that the French army was using Belgian sheep dogs to seek out injured soldiers who were unable to walk or crawl to an open space where they could be discovered. The Societe Nationale des Chiens Sanitaires had eight training and breeding kennels. Further, the Bulletin stated:

"The dogs are trained not to bark when they find a disabled soldier. They are taught to disregard dead soldiers. Each dog has a box containing first aid remedies and appliances tied to its neck. Upon locating a helpless soldier the dog goes up close to him so that the box may be opened. The animal tears a piece of the uniform from the soldier and then returns to the kennel to which he is attached.”

What happened in the French army when a dog returned with evidence of a wounded soldier is described as follows by the Bulletin:

"The better trained dogs return to the kennel, bark and turn back in the direction from which they came to indicate that they have found an injured soldier. A corps of surgeons are attached to the kennels and they follow the dogs to the injured men. Many times soldiers are found at the bottom of deep ravines, and other sequestered places where only dogs with a keen sense of smell could locate them. Sometimes it takes a whole day to get a soldier he has found because of the hazardous work of carrying him to a road.”

As can be seen in some of the previous passages, there are statements that Red Cross dogs were trained not to bark, as well as statements that they were trained to bark in certain circumstances to bring help to a wounded combatant. A training picture here shows a dog waiting for stretcher bearers where the wounded are lying.

A French dog, Prusco, that looked like a white wolf, was credited with saving more than a hundred men, and after one battle allowed three soldiers in sequence to hold onto his collar while he dragged them to a depression where they could be safe from enemy fire.


An article appearing the British Medical Journal in 1910 indicates that the training being developed by Edwin H. Richardson, then a major, was being kept secret, as were his conclusions regarding the best cross-breeds to use for ambulance dog work. The article describes the equipment of a British ambulance dog:

“[T]he dog is equipped with a waterproof canvas saddle, with a pocket at each side. In these pockets are placed eight triangular bandages, while slung round the dog’s neck is a small cask of brandy or rum, and a bell for use after dark. A biscuit for himself is a wise provision.”

The article, which was not signed and was only a few lines more than a page, describes Richardson’s efforts to interest the British War Office in ambulance dogs:

“[A]fter the Russians had gone to Major Richardson for dogs, the War Office requested him to attend the camp at Stobs for the autumn manoeuvres, and he was attached to the 42nd Black Watch. General Sir Charles Tucker, commanding in Scotland, put the dogs through very severe tests, and as a result recommended their adoption, but the War Office has made no move. Major Richardson has been trying to arouse the sympathy and interest of the War Office for the past seven years, but he need not be discouraged—seven years counts as but one day in a conservative country like ours; if once, however, Great Britain is brought to feel quite sure that ambulance dogs do good work on the battlefield, every other dog in the country will be trained and equipped for the fray. We are slow to move, but we never do things by halves.”

This Merry Old England gibberish turned out not to be the case. Richardson soon became less enthusiastic:

“Most of the countries I have mentioned [Germany, France, Italy, Russia] had been experimenting with ambulance dogs for searching for the wounded, and I also had given a good deal of attention to this service, but it was found unworkable under modern conditions of trench warfare."

As the war began, Richardson settled on training ambulance dogs:

“When my offer of sentry dogs was rejected in the first days of the war, I turned to another branch of work in which I had frequently experimented in previous years—tracing the wounded on the battlefield. These dogs were, of course, used with ambulance sections. At this period a war of movement was the only method conceived, and also we in this country were convinced of the inviolability of the sacred symbol of the Red Cross, whether on man or beast, hospital or ship. Had these conditions obtained in this war, ambulance dogs would have been of great assistance. As it was, however, when the French army hurriedly sent some of their ambulance dogs with their keepers to the front in the earliest feverish days, the first thing that happened was that, although both men and dogs wore the Red Cross, the enemy brutally shot them all down whenever they attempted to carry out their humanitarian work. It was also found that, when the opposing forces settled down into trench warfare, the opportunities on the Western front were closed. 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.”

Richardson concluded that “it has been found that ambulance dogs can only render service to the wounded in a war of movement.” In the end, Richardson devotes perhaps no more than a page to ambulance dogs in the entire of his long book on British war dogs.
United States

The Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, W.C. Gorgas, testified before the Congressional Committee for Military Affairs as America prepared to enter the war that Germany had 6,000 Red Cross dogs. Gorgas gave this number as a means of trying to get the War Department to devote more attention to expanding the American program, arguing that the few dogs the U.S. had at Fort Vermont at the time were but a drop in the bucket to what the U.S. should have had.

Training Red Cross Dogs

Dogs were trained to distinguish the uniforms of their country from that of the enemy. Jager quotes extensively from an article in Red Cross Magazine concerning the training of Red Cross dogs:

“Army or Red Cross or Sanitary dogs, as the Germans call them, are first trained to distinguish between the uniform of their country and that of the enemy. Then the dog must learn the importance of a wounded man, as being his principal business in life. News of the wounded must also be brought to his master. He must not bark, because the enemy always shoots. There are various ways in which the dog tells his master of his discovery. One method is, if no wounded have been discovered, to trot back and lie down, whereas, if he has found a wounded man he urges his master to follow. United States Consul Talbot J. Albert of Brunswick tells of a method in use in the German army, in which the dogs have buckled to their collars a short strap, and they are trained, when they find a wounded man in hunting over the battlefield at night, to grasp the straps in their mouths and so return, thus signifying that there is a man in uniform alive out there. Then they lead the way back to him. This invention was necessary to overcome an evil that became evident among dogs taught to retrieve: that is, to bring back some piece belonging to the wounded man, his cap, glove, or something from the neighborhood, such as a piece of cord, a stone, or a bunch of grass. The trouble with the method was that the dogs, in their abundant zeal, never returned without something from the injured man, and usually they took that which first struck their eyes. This was most often a bandage, which the dog would tear off. If taught to bring back a cap and the soldier had none, the dog would very likely seize him by the hair.”

Dogs were never trained to scent out the dead. Jager describes the training of war dogs as involving only one trainer, but sees the dog’s loyalties going to members of his unit:

“While they are the property of the company and will come in touch with all members of the company more or less daily, a rule should be made, that no one fondle or coax them or try to distract their attention from whatever work they may have in hand. They should not be interfered with, even if not in training at the time, or on duty. They must recognize in their trainer, and next to him in the few members of the squad, their only masters. When they have completed their training, it is time enough to teach them to obey anyone, in case of need, belonging to that company and to transfer their fidelity to any soldier in the familiar uniform. A well trained dog will soon get the proper esprit de corps and will know and obey every member of the unit to which he is attached.”

Jager thus distinguishes the war dog from the police dog, “who knows but one master.” Another difference is that a police dog may be taught to 'give tongue,' but not most war dogs. Jager divides the training of war dogs into obedience lessons and field lessons. The obedience lessons were Heel, Down, and Retrieve. He considered Down as “the greatest obedience exercise that a trainer has and for that reason it should be ground into the very being of the dog.” A picture above shows a red cross dog in down position leading two soldiers moving forward face down.

Field lessons specific to war dogs were:

1. S-sss, S-sss. Jager describes this as a command and caution to increase the dog’s attention, given in a whisper, and may be given with the hand signal for Down in order to preclude barking.
2. Advance. A command to send the dog forward into the immediate area to detect hidden or advancing enemies and avoid a surprise attack. This command is taught in stages until the dog can reconnoiter without a handler.
3. Report. This is taught so that the dog can deliver a report from an advance post. This command is also taught in several stages.
4. Report—Advance. This command is used after a dog has been sent from a unit at the front to bring back help, and the commander of the base determines to let the dog guide support to the forward unit. The dog may also receive the command, Slow, that it not lead the support unit too quickly into the same danger the advance unit has encountered.
5. Guard. This command is used when the dog is to assist in guarding prisoners. Guard—Attack is used to recapture an escaped prisoner.

The fourth command, Report-Advance, was particularly relevant to Red Cross dogs. Although Jager was American, he was writing before the U.S. experience in World War I had been formed, so his information about American war dogs is solely concerned with training.

Although police dogs were a fairly new phenomenon when World War I began, Richardson had noted in his book, War, Police and Watch Dogs, published in 1910, that tracking dogs could be retrained to serve as ambulance dogs, while dogs that accompanied police on their rounds would likely make good sentries and scouts.


It appears likely that Richardson downplayed the importance of Red Cross dogs in World War I, perhaps reflecting the earlier secrecy that was applied to some of his work, or perhaps from lasting bitterness at the resistance he found in the British military establishment to the use of dogs in war. Nevertheless, deploying the dogs must have been a wrenching decision where the fronts remained fixed for so long and the enemy did not respect the Red Cross badges on either men or dogs.

Descriptions of most canine functions in World War I partake of a limited range of primary sources, many largely anecdotal and infused with propaganda. I suggest that an excellent thesis topic for someone working towards a doctorate in military history would be to study the field records of all the armies in the war, particularly German records, for specific references to the deployment of canines on the fronts.

Sources: T.F. Jager (1917). Scout, Red Cross and Army Dogs (Arrow Printing Co. New York); Ambulance Dogs (December 10, 1910). The British Medical Journal, 2((2293), 1589-1590; E.H. Richardson (1920). British War Dogs: Their Training and Psychology. Skeffington & Son, Ltd. London; (1910). War, Police and Watch Dogs. William Blackwood & Sons, London; Captain von Stephanitz (1923). The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture. Anton Kampfe, Jena, Germany.  See also The Animals in War Memorial, Brook Gate, Park Lane, London W1.

Thanks to Brian Duggan and Richard Hawkins for recommending sources.  Thanks to Ronald Keats for finding a rare cache of World War I postcards showing German ambulance dogs at work.


  1. Dear Mr Ensminger,

    this post is really exciting, thank you! Since I am currently doing a research project on ambulance dogs, I would really like to know where you found the photograph of the dog carrying the cap of the soldier? Thanks for your answer!


    1. Unfortunately I wrote this so long ago that I know longer have the background data of my research. I believe, however, that all the pictures were from the sources mentioned. I would look first in Richardson's book, then Jager's 1917 book. I used to have copies but I had to downsize my library in a recent move. Sorry I can't be more helpful. Hopefully the books can be found in a library that is open in this time of COVID. J

  2. Edit: I just wanted to let you know that I found the image in Jager's "Scout, Red Cross and Army dogs" (p. 80). I'm glad I could retrieve it online from the US National Library of Medicine - thanks again for your help and for your great research!