By SP4 Wain Rubenstein
Danger Forward, The Magazine of the Big Red One, Vietnam
Volume Three, Number Two
The use of dogs as an auxiliary in-war is as old as war itself. Primitive man used dogs to guard his family, his belongings and himself. He also took his dog into battle with him when rival tribes clashed. Throughout the history of warfare, dogs have gone into combat at the side of their masters or have been used in direct support of combat operations.
In May 1942 the Army established the K-9 Corps. Throughout World War II, 595 dogs were trained for scouting duties. Some of the canine established distinguished records and were officially cited for outstanding and faithful service.
The Army has employed various breeds of dog, and have determined the German Shepherd to be the most suitable for scouting. Its working ability, temperament, size, availability for procurement and adaptability to all types of climate and terrain are the reasons for the choice.
Today in Vietnam, various scout dog platoons are in wide use among infantry units. The 1st Infantry Division is no exception. They are supported by the 35th at Dian and the 41st Infantry Platoon (Scout Dog) stationed at Lai Khe.
“The scout dog has become a lot more popular over here in the last few years,” asserts Sergeant Jack C. Russell, training NCO for the 41st platoon.
However, the dogs must come a long way before they can be utilized on ambush patrols and recon-in-force teams by the Big Red One. Scout dogs differ in both temperament and training from tracking and sentry dogs.
Tracker dogs are usually docile and sentry dogs are trained to kill. The scout dog, under ordinary conditions are neither docile or killers, but well trained, obedient and alert. For these reasons, particular care goes into selecting a dog for scout training.
The first phase of training comes at Lackland Air Force Base, Tex. Here the dogs undergo extensive training to determine whether or not they are scout dog material.
First of all, the canine must be in good health, must not weigh less than 60 pounds and be between one and three years old. If the dog is selected for scout training, he is sent to the Army’s Scout Dog Training School at Ft. Benning, Ga.
The selection of handlers for the dogs is as important as the selection of the dogs themselves. Experience has shown that handlers must have a friendly attitude toward dogs, patience and perseverance, physical endurance and exercise common sense.
At Ft. Benning the dogs undergo 12 weeks of intensive training with these men, who remain with the dogs throughout the entire cycle. The training is broken down into two parts. Basic obedience, the first phase, takes place during the first two weeks of the training. It is during this period the handler gets used to the dog, and the dog used to the handler. From the start, the man must establish himself as the boss or the dog’s chances of excelling as a competent scout dog are threatened.
The superiority is sustained by teaching the dog to obey such basic commands as “heel, sit, down, stay and crawl.” This is done by the use of the hand-sign and voice. At the end of two weeks, the second phase of training is begun; it involves ten weeks of field instruction. The basic obedience learned during the first two weeks is not entirely forgotten, as the dogs are continually refreshed on previous commands through-out the cycle.
The purpose of the field instruction is to teach the handler and dog to work as a team in alerting others to enemy presence. Also, the dog must be taught to give only a silent warning, since barking would alert the enemy.
During the ten week period, the dog and handler are exposed to every type of condition they will encounter in the jungle areas of Vietnam. For the first few weeks the dogs are taken on patrols during daylight hours until they become proficient enough to be introduced to night-time working conditions. During the night training phase, the handlers learn to place a greater reliance on the dog’s abilities.
Another phase of the training includes three days spent in a simulated Viet Cong village. Here the dogs are able to operate under the same conditions they would find in a real enemy village.
The final step of specialized training comes in the eleventh week. Each team must go through an Operational Readiness Test (ORT), where they are subjected to simulated combat conditions. They are required to demonstrate their proficiency in overcoming natural obstacles, scouting rice paddies, swamps, caves and tunnels, working from a boat, and scouting through villages and jungles.
Each team is graded by a qualified instructor during ORT to determine if the dog or handler need additional training. In a few cases some dogs have to be recycled. The final decision is left up to the chief instructor, who after conferring with his other instructors, decides who makes the grade and who doesn’t. All of the instructors are qualified dog handlers themselves, and have spent a tour of duty in Vietnam as a scout dog handler.
Bien Hoa Air Base is the next stop for both handler and dog. In most cases the two do not come to Bien Hoa together, unless it is a unit move. The reason for this is that some dogs have to stay behind for additional training. Also, there are already dogs in-country waiting for handlers.
When the handlers reach Bien Hoa they receive another dog, which will be theirs for the rest of their Vietnam tour. Many seem to think a dog will not listen to the commands of a new handler, but this is not the case with competent scout dogs.
After two weeks of in-country training at the Air Base, the dog and his new master are old friends, and each knows just what to expect from each other. The training is a refresher of what was originally accomplished at Ft. Benning, and helps the team adapt more readily to their environment.
From Bien Hoa, the scout dog teams are assigned to a scout dog platoon. Teams designated for the 41st Infantry Scout Dog Platoon are sent to Lai Khe, where they will assist infantry units of the Big Red One in tactical operations against hostile forces. They are employed to detect ambush sites and enemy caches of weapons, food and ammunition.
After the teams reach Lai Khe and become settled in their new habitat, they undergo more training to familiarize themselves with the terrain in which they’ll be working.
“This is necessary,” explained Sergeant Russell, “because the area around Lai Khe is different from such areas as the Delta region, where there is a great deal of water.” He added the final check is to make sure the dog and handler are 100 per cent ready to participate in a patrolling activity. Additional drill will be required if they are not.
If a dog picks up an unfamiliar scent while on patrol, he will give an alert, which the handler will pass on to the company commander or platoon leader. There is no special method by which all dogs alert. Each dog is an individual in his manner of alerting. Therefore, the handler must observe the dog’s behavior carefully so he does not miss its signal of alert.
Sergeant Gordon Moen of Meskegon, Mich., a handler with the scout dog platoon, admits when his dog “Has So” gives an alert, the dog’s hair will stand up on its back.
Another dog called Major has the strange habit of crossing his ears on an alert, while Eric puts on an acrobatic act by walking on his hind legs.
“Everytime the dog becomes alert, the area is checked out for mines, personnel and boobytraps,” said Sergeant Grimes. “These dogs are especially good at detecting ambushes,” he added.
Such was the case with Sergeant Jonnie D. Foster of Belhaven, N.C., and his dog Duke. While working as pointmen for Company A, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, the scout team alerted the company just in time to keep the men from walking into an enemy ambush.
Because the dog had acted quickly in alerting First Lieutenant Anthony F. Romans, A Company’s commanding officer, the soldiers were able to take good defensive positions before the unavoidable enemy contact.
In a letter of commendation from Lieutenant Romans, the two were singled out for “clearly demonstrating the high level of proficiency that can be rendered by scout dog teams.”
Sergeant Russell pointed out that many times while working in tall grasses, the dogs will jump up above the growth to get the scent. “A scout dog is not able to distinguish between an enemy force or a weapons cache,” he added, “but the dog gives out with a stronger alert the greater the find.”
Scout dogs, in many cases, are able to detect the enemy hiding underwater. If the enemy is using a reed to breathe through, the canine will have little trouble picking up the scent.
Whenever a dog is injured in the field and has to be taken out of action, he is treated much the same way as a human casualty would be. If the injury is serious and requires surgery, the dog will be taken to the Army Animal Clinic at Ton Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon where a well-trained veterinarian takes over.
In most instances, however, a veterinary technician is assigned to each scout dog platoon. He is able to treat minor illnesses and injuries. The majority of the injury cases can be treated on the spot, permitting the dog to continue its mission. As with soldiers, medical records of the dogs are also kept up to date.
Most of the animals weigh between 70 and 75 pounds. They are well fed and groomed by their handlers, who have the full responsibility of caring for the dog.
The handlers take care of their dogs 24 hours a day. They do everything but sleep and eat with them to insure the animals’ well-being. As a result of this close association, man and dog become quite attached to one another.
“My dog is the greatest,” affirms Sergeant Foster; “he’s like a brother.”
Sergeant Moen explains that every dog handler feels the same toward his animal. “A dog is as good as a weapon,” he said.
When the dogs are not in the field they are usually training, which could involve putting enemy decoys ahead of the dogs for special alert drills. The dog’s high standards are constantly being honed to near perfection.
The life of a Scout Dog is a rough one, but as many units will testify-a scout dog can mean the difference between life and death.