Messenger Dog Training – World War I

Messenger dogs in trainingIn his book Watch Dogs: Their Training and Management, (Lieut. Col. E.H.) Richardson explained that the training of the messenger dog was different than any other type of training. The messenger dog had to work in a similar manner as the sheepdog, traveling great distances from the handler to do his job.

The messenger dog needed to know what he had to do, and sometimes he had to solve the problem of how to do it on his own. The messenger dog also needed to love what he was doing. Richardson clearly stated that training methods using coercion would not work and should not be used, which is interesting and important to today’s trainers as well. The dogs were taught with what we know today as positive training methods. Richardson also made it clear that, if the dog made a mistake, he should never be chastised but should only be shown again what to do.…

Two kinds of messenger dogs were used in the war, the dog that ran back to the handler, who was stationed at a rear base, and the “liaison” dog. In the first scenario, a handler (or “keeper,” as they were sometimes called) would take three dogs to battalion headquarters. A soldier would take one dog with him to the front lines. When they needed to send a message back to headquarters, a message was put in a tin cylinder attached to the dog’s collar, and the dog was sent back to his handler. The liaison dog, on the other hand, would report back and forth between handlers, sometimes bringing an answer back to the soldier on the front. The British typically did not use liaison dogs.

Border Collie jumping shell holes

The most important quality needed by messenger dogs was to be able to ignore the bombing and shooting. They had to be resourceful enough to overcome whatever obstacles they encountered, such as swimming through bodies of water, including shell holes filled with water; worming their way through barbed wire; and leaping over trenches and craters. They also had to stick to their mission. They could not be distracted when traveling through towns or areas where a lot of non-battle human activity was occurring, other animals were present, and food was available to eat.

According to Richardson, Collies were the best messenger dogs. He found that Greyhounds did not make good messenger dogs for long distances but noted that, when they were crossed with another breed, they were excellent. These crosses, as noted earlier, were called Lurchers. Richardson also had many good things to say about Airedales, and because of their availability, these dogs were one of the most common breeds used by the British. It is interesting to note that Richardson says, “There were a good many sheepdogs, retrievers, Irish Terriers and spaniels; a few Deerhounds, setters, Welsh Terriers, and Bull Terriers; and a very few Greyhounds, Eskimos, Dalmatians, Bedlingtons, Pointers, Bulldogs, and Whippets. As might be guessed, the great majority of war dogs were not purebred.” (Baynes, Animal Heroes of the Great War, 163).

Here are a few short stories of some of these amazing dogs.

The devotion of the messenger dogs is illustrated in the account of a black retriever cross named Dick. While he was transporting a message, he was badly wounded in the back and shoulder, yet, despite his wounds, he delivered his message. He was sent to the veterinarian for care, healed nicely, and returned to duty. A few days after he went back to the front, he became lame. It was finally determined that he had a bullet lodged between his shoulder and the wall of his chest. He also had a shell splinter in the small of his back, which was very close to his spine.

A handler named MacLeod tells of Irish Terrier “Paddy” who was gassed, wounded, and left for dead, yet showed up at headquarters with his message. This same handler tells about a purebred, tri-colored Collie named Roman who was a show-quality dog with a beautiful flowing coat and narrow head (the Lassie-type Collie). During training, Roman appeared very self-centered and took his time to cover the distance he had to travel, but he showed a remarkable ability to analyze the situation and work it to the best advantage. Roman proved to be very devoted to his job and had a keens sense of right and wrong.

Excerpted from Soldiers in Fur and Feathers: The Animals that Served in World War I – Allied Forces  by Susan Bulanda.

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