“They say one dog is worth ten soldiers, not in their capabilities but in their senses.” – Air Force Staff Sergeant Zeb Miller, dog handler for Nero, a bomb-sniffing dog in Iraq.
Exactly a year ago last August, when I first conceived this entire dog history column—while sitting in a dusty Glendale strip mall waiting to get a cheap haircut from an Armenian barber with no English and reading in my Twitter stream that McSweeney’s was having their annual column contest—my thoughts about which dogs would be possible subjects gravitated immediately toward war. I had a notion—admittedly foggy—that in researching the topic I would find no end of great military leaders, history’s Caesars and Alexanders, marching into battle surrounded by spike-helmeted demon dogs, growling, teeth gnashing, hungry for the throats of the cowering enemy.
Once I began writing the column, for whatever reason, the historical dogs I began to write about became far less martial. By the time my search finally wended its way back to the dogs of war for this article, the flood of bloodthirsty Caesarean and Alexandrian hellhounds that I’d anticipated never materialized. While Romans did make use of dogs in war, Caesar himself didn’t seem to be associated with any particular dog and only made admiring mention of the English mastiffs in Britain that would run onto the battlefield clad in armor bearing torches and blades meant to terrorize the Roman horses. And when I searched for “Alexander” and “dog,” I only found the combative philosopher Diogenes the Cynic, referred to as Diogenes the Dog, who slept in a tub in the Athenian marketplace and when asked by Alexander what he, the great emperor, could do for him, responded, “You can get out of my sunlight.” (As a result of his impudence, he became the only person Alexander said he would want to be other than himself.)
My search for the model war dog finally led me to the surprisingly amicable Sergeant Stubby, the subject of a recently published book by Sunday Times writer Isabel George. Considered to be the first famous American war dog, Stubby was a stray mutt – generally assumed to be a pit bull terrier—who would end up serving by his eventual owner’s side in the trenches of World War I. And while I’d been aiming more for the dog version of Terminator, I’d ended up with something closer to the canine version of Bill Murray in Stripes.
There had been other famous war dog mascots before Stubby. In the Civil War there was the mascot known only as Lt. Pfeiff’s dog, who sat at his owner’s shallow grave for 12 days after the Battle of Shiloh. When Pfeiff’s widow came to the battlefield in search of her husband’s body and, after a day of fruitless searching, began to despair of ever finding him amongst the more than 23,000 corpses, she was approached by the loyal dog, who brought her right to where Pfeiff was buried.
There were other similar stories from American and European wars, including one story from the Napoleonic Wars of a dog tugging Napoleon himself toward his owner’s corpse. Regarding this, the usually unflappable Napoleon said, “This soldier, I realized, must have had friends at home and in his regiment, yet he lay there deserted by all except his dog… I had looked on, unmoved, at battles that decided the future of nations. Tearless, I had given orders that brought death to thousands. Yet here I was stirred, profoundly stirred, stirred to tears. And by what? By the grief of one dog.”
But Stubby was the first American dog whose wartime actions on the battlefield itself became the stuff of legend.
Stubby was far from the sleek, approved breeds used in today’s modern American military, the German shepherds and the Belgian Malinois. He was a short, doleful-looking stray adopted in the summer of 1917 by J. Robert Conroy, an enlisted youth focused at the time on completing his training for the U.S. Army at the Yale Bowl in New Haven. Stubby’s name most likely came from his short stub of a tail. The dog quickly ingratiated himself with the young recruits and became a fixture of training, marching alongside Conroy’s unit, the 102nd Infantry, as they did their daily drills. He even learned his version of a half-salute, learning to bring his paw up to his chin.
When the unit was moved to Newport News for their final training before being sent abroad, Private Conroy smuggled Stubby along, hidden beneath some equipment in a supply car. And when Conroy’s unit finally shipped off to St. Nazaire, France, Conroy convinced the MP guarding Conroy’s ship, the U.S.S. Minnesota, to allow Stubby on board. In her book Dogs of War, Lisa Rogak reports that when Conroy got busted for stowing Stubby on board by the ship’s commanding officer, Stubby gave his canine version of a half-salute, thereby charming the commander. Whether this particular detail is true or sentimental myth, it is unquestionable fact that against military policy at the time—soldiers were not allowed to have mascots on the Front—Conroy was allowed to keep his dog.
In World War I, America still had no official place or use for dogs in its military. Other countries, on the other hand, had begun to experiment with a variety of uses for dogs on the battlefield. Some dogs were used straightforwardly as sentry and patrol dogs. Other dogs served as the War’s legendary “mercy dogs,” dogs trained to help medics find and treat wounded soldiers on the battlefield. In addition to these canine Rambo patrol dogs and Florence Nightingale medic dogs, there were the curious canine Philip Johnsons, the Great War’s “cigarette dogs,” who, as their name implied, did their part for the cause carrying the all-important tobacco to soldiers on the front lines.
But in the U.S. military, there wouldn’t be a recognized place for dogs for another quarter of a century, in World War II. Even then, after Pearl Harbor the use of dogs in war was resisted by the Defense Department and only came about as a result of the relentless civilian efforts of a breeder named Arlene Erlanger, who started a group called Dogs for Defense that included members of the American Kennel Club and the Professional Handlers Association. When the group’s efforts met with success in providing well-trained and highly effective dogs to military bases around the country—helped by a drive from celebrities of the day like Rudy Vallee and Mary Pickford, who contributed their own dogs to the cause in order to inspire other citizens to do the same—the government took over the program and renamed it the K-9 program.
But this was still years in the future. Stubby, illegally shipping off to war in January 1918, was—for America—a canine pioneer. When he and Private (soon to be Corporal) Conroy landed in France, Stubby was one of only a small handful of still unofficial American war mascots. By the end of the war, during which he would participate in a total of 17 battles, he would be far and away the most famous.
Conroy and his fellow soldiers soon came to rely on Stubby’s superior senses as a crucial aid to their survival.
One advantage Stubby brought to the Front was his superior sense of hearing. Dogs can hear up to 35,000 hertz per second, compared to a human’s maximum of 20,000, dramatically increasing the range of sounds available for dogs’ hearing. In addition to this greatly expanded range of sounds, dogs also have the ability to close off their inner ear and micro-focus on specific sounds, unlike humans who are strictly at the mercy of any and all competing sounds.
For the soldiers in Stubby’s unit, Stubby’s hearing allowed him to serve as a sort of early detection warning system. After Stubby learned from the soldiers to run for cover when under fire, he would start running back long before the soldiers were even aware they were under attack, since he was able to hear the high-pitched whine of incoming shells far better and sooner than they could. The soldiers quickly learned to follow Stubby when he would start running back to the bunker, and even began to make a sort of grim game out of seeing who could make it back to the safety of cover first.
As superior as a dog’s sense of hearing might be to that of human’s, their sense of smell is even more impressive. Humans have around forty million olfactory receptors in our noses, while dogs have up to two billion. This means their sense of smell can be up to one hundred times better than that of humans, depending on the breed. They smell for distance as well, up to 250 yards away with no competing scents, and around 50 if there is interference from wind or other smells. In Dogs of War, Rogak recounts a study from Auburn University that theorizes “that dogs have the ability to detect the equivalent of a single drop of blood in an Olympic-size swimming pool, translating to less than 500 parts per trillion.”
This sense of smell is the reason for those awkward encounters with perfect strangers—especially awkward when involving attractive strangers of the opposite sex—that I used to experience in Brooklyn walking my brother’s dog, when each dog would race to stick their nose in the other dog’s butt for the obligatory sniff-sniff-sniff, the dog equivalent of a “Hi, how are ya?” or a handshake. While you and the stranger both give each other apologetic half-smiles and shrug, the dogs, by means of their superior noses and the other dog’s anal glands, are getting instantaneous chemical profiles about each other that would put a CSI unit to shame.
In the modern military, it is this superior sense of smell that makes dogs such an established and invaluable resource in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have proved themselves far superior to military technology in sniffing out the notoriously deadly IEDs, short for Improvised Explosive Devices, commonly known as roadside bombs.
In Stubby’s case, his sense of smell came into play with the Great War’s poison gas attacks. One night when Stubby’s unit was asleep, Stubby smelled the poison gas and began running through the trenches loudly barking and waking everyone up, giving them a chance to put on their gas masks. Stubby himself succumbed to the gas but rapidly recovered after being brought to the base hospital. After this, Conroy tried to fashion a dog gas mask for Stubby, but was unable to get something to fit properly around his blunt snout. Dog gas masks would eventually be developed in World War II when dogs became an official part of the U.S. military.
In addition to his close call with poison gas, in April 1918 Stubby was the victim of a shrapnel wound from an exploding hand grenade, which nearly killed him. But he recovered, and after six weeks in the base hospital—where he proved himself a morale-boosting favorite with his fellow human patients—Stubby was back in action with Conroy’s troop.
Besides his hearing and his sense of smell, Stubby brought other potent if somewhat more intangible qualities to the battlefield, including his intelligence, loyalty, protectiveness and teeth.
Throughout the war, he would do duty as a “mercy” dog, scouring the battlefield and helping medics locate wounded American and English soldiers. One night, while he was on his rounds, a soldier spoke to him in German-accented English. Thrown off by this strange accent and no doubt sensing the German soldier’s trepidation—anyone who has had the experience of walking by a particularly dangerous-seeming dog on the sidewalk is all too aware how dogs can “smell” fear—Stubby pursued the soldier and sank his teeth into his butt, from which backside Conroy, after disarming the soldier, would have a difficult time dislodging the amped-up dog. In the end, Stubby’s painfully perforated captive was discovered to be a German spy who had been mapping out the Allied trenches. It would be this act—the capturing of an enemy spy—that would lead to Stubby’s official promotion to Sergeant, making Stubby the only dog in the war to receive such an honor.
Through all of his battles, Stubby’s fame and popularity grew. After the retaking of Chateau-Thierry, a grateful group of French women made a chamois coat for him that was quickly covered with a series of Allied flags and medals. The medals he was awarded, totaling over a dozen, included one received for knocking a young Parisian girl out of the way of an out-of-control taxi while he was on leave in the City of Lights and another Victory Medal that was given to him by his fellow soldiers in the 102nd infantry. After the war, General Pershing would personally add to this collection with a special award from the Humane Society. Stubby sports his coat in nearly every available picture, weighted down with medals and featuring the name “STUBBY” embroidered on the side.
After his return from Europe and in the celebratory wake of Allied victory, Stubby became a bit of a canine rock star. Accompanied by Conroy, he would walk at the head of parades held across the country. He visited the White House and met three different American presidents, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge. When Conroy headed to Georgetown to attend law school, Stubby became the much-loved mascot for the Georgetown Hoyas football team.
In 1926, Stubby died in Conroy’s arms (as all four sources I read took rather sentimental pains to point out). Prepared by a taxidermist, Stubby’s body – adorned by his famous coat of many medals—was originally displayed at the American Red Cross museum. When it started to erode, the Smithsonian acquired it, and Stubby is now featured in their exhibit The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. On Armistice Day, November 11 2006, Stubby was honored with a brick in the Walk of Honor at the World War I Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. In three lines of all-caps engraved in marble, it reads, “Sergeant Stubby. Hero Dog of WWI. A brave stray.”