Skip to main content

The War Dogs: History of Dogs in War and Conflict

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

A Dog in Armour

Ancient War Dogs

Ancient Egyptian pictures depict dog soldiers participating in the war. According to these pictures, a huge dog similar to the mastiff was used by Egyptians to attack the enemies at the battlefront. The Greeks called it the Molossian breed. In the wars that Egyptians waged in Libya and Palestine between 2000 and 1600 BCE, such dogs played a pivotal part. A seal from Ur dating back to 3000 BC has a drawing on it of a dog guarding the throne of a king. There are also ancient Turkish paintings discovered from the time of the Hittites of Anatolia that visualise war dogs. Assyrian tablets have similar drawings on them.

Polyaenus, the Bithynian author of war strategies from the 2nd CE, narrates how the king Alyattus II of Lydia in a battle, used war dogs to defeat Cimmerians around 605 BCE. One quote from the writing goes like this,

[The dogs] fell upon the Barbarians, as they would on a herd of wild beasts; tore many of them so as to disable them, and put them from action and put others to flight.

The Persian war against Greece led by Xerxes saw another instance of the ferocity of war dogs- these were Indian war dogs that people fearfully rumoured to be bred using tigers. In the Marathon War victory painting of the Greeks, a dog is present and this dog has a unique story. It fought with its owner, an Athenian soldier, in 490 BCE in the Battle of Marathon.

Another story from history is about a war dog, Sorter. This dog was among the 50 guard dogs that were deployed to protect the seashores of Corinth at night when the soldiers slept. The Greeks attacked in the night and killed all the guard dogs except Sorter, who ran to the town and woke up the soldiers helping them fight back. Corinth eventually won the war. Sorter was honoured and his name was engraved on a monument commemorating also the other 49 slain dogs; this engraving read, “Sorter, Defender, and Saviour of Corinth”.

Alexander the Great had a huge war dog gifted to him by the King of Albania, a dog that could make an elephant turn back with his bark, and with ferocious modes of attack.

Dogs Fighting in Tutankhamun's War Against the Nubians

Dogs in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, it was the convoys and caravans that the dogs protected. Horse carriages made possible long-distance travel and most of the paths went through the woods where bandits hid waiting to attack and loot. There is even an Irish story of a fearsome guard dog biting off the head of the enemy charioteer. The Russians, Tartars, Lithuanians, and Finnish warriors, all used dogs in their military pursuits.

African Bushmen with Their Dogs

Dogs in the New World

Christopher Columbus made his first voyage to the Americas in 1493, and it was on his second visit in the same year that he took 20 attack dogs with him to fight the native people. The coloniser wanted to establish his power over the colonised by all ways and means, dogs being yet another effective weapon in his hand. The dog battalion of Columbus included 20 dogs- mastiffs and greyhounds. The Canary Islands were the frontier location on the Atlantic from where the journey to the unknown commenced and reached the New World. The first to reach and colonise the Canaries were the Spaniards. They wiped off the native population of these islands- the Guanches people. A major weapon in these colony wars was dogs. The weight of a mastiff is around 250 pounds and once trained in a violent way, their attack is brutal. The greyhounds had the frightening reputation of quick disembowelment of their prey. The Guanches were the pre-historic adventurers of the sea who reached the Canary Islands from North Africa and settled there. Their ancestors might have courageously weathered the unchartered sea in their rudimentary boats to reach the islands but evidently, the descendants could not survive the coloniser’s advanced weapons and brutal tactics.

The War Dogs of Columbus

Columbus used his war dogs for the first time in the New World against Jamaican native people. The year was 1494. In his journal notes of the days of the ruthless massacre, Columbus seemed to be satisfied with the terror that his dogs unleashed on the natives. He compared one dog as equivalent to 10 men. The 1945 Battle of Vega Real waged by Columbus to conquer and colonise Haiti needs to be counted in history as a tale of how low human empathy can fall, as in this war, each of the 20 dogs employed by Columbus’ side tore apart “at least a hundred natives”.

The Spanish Fed Their Dogs With The Flesh of Natives

Spaniards and War Dogs

Spaniards found new heights of cruelty and moral turpitude when they used dogs to hunt down the tribal chiefs of native people to evoke fear in the heart of the entire tribe. Many Spanish commanders fed their dogs the flesh of the natives regularly to make them more aggressive towards them.

Scroll to Continue

The book, Dogs of the Conquest by John and Jeannette Varner quotes a letter of protest written by 14 Dominican priests of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) to a counsellor of the King of Spain citing the incident below-

…on one occasion some Christians [Spanish soldiers on the island] came across an Indian woman with a nursing child in her arms. Since their dog was hungry, they seized the child and tossed it to the dog, which tore it to pieces in the presence of the mother.

In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro, the brother of Francisco Pizarro took the largest ever dog army to Peru to attack and kill the natives. Florida was conquered by wiping out the native populations by Hernando de Soto with the help of the war dog, Bruto. Bruto died later but the information was concealed because the Spaniards thought that the natives would become bold once they knew the dog that they feared too much was dead.

The Mexican dogs were small and they only knew to yowl and the great Aztec tribe was in awe of the Spanish war dogs that barked with the fury of lions. One can only imagine the terror that might have touched the hearts of the otherwise brave Aztec warriors when they saw a horde of Mastiffs in iron or quilt armour running towards them in front of the Spanish horse cavalry, their barks echoing in the hills and tongues hanging out.

War Dogs in Europe

During the English civil wars, dogs were used against the Irish by crown loyalists. Henry VIII, the King of England, gifted 400 war dogs in full armour to the Holy Roman Emperor of Spain, Charles V. During the wars of Napoleon, a Poodle named Moustache rose to the status of a legend when he took the French flag from the hand of a slain soldier in the Battle of Austerlitz, killed the attacker, and carried the flag to the base. The dog was decorated for this act of heroism.

World War II

When World War II posed Britain with a food crisis, the British asked its citizens to kill their pet dogs as a prerequisite for being eligible for food rations. About 200000 dogs were killed as part of this decision. It was only later that the British realised that these dogs could be instead taken to the war front for help and rescue. The Soviets are reported to have used dogs to go under the advancing Nazi tanks with bombs on their backs. Later on, finding mines by sniffing became a special duty of military dogs.

German Medical Dogs

The First Voices of Protest Against the Use of Dogs for Hunting and Killing People

Between 1835 and 1842, during the Second Seminole War, the Us government tried to use tracker bloodhounds to find the Native American rebels in the swamps of Florida. There was a huge public outcry admonishing the barbarity of this tactic and the decision was frozen. The rising social awareness about human rights and animal rights gradually redefined the way wars are waged. The use of dogs in wars in ways physically harmful to humans diminished over time. By the late 19th century, dogs began to be used in war as rescue workers and message carriers. Germany used them as medical dogs to take first aid to the wounded soldiers and alert the base camp about a soldier who needs help. The Red Cross used them to pull ambulance carts in war zones. And above all, soldiers sometimes kept dogs with them in the trenches and even war front as companions. Every moment facing the real and imminent possibility of death, these soldiers found some happiness and relaxation in their four-legged friends.

A History that We Remember, Not the Dogs

Unknowingly, the dogs waged our wars and took part in our cruel ventures to oppress the weak so that the strong can always emerge victorious. It is a relief that unlike us, who bear the burden of the deeds of our ancestors, the dogs remain blissfully unaware of the horrific role that they had to play.


Dogs of the Conquest, John and Jeannette Varner, 1983, University of Oklahoma Press.

Animals in the Military: From Hannibal’s Elephants to the Dolphins of the US Navy, John Kistler, 2011, ABC-CLIO.

The Dogs of the Conquistadors,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

Related Articles