Since the U.S. military first started using war dogs in World War I, the bomb detecting abilities of canines have prevented the loss of human life. Military war dogs are some very special, highly trained pooches, and every once in a while, one of these dogs comes along that does something so brave that it earns an award. But it's a common misconception that a dog can win an actual military award, and while that makes for stories that are cute and highly shareable on Facebook, it's simply not true. Canines may not earn decorations like human soldiers, but there are a number of other ways that they are honored.
One of the most prominent awards a military dog can win is the Dickin Medal, which has been given by United Kingdom's People's Dispensary For Sick Animals since 1943 to acknowledge acts of bravery. The Dickin Medal is the animal equivalent of the U.K.'s Victoria Cross, or the Medal Of Honor in the U.S., and 32 pigeons, 31 dogs, three horses, and a cat have all won the honor since its inception. Not an annual award, but rather given out at will to an exceptionally brave animal, the pool of eligible pooches is international in scope. Lucca, a German Shepherd who served with the United States Marine Corps on active duty for six years, is the latest dog to win this designation. On her last tour to Afghanistan, she saved her platoon and handler from a potentially fatal situation by discovering an IED, but lost a leg in the process. Examining Lucca's feats of valor, the PDSA says:
During her six years of active service, Lucca successfully completed 400 separate missions and her skills as a search and rescue dog protected the lives of thousands of troops. Lucca and her handler were at the front of patrols to ensure the safety of those behind them. Thanks to Lucca's skills there were no human causalities during any of her patrols.
Lucca recently traveled to the UK with her handler, Chris Willingham to receive the Dickin Medal. It was a great honor, and though Lucca might have not understood that she was getting an award, she definitely appreciated the extra attention and ear scratches.
The Dickin Medal has been awarded 67 times, far fewer than the 500 distinctions dished out by U.S. War Dog Association. Since 2001, the Dickin Medal has been given out more than a dozen times. The first three designations were given to dogs who were instrumental in rescue efforts in the September 11 attacks. Apollo, a German shepherd with the NYPD's Canine Special Operations Division, was the first dog on the scene after the collapse of the first tower. Salty and Roselle were a pair of Labrador seeing eye dogs who led their blind owners to safety, 70 floors down. This trio of hero canines were awarded the Dickin Medal in 2002.
Posthumous and retroactive honors are also a regular occurrence when it comes to the Dickin Medal. Sam, a German Shepherd, won the Dickin Medal posthumously in 2003 for his efforts with the peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1998.
Buster, a five-year-old springer spaniel attached to the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, is awarded the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Dickin Medal - 'the animal's Victoria Cross' - on December 9, 2003 in London. | (Ian Waldie/Getty) Images)
A whole team of pooches who were part of the U.K.'s Royal Air Force campaign from 1949-1952 were retroactively awarded the medal in 2007. Bobbie, Jasper, Lassie, and Lucky won for "exceptional determination and life-saving skills during the Malaya Campaign," but Lucky was the only one to survive. Sadie, an explosives-sniffing lab, also won in 2007 for "outstanding gallantry and devotion to duty while assigned to the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry during conflict in Afghanistan in 2005." Sadie and her handler went into extreme danger to uncover bombs that the PDSA says would have caused "maximum injury." Sadie retired after she won the medal, and went on to live the rest of her life with her handler.
A Labrador named Treo, attached to 8 Platoon in the The Royal Irish Regiment, was given the honor in 2010 for uncovering a "daisy chain" IED on a road that a group of soldiers was about to walk along. Treo retired after seven years of service, and lived with his handler Sgt. Dave Heyhoe until his death last year. He was buried with his Dickin Medal. In 2012, Theo, a Springer Spaniel, was awarded the medal posthumously for his service in Afghanistan with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in Afghanistan from 2010-2011. Theo located 14 explosive devices, setting a record at the time. Another dog with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, a Labrador named Sasha, won in 2014. She located 15 explosive devices and mortars. She and her handler were killed by a Taliban grenade in 2008.
Diesel (above), a Beligian Malinois, was the first RAID (Research, Assistance, Intervention, Deterrence) dog killed in the line of duty while serving with the French military. He was taken down when searching for suspects in the Paris attacks last fall. Diesel was given the medal posthumously in December.
A lack of official awards in the U.S. doesn't mean American veterans don't value their war dogs' importance. Ron Aiello a Vietnam veteran and former Marine behind the U.S. War Dogs Association, has been trying since 2003 to get the Department of Defense to recognize the brave service of war dogs. So far, the DoD has refused, but undeterred, the U.S. War Dogs Association created its own award, The United States Military Working Dog Service Award. Since 2010, they've issued about 500, Aiello said.
"I've been in contact with the Department of Defense trying to get them to issue some type of medal for military working dogs, and their first response was we cant do that because it will diminish awards given to humans," Aiello told me. "I wrote back and said look, I'm not asking you to issue one of those awards, I'm asking you to specifically create an award for military working dogs. They said no. I emailed them back. I said we were going to do that ourselves, create an award. I asked if they could sanction us. We'll pay for it, we'll issue it. They said no we can't sanction it."
Aiello says that when you see a dog wearing a medal, it's either one that its owner won, or some award given out in an unofficial capacity (i.e. by the platoon the dog was attached to).
This photograph taken on August 19, 2011 shows Zeke, a therapy dog, lying beside a visitor at the combat stress clinic in Kandahar military base, southern Afghanistan. Zeke, a five-year-old Labrador retriever who has a rank of Sergeant First Class, is trained to help soldiers struggling with stress and war trauma while other military working dogs are deployed in combat zones locating bombs and improvised explosive devices saving lives of coalition forces in its war against Taliban insurgents. | (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)
There was one exception, however. A German Shepherd named Chips is the only dog to ever win a Purple Heart. Chips joined up with the Army's Third Infantry Division in 1943, working as a tank dog and a scout in the European theater. At the Battle of Sicily, the Pleasantville Journal reported at the time that he attacked the enemy's machine gun nest, enabling his handler to capture six enemy soldiers. Valiant Chips sustained a bullet wound in the process. He also won a silver star for his efforts, but a dog winning some of the highest military honors didn't sit well with some people, including the commander of the Order of the Purple Heart, because giving an award to a dog was perceived as devaluing the service of human soldiers. Stripped of his medals, Chips was honorably discharged and sent home, and no dog has ever been given an official decoration since.
The U.S. military has basically held the same view of giving official to awards to dogs since the saga of Chips. But that doesn't mean they aren't essential. Using Vietnam as an example, Aiello estimates working dogs saved around 10,000 lives (including his own). But that number, which amounts to the number of dog handlers there were during the war, may have been higher. The U.S. deployed more than 4,500 dogs to Vietnam. Most of them did not come back. They were either relinquished to the South Vietnam Army or abandoned.
Aiello tells a story about his own military dog, Stormy, who he worked with in Vietnam in 1966. Stormy saved Ron's life on his very first patrol, and many others after.
"As soon as we stepped out in a clearing, Stormy stopped and looked out to the left flank," he said. "You step down and say 'What do you see girl?' Then you read her. As I'm kneeling down, a bullet whizzed over my head. There was a sniper in the tree. Stormy alerted me."
Ron isn't sure what kind of fate Stormy befell, but he chooses to believe she was killed in action. But his experience with her is why he advocates so hard for dog decorations, especially when there are around 2,500 dogs actively working in the U.S. armed services today. His argument is that dogs can still do things that humans and technology can't.
"Let's put it this way, I heard a story one time back in 1999 that they actually took an explosive detector and put it up against a dog," Aiello said. "Took a storage building and put something with explosive residue. Detector took half an hour. Dog found it in five minutes."
At the peak of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, around 700 dogs were deployed overseas. Many of these dogs have been specially bred for the work that they do. They are heavily vetted even before training starts. They go through rigorous training, many of them (and their handlers) passing through either Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina or Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland (JBSA) at some point. Dr. Stewart Hilliard, who heads up breeding and evaluation of these dogs at JBSA told San Antonio Magazine in 2013 that "these dogs are among our most effective counter measures against terrorists and explosives." They're about as valuable as human soldiers, and a hell of a lot more pettable. And while they may not be winning any official medals, they deserve their weight in Milk Bones.
This article originally appeared at Vocativ.com: Very good dogs that become decorated military heroes