Giving Credit to the [Real] Dogs of War

“I would wager that 90 percent of American combat troops killed in action during the Vietnam War never saw their killers. Whether it was a sniper at 200 yards, a rocket fired into a base camp or an attack from a well-concealed bunker complex, the element of surprise was usually on the side of our enemies. But our forces did have one elite weapon that sometimes took the advantage away. At times, these weapons even turned such situations upside down and enabled us to surprise and take them out. That elite weapon was our military working dog, and we had thousands of them.” R. Cunnigham, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Sentry dogs with their handlers after patrolling near Da Nang in 1969. Credit R.A. Elder/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images Once in Vietnam, these dogs were the gold .jpg

Excerpt: The Dogs of the Vietnam War, by Richard Cunnigham, The New York Times

“I was a sentry dog handler in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, a member of the 212th Military Police Sentry Dog Company stationed in Tay Ninh. My companion was a German shepherd named Smokey. I was 20 years old and weighed 135 pounds; Smokey weighed 90 pounds. Our unit’s responsibility was to protect the Tay Ninh Base Camp, and especially the ammunition dump. Smokey and I typically worked at night, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., but we would also conduct daylight area sweeps when temporarily attached to infantry units.

Fieldy is an athletic black Labrador retriever who served four combat tours in Afghanistan. Phot- ABC News

In Vietnam, American forces used dogs for everything from base security to detecting ambushes to hunting down fleeing enemy units. We used German shepherds like Smokey, mixes of shepherd types and Labrador retrievers that were well trained in detecting, attacking and tracking the enemy. They were certainly not all purebreds. Most were given to the military by families back home.

The dogs started out at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas with a thorough physical exam. Then they were observed and tested to determine which area of training they would be assigned. Aggressive dogs usually went to the sentry unit. Less aggressive but still highly intelligent shepherd dogs went to the scout school. The Labradors, with their amazing noses, went straight to tracker training.

Specialized Search Dog (SSD) Taz, a Black Labrador Retriever, finds explosives during war. Photo-Camp Pendleton

Every dog accepted was highly intelligent, and each became a canine soldier, with his or her own individual four-digit service number tattooed in the left ear. Dogs and their handlers went through three phases of instruction: drill/obedience, aggression and scouting. And although it appeared that the dogs were being instructed, it was the soldiers who were actually being taught.

At Okinawa, where I met and trained with Smokey, most of the dogs were veterans being reassigned to new handlers. They knew the drills inside and out, and we did not. Our training instructors seemed to take a perverse pleasure in informing us how dumb we were compared with the dogs.

A human nose has about five million scent receptors; a shepherd has at least 225 million. The dogs can detect movement much faster and more accurately than we can, and their ears can hear, even at a very early age, sound from four times farther away than we can. What’s more, all our dogs had lived with our American ‘smells’ for years. The scent of the Vietnamese was very different and much easier for them to pick up and alert on.

When our politicians decided to exit Vietnam — in a hurry — the military classified our dogs as “equipment.” As such, they were left behind. Some, but not many, were transferred to the South Vietnamese military and police. Of the 4,000 dogs that served in-country, fewer than 200 made it back to the States. Not a pleasant thought to consider given their incredible service, endurance and devotion to duty.

I’ve heard it said that without our military dogs, there would be 10,000 additional names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. I, for one, think that’s an understatement.

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article. 

II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. There were many sentry dog handlers in Vietnam.
  2. The unit’s responsibility was to protect the camp.
  3. Soldiers were temporarily attached to infantry units.
  4. Dogs were good at detecting ambushes.
  5. Aggressive dogs usually went to the sentry unit.
  6. Every dog responded to both verbal and nonverbal hand commands.
  7. Scout dogs were able to raise an alarm about an ambush long before the the unit knew there was danger.
  8. With a dog’s help a soldier could call in fire or air support to obliterate the enemy position.
  9. Not every unit on patrol got a dog.
  10. With a scout dog team leading the way, most patrols were successful or uneventful.

Reading Comprehension


Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences  taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

This ___or sound ___was also true of the ___dog teams, like Smokey and me. When a dog team___at its post — usually just a ___around a camp,___dump or air field — it ___a ‘changeover.’The handler changed the dog’s ___collar to his ___’now it’s time to work’ collar. The dog understood the difference___ and went to work.

WORD LIST: immediately, choke-chain, performed, arrived, sentry, scent,   alert, path, ammo, leather,

Grammar Focus

Word -Recognition

Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.

There were also mind/mine and booby/body trap dogs. They protected/protect our soldiers on patrol/petrol from the many and diverse/diversified devices set to kill and maid/maim. Take the thin, monofilament line/lies that were practically invisible/advisable to the human eye, which the Vietcong attached to a grenade/green or other explosive device/devious that detonated when ‘tripped.’

III. Post Reading Activities

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Discussion for Comprehension /Writing

Directions: Place students in groups Have each group list 3  questions they would like to ask any person mentioned in the article. Groups share questions as a class.

Extra: Web Search

Directions: In groups/partners have students search the web for the topic of dogs used in wars to see what additional information they can find. Students can either have further discussions or write an essay about the subject.

1-Minute Free Writing Exercise

Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading.  Review the responses as a class. Note: For the lower levels allow more time for this writing activity.


Category: Animals