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Warrior Dog- Ancient Greek

Warrior Dogs

Dogs of war ancient and modern

By CAPT. Paula Crawford-Gamble

NC, USN (Ret.)


Archaeologists suspect that humans have been using dogs in warfare since they were first domesticated more than 15,000 years ago.

Ancient Greek warriors depicted on vases, at times, have war dogs painted on the blazons of their shields, as in this fine example on the left from the Penn Museum. The first written records of war dogs come from the ancient Kingdom of Lydia in modern day Turkey. One of the small empire’s greatest rulers, Alyattes, reportedly had his soldiers release packs of dogs on Cimmerian (South Russian) troops in battle around 600 BCE. The Lydian attack dogs were particularly effective against enemy cavalry, according to one contemporary source. [1]

Around the same time, Magnesian troops, also from Turkey, used their war dogs not against cavalry, but in conjunction with their mounted warriors. In a battle against the Ephesians of Ephesus, Magnesian riders released their hounds on the enemy phalanxes to break them up before a cavalry charge. [2]

Centuries later, in his treatise The Gallic Wars, the Roman general Julius Caesar would remark on the fierce Celtic warriors flanked by Irish Wolfhounds and Mastiffs that his army faced during his invasion of Britannia in 55BCE.[3] Moreover, the Roman army would routinely deploy their own war dogs. The Canis Molossus or Molossian, a now extinct breed originally from western Greece and Albania, was the Roman Legion’s preferred breed of fighting dog. In fact, this large dog, believed to be the ancestor of today’s mastiffs, was specially bred just for combat. Typically, ancient warrior dogs served as sentries or patrols, or sometimes they would be taken into battle strapped with armor or spiked collars.[4] One of the best illustrations of a Roman war dog on the battlefield occurs on the celebrated statue from Primaporta of Emperor Augustus (early 1st Cent. CE), where the figure of a Roman soldier (possibly Tiberius or the god Mars) dressed in armor in the center of the breastplate is accompanied by one such dog.

In the late Middle Ages, Spanish conquistadores in the New World made brutally effective use of fighting dogs as well. Favoring a mixed breed of deerhound and mastiff, the Spaniards festooned their canines with padded armor and spiked collars. Tribal warriors of the Americas were terrified of these enormous fighting animals. The Spaniards would typically release the beasts once an enemy formation was just about to break in order to precipitate a total rout. The dogs were known to devour any enemy they could sink their teeth into. So feared were Spain’s canine combatants that the conqueror Ponce De Leon reportedly used a pack of them to put down a slave rebellion in Puerto Rico. [5] Canines continued to have valued strategic roles in combat throughout the following centuries.

Augustus of Primaporta, Ist cent. AD, Vatican Museums; detail of breastplate showing Roman soldier with war dog

US Monument to Military Working Dogs, 2013. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Modern War Dogs

During the First World War, canines quickly proved their value in the trenches of the Western Front – not as combatants, but as pack animals, stretcher-bearers and even sentries. Trench dogs were particularly effective in detecting enemy recon teams and raiding parties in No Man’s Land, the disputed territory between enemy fronts, especially after dark. Dogs also served as messengers on the front lines. The muddy and crater pocked battle capes of Flanders Field, Belgium were often impassible to human runners; dogs had a far easier time navigating the terrain. At a fraction of the size of a human being, the animals were difficult targets for snipers to hit. In recognition of their usefulness, the British army established a dog training center in Scotland to prepare messenger carriers for the trenches. [6] Likewise, Germany reportedly used more than 30,000 of them during the war; while the French sent 20,000 to the front. [7]

Dogs returned to action during the next global conflict and were used in new (and sometimes cruel) ways in World War II. For example, during the opening weeks of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Russian troops tried to use dogs to destroy enemy tanks. Dog handlers with the Red Army spent weeks conditioning their animals to dart under German Panzers when released onto the battlefield. [6] The dogs were equipped with mines that would be magnetically detonated when the charges came in contact with panzers’ steel hulls. The explosion would knock out the tank, but kill the dog in the process. This cruel practice ended as it turned out that the dogs were just as likely to run beneath Russian tanks or simply leap into friendly trenches amid the noise of battle, killing Soviet troops instead of the enemy [8].

The United States also employed dogs during World War II, although not as suicide bombers. In fact, soon after entering the war, the US government put out a call to American families to volunteer their dogs to help defeat the Axis Powers. More than 10,000 dogs were inducted into the service The Americans, like many other armies, used dogs as messengers, sentries and even bomb sniffers. [9] Having demonstrated their utility to the American war effort in WW II dogs continued to be enlisted/employed in future armed conflicts.

The invaluable service of these canines in modern warfare has not gone unrecognized.  On Oct. 28, 2013 a 100-foot bronze monument at JBSA was dedicated as a tribute to military working dogs and handlers who have served in every branch of the U.S. military. The national monument, created by the John Burnam Monument Foundation, represents the four primary military dog breeds standing around a handler. John Burnam, a veteran of the Vietnam War who was a handler in the Army, worked for years to make this monument a reality. “This monument represents all wars, all services and all dog handlers of all wars,” he says. “It represents a piece of the military that hasn’t really been memorialized” [11].

The Great Digs of Stache: The Warrior Cadaver Dog

This New York Post article is an account of the herculean undertaking of one Philadelphia canine and his hander in Iraq. Labrador retriever Stache and owner Jim McCans.

Stache, a black Labrador Retriever and winner of ASPCA’s Presidential Service Award, was a highly skilled and sought after cadaver dog, serving even in the armed conflict in Iraq. For over ten years, Stache’s talents were utilized by both the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department, providing critical canine support to teams that covered portions of South Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. These teams were tasked with homicides, domestic crimes and missing persons. However, Stache’s military career would require more intensive training.


Stache received 12 weeks of full-time training at the Philadelphia Police Academy in the summer of 2005 and graduated with a perfect score from the police academy.  He received a United States Police Canine Association cadaver dog certification, after which Stache participated in multiple searches, even solving a missing-person case in Philadelphia. Stache also served in the Hurricane Katrina search and rescue mission in New Orleans. 

Solving a missing-person case in Philadelphia off of PENN campus. Skull mid picture on right

Stache serving in the Hurricane Katrina rescue mission.

Training a cadaver dog requires regular contact with human blood, bones, and decaying flesh. In the United States, dog handlers may legally obtain bodily components like human placenta and blood.  Some handlers substitute commercially available ersatz odors (the most common is Sigma Pseudo Corpse Scent, which comes in three kinds: recently dead, decomposed and drowned). But deceased humans produce unique volatile organic compounds, and because canines have a keenly attuned sense of smell, such animals should practice on the real thing.

Stache was a forensic archaeologist in his own right.  He trained and partnered with forensic pathologists and archaeologists throughout his career, solving multiple cases.  Archaeologists the world over acknowledge the importance of cadaver dogs in their work. Andrea Pintar, a Croatian archaeologist and cadaver dog handler has a team of cadaver dogs named "the four-legged pack." They work on grave sites dating back to 700 BC [11]. According to Martin Carver, a renowned archaeologist from York University in Great Britain, the key variable in archaeological evidence quality is not technique but purpose.  In each case, the task is matched with what has survived and the power of detection [12].  Stache, time and time again, embodied that variable.

In October 2007, Stache’s handler, Jim McCans received a call from U.S. Central Command in Iraq.  A ‘cadaver dog’ was needed to find two missing soldiers from New York who were last seen August 2007 in Iraq. Responding to the call, in October 2007, McCans and Stache, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, headed to Iraq, where they stayed for two months at Victory Base Compound, just steps outside of Baghdad.

Stache with Handler and friend Jim McCans

 Stache with his fellow warriors from 101 st Airborne Division

One of Stache’s many finds in Iraq

Stache being examined post IED event

Stache having fun with Iraqi warriors

Stache had the dig of a lifetime, with nine major finds in Iraq. In a series of caves, he discovered graves that were buried eight feet deep. The caves were built in the Iraqi desert, into the sides of long narrow ditches that appear invisible to those looking out over the desert. For thousands of years, people used these caves to hide in the desert from their enemy. Once these caves were found, the area had to be cleared for possible IEDs by US soldiers. Once cleared, the remains were extracted by the Army’s Special Evidence.

Stache had a brush with death in early November 2007 when an IED (improvised explosive device) detonated in front of his platoon in Owesat, Iraq. Two soldiers, part of his protection detail, Sergeant Chris Payne and Sergeant Rob Laux were severely injured. Stache, hit by shrapnel, was diagnosed with PTSD, fractured sternum and a ruptured ear drum.


After the IED incident that injured Stache, it was required that all areas be cleared by an explosives detection canine prior to the cadaver dog check as dogs are not cross trained to detect both.  This is because the IED dog must give a “passive” indication, “stand still” as to not trigger the device and cadaver dogs are taught an “active indication” by digging and aggressively indicating a find. 

A playful dog with tons of personality, Stache was popular with the soldiers but feared by the Iraqis, who believe that black dogs are satanic [13]. “Iraqis were very afraid of Stache because he is black in color. They thought he was extremely satanic. In Iraq, dogs are not kept as pets and all dog teams have a bounty on them of $85,000 if they are killed,” according to Stache’s handler Jim McCans.

About 500 dogs are deployed at any one time to serve our country, and like their human compatriots, some warrior dogs, up to 5% of all service dogs, come home with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [14]. PTSD symptoms in dogs can reflect those of humans: hypervigilance, pronounced avoidance of anything associated with the event (police cars, policemen, sirens, flashing lights, etc.), and what appear to be nightmares causing fitful sleeping. More than half of the dogs who have PTSD return to active duty after treatment, with veterinarians often available to provide support at the deployed area. If dogs need more specialized treatment, veterinarians often depend on advice from leading experts in the field, sometimes resulting in retirement for the service dog.

Stache and Chris Payne fellow warrior, who was injured in the Iraq IED event, visiting post Iraq tour

Stache and the author, CAPT Crawford, NC, USN (Ret.)

At some point, every working dog’s career ends. It can be due to age, injuries or the loss of desire to do the tasks. Due to the effects of PTSD, Stache retired from active duty in December of 2007.  He returned to his loving family and went on the road with his partner and handler Jim McCans to educate children, community service personnel and fellow warriors on the role of Cadaver and War Dogs. Stache always found time to visit with veteran warriors and friends.

Stache and partner/handler Jim McCans arrived home at Dover AFB to be greeted by their family

In September 2017, Stache peacefully lost his life, surrounded by his family.  He is remembered for serving our country as well as the Philadelphia community for almost his entire life. He was a decorated hero, having received a Purple Heart.


Stache, a true Warrior and Hero.

Stache taking a break in the Gulf of Mexico during his Katrina mission

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