From tracking down suspects in the 2015 Paris terror attacks to fighting extremists in Africa’s Sahel region, dogs have helped French soldiers, police officers and rescue teams save lives for more than a century.
In recognition of its four-pawed partners, France unveiled a memorial this week honoring all “civilian and military heroic dogs.” It consists of a sculpture by the French-Colombian artist Milton of a World War I soldier and dog huddled together.
The monument is located in front of the town hall in Suippes, a part of northeastern France that witnessed major battles during the First World War. The placement acknowledges the important role dogs played in the US and European armies of the time.
Suippes is also home to Europe’s largest military kennel, where members of the French Army’s 132nd Canine Infantry Regiment train dogs for military service. The regiment currently consists of 650 army personnel and 550 dogs.
The monument erected as a sign of respect for the heroic dogs was the initiative of the French kennel club “Centrale Canine”. Animals of the army regiment attended the opening ceremony of the memorial on Thursday, wearing their military medals.
“This (recognition) is very important because dogs are on missions just like humans, but we don’t ask them for their opinion. Therefore, in my opinion, it is fair to return the medal to them,” said Johann, adjutant of the combat unit.
He and the other human members of the unit could only be identified by first name for security reasons related to their military status.
The regiment at Suippes prepares dogs for combat zones, where they are tasked with sniffing out and stalking a potential enemy. Some are also trained to detect explosives and drugs. Each dog is paired with a soldier.
A member of the regiment for 12 years, Johann is now mated to a Dutch shepherd named Naski. While he didn’t lose his dog in action, his colleagues did.
“It is psychologically important and very difficult for the manager. But in those moments, we take it upon ourselves (to carry on) and when our dog is gone, we are still foot soldiers and we have to be able to continue our missions,” he said.
Soldiers of the regiment participate in France’s operations abroad, including in the Sahel region of Africa, West Africa and the Middle East. They are also sent on domestic missions and to work in French territories overseas, such as combating gold trafficking in French Guiana.
Dogs selected for training are sometimes recruited as puppies, but most are 18 months old. Many come from France, others from the Netherlands, Germany and Eastern European countries.
They go through a series of tests to see if they are willing to bite, play and startle easily in a stressful environment. The most important quality required is bravery, said the soldiers of the regiment.
“We use a lot of their sense of smell, sight, and physical abilities. That’s why we have a lot of Belgians, German shepherds, dogs that can run and are resistant to heat and cold,” explained Audrey, a member of the dog department. “They are very good working dogs.”
When they can no longer fulfill their mission, dogs retire. Audrey plans to keep her partner Mookki home when the time comes. For retired dogs, “working ones are the ones in the best position to choose families,” he explained.
“We as handlers try to do it the best we can … depending on the dog, depending on the character. Some dogs can also have post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.
France created its first department to train dogs for active duty during the First World War. They searched for wounded soldiers, alerted sentries and carried messages, food and ammunition to the front lines of the 1914-1918 war.
Thursday’s ceremony in France specifically commemorated Diesel, a police dog killed in a raid targeting the mastermind of the Paris attacks in 2015, and Leuk, a French military attack dog killed by an extremist in Mali in 2019.
Other nations have recognized dogs’ wartime contributions. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskiy awarded a medal to Patron, a Jack Russell terrier that sniffed out landmines after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The boss later visited US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and praised him as “world famous”.
In the United States, the first national monument dedicated to military working dog teams was opened in 2013 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, home to the world’s largest training center for military dogs.