History of Police Dogs

Contents: 2005 News Reports
2004 News Reports
2003 News Reports
2002 News Reports
2001 (and earlier) News Reports
General Police Dog and Legal Info
History of Police Dog Abuse

History of Police Dogs and Military Dogs

Dogs were first domesticated somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 years ago and were initially used for hunting, hauling, and guarding camps and settlements. At some point, imperialistic and class-based societies began to exploit dogs' aggressive potential for both offensive purposes (military dogs) and for internal social control, particularly to control slaves and to guard accumulated property. By the 5th century B.C., various societies had adopted these strategies. According to Michael G. Lemish, "Persians, Greeks, Assyrians and Babylonians all recognized the tactical advantage of war dogs and deployed them as forward attacking elements" (War Dogs). In Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs (Woodstock & New York 2003), Adrienne Mayor writes:

The Romans used dogs both for war and for internal control. Their 'Molossians', predecessors of today's Neopolitan Mastiff, were also sometimes featured in the arena, where they were pitted against various other beasts or against slaves.

After Rome fell, the use of dogs for offense and repression appears to have tapered off somewhat, until it was revived with unprecedented brutality by the Spanish Conquistadors.

  • Atrocities of the Spanish Conquistadors in the West Indies Account from Bartolome de Las Casas (missionary and conquistadore) circa 1513: "...The Spaniards with their horses, their spears and lances, began to commit murders and other strange cruelties. They entered into towns and villages, sparing neither children nor old men and women. They ripped their bellies and cut them to pieces as if they had been slaughtering lambs in a field....Most tried to flee. They tried to hide in the mountains. They tried to flee from these men. Men who were empty of all pity, behaving like savage beasts. They are nothing more than slaughterers and enemies of mankind. These evil men had even taught their hounds, fierce dogs, to tear natives to pieces at first sight...."


    Spanish invader Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) shown in Central America with troops, presiding over the execution of Indians; Engraving by Théodore De Bry (1528-1598); New York Public Library, Rare Book Room, De Bry Collection, New York

  • From Pestilence and Genocide (excerpted from the book American Holocaust by David Stannard, Oxford University Press, 1992: "...[Vasco Núñez de Balboa] had his own favorite dog-Leoncico, or "little lion," a reddish-colored cross between a greyhound and a mastiff-that was rewarded at the end of a campaign for the amount of killing it had done. On one much celebrated occasion, Leoncico tore the head off an Indian leader in Panama while Balboa, his men, and other dogs completed the slaughter of everyone in a village that had the ill fortune to lie in their journey's path. Heads of human adults do not come off easily, so the authors of Dogs of the Conquest seem correct in calling this a "remarkable feat," although Balboa's men usually were able to do quite well by themselves. As one contemporary description of this same massacre notes: "The Spaniards cut off the arm of one, the leg or hip of another, and from some their heads at one stroke, like butchers cutting up beef and mutton for market. Six hundred, including the cacique, were thus slain like brute beasts. ...Vasco ordered forty of them to be torn to pieces by dogs."

    Mark Derr's A Dog's History of America (North Point Press: 2004; see Washington Post book review) offers a broad portrait of the use of war dogs in the Americas. According to Derry, the Conquistadors' dogs were "specifically bred and trained to hunt down and disembowel Indians," and they followed the "practice of bringing along on any campaign chained Indian slaves as food for the dogs."

    The following anecdote, quoted from The New World Holocaust, was illustrated in the sixteenth century De Bry engraving seen below: "...As the Spaniards went with their war dogs hunting down Indian men and women, it happened that a sick Indian woman who could not escape from the dogs, sought to avoid being torn apart by them, in this fashion: she took a cord and tied her year-old child to her leg, and then she hanged herself from a beam. But the dogs came and tore the child apart; before the creature expired, however, a friar baptized it...."

  • Barry Lopez, summarizing one of Las Casas' reports in his book "The Rediscovery of North America: The Thomas D. Clark lectures," (University Press of Kentucky, 1990), writes: "One day, in front of Las Casas, the Spanish dismembered, beheaded, or raped 3000 people.... They loosed dogs that 'devoured an Indian like a hog, at first sight, in less than a moment.' They used nursing infants for dog food...." (see: Genocide of Natives in North America)

  • The Conquistadors and the Indians"...We have numerous eyewitness reports, including some by Samuel de Champlain, of the barbaric methods of the Conquistadors, some of whom, for entertainment, would hunt Indians with vicious dogs. If they returned from the hunt without any "prey", they would feed the dogs live prisoners...."

  • Contact and Conquest in Early AmericaExcerpt: "The first recorded European contact with the people of the Cherokee Nation was with the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. When De Soto landed in Florida with his soldiers in 1539, he brought with him Spanish Mastiffs, chains, and iron collars for the acquisition and exportation of Indian slaves...."

  • "The British arrived in Jamestown in 1607. By 1610 the intentional extermination of the native population was well along. David E. Stannard writes: "Hundreds of Indians were killed in skirmish after skirmish. Other hundreds were killed in successful plots of mass poisoning. They were hunted down by dogs, 'blood-Hounds to draw after them, and Mastives [mastiffs] to seize them'...." (from David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992; ISBN 0-19-507581-1)

    By the time of the American revolution, the use of dogs for repression had been scaled down, although some, most notably Benjamin Franklin, advocated for a revival. In 1775, he wrote to a friend: "Dogs should be used against the Indians. They should be large, strong and fierce.... In case of meeting a party of the enemy, the dogs are all then to be turned loose and set on. They will be fresher and finer for having been previously confined and will confound the enemy a good deal and be very serviceable...."

    Ben Franklin's suggestion was not adopted until 1840, when Secretary of War Joel Poinsett authorized the purchase of the 33 bloodhounds from Cuba (at $151.72 a piece) for offensive use against the Seminole Indians and escaped slaves who had taken refuge among them in western Florida and Louisana (see: 1840 political cartoon vilifying the Van Buren administration's decision to use bloodhounds to hunt down Indians).


    from an 1848 political cartoon depicting Zachary Taylor hunting Indians with Cuban bloodhounds in Second Seminole War (click for link to image of full-size print)

    Meanwhile, bloodhounds were regularly used to recapture escaped slaves. Excerpt from The Horrors of Slavery and England's Duty to Free the Bondsman: An Address Delivered in Taunton, England, on September 1, 1846 (Somerset County Gazette, September 5, 1846) by Frederick Douglass: "...Slaves frequently escape from bondage, and live in the woods. Sometimes they are absent eight or nine months without being discovered. They are hunted with dogs, kept for the purpose, and regularly trained. Enmity is Instilled into the blood-hounds by these means:—A master causes a slave to tie up the dog and beat it unmercifully. He then sends the slave away and bids him climb a tree; after which he unties the dog, puts him upon the track of the man and encourages him to pursue it until he discovers the slave. Sometimes, in hunting the negroes, if the owners are not present to call off the dogs, the slaves are torn in pieces...."

    During the Civil War, Confederate regiments unleashed bloodhounds against negro regiments.


    Wood engraved illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 5, 1864

  • The Nazis employed dogs in various capacities, most notoriously in the concentration camps. "...During the Second World War every concentration camp had its SS dog unit. The dogs, trained to attack inmates, were deeply feared. Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief who was himself a German shepherd owner, said that the purpose of the dogs was 'to encircle prisoners like a flock of sheep and so prevent escape'...." (from Axis and Allied War Dogs). The aid of dogs was also sometimes employed when prisoners were corralled into gas chambers.

    See also: "The only surviving dog used by Germans to kill prisoners for fun"

  • What Did You Do in the War Fido? "...dogs were utilized in Vietnam by American troops to clear Vietcong tunnels and caves and to sniff out land mines and booby-traps. At any given time there were 4,000 dogs employed in Vietnam for military purposes. All but 200 were left to the Vietcong, many of whom were tortured...."

  • Birmingham, Alabama - 1963. Coverage of 'The Battle Of Birmingham' (1963) - Excerpt from article in The Militant: "MAY 8, 1963 - One of humanity's great battles is taking place in Birmingham, Alabama. Five weeks ago, for the first time in the history of the South's steel city, Negroes there began exercising the right of peaceful protest against segregation by means of picket lines, sit-ins and marches. For five weeks the city officials of Birmingham -utilizing mass arrests, fire hoses and dogs -have shown the world that the elementary civil liberties such as free speech and assembly do not exist for Negroes in Birmingham...."

    Charles Moore commenting on his Birmingham photos (from Civil Rights Photographers -- With Charles Moore and Benedict J. Fernandez moderated by Callie Crossley): "... it shows the man as he really was: defiant, angry; I mean pugnacious and mean. But that's Bull Connor who directed his policemen to do all those things that they did. We know what this is all about. I found it appalling. Somebody said, or several people have said, "Weren’t you afraid these dogs would bite you?" So what? That's not my job. I’m not here to worry about that. I want to see how these policemen would walk these dogs into -- I don’t have his name now, but I looked up and I did research and found out who the man was and all of that. This dog had already bitten his leg very badly. And this one’s pretty close to me. The police walked the dogs right into where there were women and men, and some people even had a child with them...."

    See also: Trail to Freedom - From Selma to Birmingham, explore the compelling landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement, and be inspired by the heroes who led the way....

  • Articles on 1969 York City Riots and events leading up to them:
      Riots 'the language of the unheard' (Feb. 23, 2003 / York Dispatch) "...Police quickly swarmed over the block, several with police dogs. The K-9 officers commanded their dogs with shouts of "kill." Three blacks were bitten in the scuffle, which ended only when one man's sister threw herself between him and the dog attacking him. When a German shepherd dog attacks, it doesn't just intimidate. When it bites, the upper and lower incisors connect like scissors and the large canine teeth remove chunks of flesh. The wounds infect easily and the scars usually are permanent...."; See also: 1966: The first long, hot summer (Feb. 24, 2003 / York Dispatch); Militancy grows in city's slums (Feb. 25, 2003 / York Dispatch); Gunfire shatters summer day (Feb. 27, 2003 / York Dispatch); Police dogs stir 1969 hatred (Feb. 28, 2003 / York Dispatch)


    Links to additional reports which people wish to suggest for inclusion in this archive can be sent to Eric Squire at: g8alert@yahoo.com

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