Military Working Dog Science and Technology

April 02, 2014

By Dr. Stephen Lee

In this edition of the ARL Fellow's Corner, Dr. Stephen Lee, ARL senior researcher, discusses the science behind the military working dog. He briefly discusses the history of the domestic dog in supporting armies throughout the world and their current uses by the U.S. military today. Dr. Lee further discusses how researchers, treating the handler and Military Working Dog as a system, are advancing technology to enhance the MWD's operational effectiveness while supporting Soldiers in harm's way.

Canis lupus familiaris (the domestic dog) is often overlooked for its long history of supporting military operations with the earliest recorded use being 600 BC against the Cimmerians. More modern use of military working dogs has occurred from the mid-1600s through World War I and II into current operations in Afghanistan. During this time, canines have been used for a wide range of tactical and support operations by the United States Military.

Historically, very little sustained science and technology research has been conducted for the Military Working Dog (MWD) to support the Soldier, and that may come from a perception that they provide unpredictable low technology capabilities. In reality, the ability of the canine to work in a wide range of environments in combination with the Soldier and autonomous systems can greatly enhanced situational awareness of the individual Soldier in the future.

Current military workings dogs are used by the U.S. Military for a variety of roles including tactical operations, patrol, detection and specialized search covering lethality, mobility, and survivability and sustainability missions. The primary breeds are Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Belgium Malinois with an occasional specialized breed involved for unique missions.

At the heart of the MWD system is the handler and the canine. The vast majority of MWDs and handlers are trained at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas for the three Services. Over the years basic and applied research programs have attempted to build sniffers and sensors that will mimic the capability of the dog to detect chemicals but none have been shown to have near the sensitivity of the canine's nose. The combination of the dog's nose, mobility, versatility and intelligence as the platform for a "sensor" makes it very hard to replace as a unique capability. An example of a chemical sensor for explosives based on the dog's nose is the Fido NXT detector but by itself it doesn't replicate the entire capability of the canine with searching and the ability to follow the chemical trail to a source.

However, the Fido sensor in certain instances can work longer and in more extreme environments than a MWD. Integration of the Fido XT explosives detector to robotic platforms makes one step toward creating a similar capability of canine but doesn't come close to the sensitivity and maneuverability of the MWD let alone addressing the relationship between the Soldier and the MWD, which makes it so successful. There is a great deal of research needed that explores the relationship and communication (verbal and nonverbal) between the MWD and its handler, which the MWD community currently describes as an art.

One of the more robust areas of research relating to MWDs has been the area of canine metabolic efficiency and stress. Dr. Mike Davis at Oklahoma State University has conducted research studying the abilities of the canine to adapt to exercise and develop deep endurance. These fundamental studies on performance of Alaskan sled dogs and MWDs ultimately can be used as models to understand human performance. Dr. Davis' work has helped reduce the mortality of canines during the Iditarod Trail race and has recently been carried over into studies using Marine Corp off-leash IED detection dogs.

Results of the metabolic stability work have helped the Marines adapt their training to emphasize sufficient cardiovascular conditioning and understanding how to treat stress induced ulcers in the canine. Future work includes understanding how dogs can more readily adapt to high altitudes. Anecdotal data suggests that canines are immune to high-altitude sickness that impacts the Soldier and understanding how the canine adapts may help us find ways for the Soldier to quickly adapt for operations at high altitude.

Over the last few years, a number of workshops have been held among the community of canine researchers, program managers, handlers, trainers, and the Military veterinary community to identify the important research focal areas for the MWD. The research focal areas identified range from fundamental basic research in genomics to applied technologies including specific electronic collars to be used to enhance the abilities of the canine. Among many different areas the following basic research focal areas have been identified as being priorities of interest:

  • Canine genomics and epigenetics
  • Olfaction and scent recognition basic research
  • Canine metabolism fundamentals
  • Canine hearing and vision
  • High-altitude effects on performance
  • Canine performance, behavior, health, and endurance
  • Canine thermal burden and stress

More applied research areas identified include:

  • Integrated electronic collars and cameras
  • Canine cooling equipment
  • Canine ballistics protection
  • Canine health in military environments
  • Canine food and water additives
  • Canine medicine and disease
  • Canine sensors and networking
  • Training aides and new training methods
  • Canine and unmanned systems/robotics integration canine armor systems
  • Canine and handler training and selection

Typical examples of current research contributions are design of canine booties and electronic collars for tracking and monitoring canines off-leash.

A canine cooling pad, developed with RINI Technologies, takes advantage of the previous developed Soldier portable cooling vests out of Natick Soldier Systems Center. Essentially, a reconfigured cooling vest uses the cooling system to cool a flat mat that fits the portable kennel This project demonstrates the ease of leveraging work in other areas for use by the MWD. Many of the advances ongoing in lightweight sensors and electronics for robotics and unmanned systems can be readily leveraged for use potentially with the MWD. It is also clear that in the development of autonomous systems that will be integrated with the individual Soldier there are opportunities to learn from the canine human integration that is already deployed. The MWD is a deployed autonomous system that has its own positive characteristics and individual drawbacks.

Ultimately, there are many opportunities for basic and applied research supporting the MWD. It is clear that, as a capability, the use of MWDs cannot be surpassed by any other system whether tactical or sensing at this time. There are many capabilities that can be leveraged for use by the MWD from the ongoing research within the Army and there are opportunities with the fielded MWD – Handler system to learn about how to integrate autonomous systems into the battlefield. The international community leads in the use of MWDs and likewise has a great deal of leadership in MWD science and technology, and the Army reaches out to the ongoing work in Europe. The MWD will continue to be utilized by the Army and research toward these needs described will help improve and enhance the capability of the MWD and the Soldier.

Input of Mr. Paul Reid, U.S. Army Research Office is graciously acknowledged.


1. E.S. Forster, "Dogs In Ancient Warfare," Greece & Rome 10 (1941) 114–117.


Last Update / Reviewed: April 2, 2014