“Hell on Four Paws”: War Dogs in Vietnam

Conflict: Vietnam

Dog scout in action

Lance Corporal Donald Book and his scout dog Gary in 1968

Marine dog handler Fred Dorr and his scout dog Sarge were leading a dozen other soldiers through a Vietnam jungle in 1969, when Sarge suddenly barked and sat down. Realizing Sarge was alerting him to danger, Dorr discovered that he was only a step away from a trip wire, which if triggered, would have killed him and half of the other soldiers.

In another instance, scout dog Duke and his handler Sergeant Jonnie Foster were walking point for a battalion, when Duke alerted Foster to the presence of the Viet Cong. This prevented the battalion from walking into an enemy ambush and instead allowed them to secure strong defensive positions before the ensuing fight. Duke and Foster were later praised in a letter of commendation by the company’s commanding officer for “clearly demonstrating the high level of proficiency that can be rendered by scout dog teams.”

Sentry dogs in training

Sentry dogs and their handlers performing daily obedience drills and training in 1967

Affectionately known as “Hell on Four Paws,” around 4,000 dogs served with their military handlers during the Vietnam conflict, saving an estimated 10,000 lives. There were tracker dogs, which followed the enemy; mine and booby trap dogs, which detected these hidden dangers; sentry dogs, which ferociously protected bases, camps, and other important areas; and scout dogs, which walked ahead of patrols and alerted their handlers of any unfamiliar scents. The handlers grew very close to their dogs, and some even extended their tours of duty so they could remain with the dogs.

Dog and handler

Corporal Carson Kelly (pictured) extended his time in Vietnam twice so he could stay with his sentry dog Duke

Sadly, following Vietnam, the dogs were declared expendable equipment, and except for the 200 or so that were given to American allies, the dogs were either euthanized or left behind. However, due to the efforts of veteran Vietnam dog handlers, a law was later passed that allowed war dogs to be adopted after they were retired from duty.

Read more about the contributions of war dogs, or view additional images of the dogs and their handlers in the animal collection of Fold3’s Vietnam War Marine Corps photos.