Anti-tank dogs (Russian: собаки-истребители танков sobaki-istrebiteli tankov or противотанковые собаки protivotankovye sobaki; German: Panzerabwehrhunde or Hundeminen, "dog-mines") were dogs taught to carry explosives to tanks, armored vehicles and other military targets. They were intensively trained by the Soviet and Russian military forces between 1930 and 1996 and used in 1941–1942 against German tanks in World War II. Although the original dog training routine was to leave the bomb and retreat so that the bomb would be detonated by the timer, this routine failed and was replaced by an impact detonation procedure which killed the dog in the process. The U.S. military trained anti-tank dogs in 1943 for use against fortifications, but never deployed them. Dogs strapped with explosives were unsuccessfully used by Iraqi insurgents in the 2000s.
In 1924, the Revolutionary Military Council of the Soviet Union approved the use of dogs for military purposes, which included a wide range of tasks such as rescue, delivery of first aid, communication, tracking mines and people, assisting in combat, transporting food, medicine and injured soldiers on sledges, and detonation of enemy targets. For these purposes, a specialized dog training school was founded in the Moscow Oblast. Twelve regional schools were opened soon after, three of which trained anti-tank dogs.
The Soviet Army had no dedicated dog trainers, therefore they recruited hunters and circus and police dog trainers. Several leading animal scientists were also involved, in order to help organize a wide-scale training program. German Shepherd Dogs were favored for the program for their physical abilities and ease of training, but other breeds were used as well. The idea of using dogs as mobile mines was developed in the 1930s, together with the dog-fitting mine design. In 1935, anti-tank dog units were officially included in the Soviet Army.
The original idea was for a dog to carry a bomb strapped to its body, and reach a specific static target. The dog would then release the bomb by pulling with its teeth a self-releasing belt and return to the operator. The bomb could then be detonated either by a timer or remote control, though the latter was too rare and expensive at the time to be used. A group of dogs practiced this for six months, but the reports show that no dogs could master the task. They performed well on a single target but became confused after the target or location was changed and often returned to the operator with the bomb unreleased, which in a live situation would have killed both the dog and the operator.
Continual failures brought about a simplification. The bomb was fastened on the dog and detonated upon contact with the target, killing the animal. Whereas in the first program, the dog was trained to locate a specific target, this task was simplified to find any enemy tank. Dogs were trained by being kept hungry and their food was placed under tanks. The tanks were at first left standing still, then they had their engines running, which was further combined with sporadic blank-shot gunfire and other battle-related distractions. This routine aimed to teach the dogs to run under the tanks in battlefield situations.
Each dog was fitted with a 10–12-kilogram (22–26 lb) mine carried in two canvas pouches adjusted individually to each dog. The mine had a safety pin which was removed right before the deployment; each mine carried no markings and was not supposed to be disarmed. A wooden lever extended out of a pouch to about 20 centimetres (7.9 in) in height. When the dog dived under the tank, the lever struck the bottom of the tank and detonated the charge. Because the chassis was the most vulnerable area of these vehicles, it was hoped the explosion would disable the vehicle.
The use of anti-tank dogs was escalated during 1941–1942, when every effort was made by the Soviet Army to stop the German advance at the Eastern Front of World War II. In that period, the dog training schools were mostly focused on producing anti-tank dogs. About 40,000 dogs were deployed for various tasks in the Soviet Army.
The first group of anti-tank dogs arrived at the frontline at the end of the summer of 1941 and included 30 dogs and 40 trainers. Their deployment revealed some serious problems. In order to save fuel and ammunition, dogs had been trained on tanks which stood still and did not fire their guns. In the field, the dogs refused to dive under moving tanks. Some persistent dogs ran near the tanks, waiting for them to stop but were shot in the process. Gunfire from the tanks scared away many of the dogs. They would run back to the trenches and often detonated the charge upon jumping in, killing Soviet soldiers. To prevent that, the returning dogs had to be shot, often by their controllers and this made the trainers unwilling to work with new dogs. Some went so far as to say that the army did not stop with sacrificing people to the war and went on to slaughter dogs too; those who openly criticized the program were persecuted by "special departments" (military counterintelligence). Out of the first group of 30 dogs, only four managed to detonate their bombs near the German tanks, inflicting an unknown amount of damage. Six exploded upon returning to the Soviet trenches, killing and injuring soldiers. Three dogs were shot by German troops and taken away, despite furious attempts by the Soviets to prevent this, which provided examples of the detonation mechanism to the Germans. A captured German officer later reported that they learned of the anti-tank dog design from the killed animals, and considered the program desperate and inefficient. A German propaganda campaign sought to discredit the Soviet Army, saying that Soviet soldiers refuse to fight and send dogs instead.
Another serious training mistake was revealed later; the Soviets used their own diesel-engine tanks to train the dogs rather than German tanks which had gasoline engines. As the dogs relied on their acute sense of smell, the dogs sought out familiar Soviet tanks instead of strange-smelling German tanks.
The efficiency of using anti-tank dogs in World War II remains uncertain. There are claims by the Soviet sources that around 300 German tanks were damaged by Soviet anti-tank dogs. This claim was questioned by Russian historians as propaganda, trying to justify the dog training program. There are however documented claims of individual successes of the program, with the number of damaged tanks usually being within a dozen. For example, at the front of the 160th Infantry Division near Hlukhiv, six dogs had damaged five German tanks; near the airport of Stalingrad, anti-tank dogs destroyed 13 tanks. At the Battle of Kursk, 16 dogs disabled 12 German tanks which had broken through the Soviet lines of defense near Tamarovka, Bykovo.
The German forces knew about the Soviet dogs from 1941 onwards, and so took measures to defend against them. An armored vehicle's top-mounted machine gun proved ineffective due to the relatively small size of the attackers as the dogs were too low to the ground and because of the dogs' speed and the difficulty in spotting them. Consequently, every German soldier received orders to shoot any dog in combat areas.
The hostility of German soldiers and officers to the dogs is mentioned in the semi-fictional novel Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte. As an Italian correspondent on the Eastern front during 1941–42, Malaparte recounted how one of the German soldiers' first tasks upon entering and occupying villages in Ukraine was to seek out and kill any dog on sight.
After 1942, the use of anti-tank dogs by the Soviet Army rapidly declined, and training schools were redirected to producing the more needed mine-seeking and delivery dogs. However, training of anti-tank dogs continued after World War II, until June 1996.
The Japanese Army received about 25,000 dogs from their ally Germany and organized several dog training schools in Japan, and one in China at Nanjing. Some dogs were trained for demolition, but instead of strapping explosives to the dog, it was attached to dog-drawn carts. Their deployment had little success, mostly due to poor training. In the late 1940s, anti-tank dogs were used by the Viet Minh forces fighting in Indochina.
In 1943, U.S. forces considered using armed dogs against fortifications. The aim was for a dog to run into a bunker carrying a bomb, which would then be detonated by a timer. Dogs in this secret program were trained at Fort Belvoir. The dogs, called "demolition wolves", were taught to run to a bunker, enter it, and sit whilst waiting for a simulated explosion. Each dog carried a bomb strapped to its body in canvas pouches, as with the Russian method. The program was terminated on 17 December 1943 out of safety concerns. During the training, dogs often returned to the senders without entering the bunker or waiting there for supposed period of time which would have caused friendly casualties in a live fire situation. It was feared that in the actual battle, dogs would return much more often, scared by enemy fire. Attempts to continue the program in 1944 and 1945 failed.
William A. Prestre, a Swiss citizen living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, proposed using large dogs to kill Japanese soldiers. He convinced the military to lease an entire island in the Mississippi River to house the training facilities. There the army hoped to train as many as two million dogs. The idea was to begin island invasions with landing craft releasing thousands of dogs against the Japanese defenders, then followed up by troops as the Japanese defenders scattered in confusion. One of the biggest problems encountered was getting Japanese soldiers to train the dogs, as very few Japanese soldiers were being captured. Eventually, Japanese-American soldiers volunteered for the training. The biggest problem was the dogs, as they were either too docile, did not respond to training teaching them to rush across beaches, or were terrified by shellfire. After millions of dollars were spent, the program was abandoned.
Around 2007, insurgents attempted to use bomb-equipped dogs during the Iraq War. Remote controls were used to detonate the bomb. In one documented incident in Iraq, the dog was detonated without inflicting damage. More often, donkeys were used, as they were more reliable. Donkeys are traditionally equipped with sacks and thus could carry a large explosive charge without looking suspicious.