Imagine you and yours saved tens of thousands of lives in a time when saving lives wasn’t just hard work, it was hell-a dangerous, too. And then be forgotten. You become a legend, something people actually won’t believe really happened.
That’s what happened to Mercy Dogs.
On Feb 5 1897 a German painter by the name of Jean Burgatz showed off something he’d been working on for a while. It wasn’t a new painting but, instead, a dog trained to rescue wounded soldiers in dangerous situations.
His “Rettungshund” was trained to use her superior senses to find wounded soldiers at night and either supply them with needed wound dressing and other aids or, if the person was alive but unable to get up, to return to her handler and lead them to the soldier.
By 1900 he had trained 29 of the dogs, six of which remained in his care, the rest was given to the Army and the Red Cross.
Another 14 years later, at the dawn of World War I, Germany had trained 6’000 of the furry paramedics. And, unlike soldiers, those dogs were held in high esteem and protected well. If the choice was between losing a Rettungshund (now renamed “Sanitätshund,” “medic dog”) or a soldier, often the decision fell against the human. Still, thanks to their use by the Red Cross, soldiers on both sides were rescued in the hundreds.
Britain’s Army did not think much of the idea, but one of its officers, Edwin Hautenville Richardson, did. After trying, unsuccessfully, to start a rescue dog (named “mercy dogs” in Britain) wing inside the medical corps, he gave his trainees to the British Red Cross, which eventually trained and used around 200 of them during the war.
After the cannons stopped, German, French, Austrian, and British dogs numbered close to ten thousand and had saved as many, probably many more, lives.
The US was late to the party but, both owing to the success of dogs in WWI and pressure from the American Red Cross, a program was started that remained civilian and in the hands of the ARC. While Europe used mainly German Shepherd’s for this task, the US, both due to anti-German sentiment and for practical reasons, used pointers and setters.
Only during WWII did America, starting in 1942, add mercy dogs to its repertoire. Unlike the Red Cross dogs, which were trained to rescue anyone who was wounded, US dogs were trained to bring back an item of clothing or similar to ascertain the wounded was indeed American.
One such dog was made famous by being promoted into the rank of Sergeant after holding a German soldier captive until his unit arrived. He became a cause célèbre in the United States with most Americans idolizing and celebrating him, while others felt, that promoting a dog made a mockery of the system. Sgt. Stubby of the 102nd Infantry, 26th (Yankee) passed away on March 16 1926 at 10 years of age (80 in dogs) and is part of a non-public collection at the Smithsonian Institute.
After the war, rescue dogs declined in numbers. A similar program was used by America during the Korean War, but remained smaller in numbers and was more aimed at recovery (dead) than rescue (alive).
But, still, during the first half of the 20th century, these heroes with fangs and paws rescued tens of thousands of wounded.