Anti-tank dogs were one of the odd products of the Soviet Union. In 1924 the Revolutionary Military Council permitted the use of dogs within the military. To assist with this a special military dog training school was founded in the Moscow Oblast. The Soviets then realised that they actually had no dog trainers so they hired a motley crew of those with experience, ranging from hunters to the circus. Leading animal scientists produced a wide-scale training program for the dogs. For a while it was the normal stuff, rescue, delivery of first aid, biting enemies and carrying messages.
Then came the 1930s and an idea. Why not make the dogs… blow up.
A further 12 regional military dog training schools were built and three of them produced these rather unusual weapons. There were problems.
The initial plan was for a dog, normally a German Shepherd, to run at a static target and pull on the self releasing belt causing the explosives to drop to the ground. Then, assuming the dog was satisfied with its own work, it would return to its handler. The explosives could either go off via a built-in timer or a remote control.
Far too complicated was their verdict. After six months of hard graft it was apparent that dogs could simply not handle it. If the target location changed they would either run in circles or worse, return to their owner with the explosives still attached. Something that could kill both the dog and the handler if it happened on a live battlefield. There were stacks of problems upon problems upon further problems. Forming a pyramid of faults and failures. However they continued on with a dogged determination and simplified the test until they came to a system that worked.
It did not work so well for the dogs though. The new system was simple, strap explosives to a dog and let it run at a tank. Upon impact the explosives do their respective exploding resulting in fire and steaming hot chilli con canine enveloping the target. They were trained by hunger, the trainers wouldn’t feed them enough, instead they would place the food beneath static tanks. Then moving tanks, all the way up to firing tanks with blanks being fired by soldiers next to the tanks. This conditioned them to be fearless in any battle. They were formidable.
The mechanics were impressive though, special harnesses were designed that could be adjusted to each individual dog, they carried a 10-12 kg mine in the harness. Above their backs stood a wooden stick 20cm in length. When a dog jumped under a tank, the wooden lever would be knocked back and initiate the explosion. As the chassis was the weakest part of a tank severe damage could be dealt by the canine combustibles. Eventually the mine-dogs or Anti-tank dogs became an official part of the Soviet Army in 1935. Though they remained a shockingly underused resource. Their first real calling came about in World War II on the Eastern front where every effort was undertaken to stop the German advance. The training schools focused primarily on producing more Anti-tank dogs, a total of 40,000 dogs, both anti-tank and otherwise were deployed for work within the Soviet Army.
Summer 1941, 30 dogs and 40 trainers arrive on the frontline for war. There were problems with the Anti-tank dogs. This second generation ad been trained during times of fuel and ammunition shortages, so had only ever been trained on static, silent tanks. This contrast to the battlefield had a marked effect upon the dogs. Most dogs simply refused whilst the persistent ones ran alongside in the hopes that the tanks would soon stop, instead they were soon shot. That was not the worst of it. The worst came with those scared dogs. Those dogs ran from the gunfire and leapt into the trenches and ended up accidentally detonating, killing Soviet Soldiers. Which was rather wrong. So the result was that any returning dogs had to be shot before they could reach the trenches, often by their handlers.
The handlers then became unwilling to work with new dogs as they grew attached to them meaning they did not enjoy shooting them. Out of the initial 30 dogs only 4 managed to detonate near tanks, 6 further dogs exploded upon returning to the Soviet trenches. Three were shot by German soldiers and taken away so that they could copy the technology. The Soviets fought hard but the Germans successfully retrieved the dogs. Fortunately the plan was considered by the Germans to be ‘desperate and inefficient’. Furthermore it gave rise to a German propaganda campaign ridiculing Soviet soldiers, saying that they refused to fight and sent dogs instead.
Later on yet another failure of the training became apparent. The Soviet tanks were diesel powered whereas the Germans used petrol engines in their tanks. The dogs, dependent upon their sensitive noses sought out the familiar smell of the diesel tanks, blowing them up in the process whilst leaving the German tanks unscathed.
It was an unmitigated failure, whilst dogs were near impossible to hit with a tanks gun German officers were then instructed to shoot any and all dogs on sight. In fact one of the first tasks any German soldier would perform upon the entering and occupation of a town or village, was the searching for and shooting of dogs.
Thanks to their failings no Anti-tank dogs were really used after 1942. All of the schools shifted their focus to producing the other types of dogs such as the mine-seeking dogs and delivery dogs. The Soviet Union claimed that 300 tanks were damaged by the dogs but modern historians claim that it was merely propaganda produced in an effort to justify the dog-training program. The records show just over 50 tanks were damaged.
Regardless of the cost, training continued, although to little avail, the last set of Anti-tank dogs were trained in 1996 before the program was discontinued. Since then no-one else has produced their own versions of the explosive dogs. The closest attempts were used… unsuccessfully by Iraqi insurgents in 2005.
Nowadays the Anti-tank dog is dead, a faint memory and a full-blown failure. Not that the dogs are complaining.