SD Vietnam Stories: Jim Dugan on War Dogs

Last Updated by Heather Benson on

"Dogs exhibit heroism under fire in extreme combat," says Jim Dugan (USAF ret) of Rapid City who spoke with SDPB's Lori Walsh about the role of dogs in Vietnam.  This is an edited version of that conversation.  You can listen to it in its entirety here.

On how he became a dog handler for the USAF:

I was 17 years old when I joined the military. After basic training I went to Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas. I spent 4 years there and while there I was selected for the presidential honor guard and I was on the honor guard for JFK the day he was killed in Dallas. I stayed on the honor guard for LBJ and then a short while after I was offered a slot in K-9, being a dog handler. I thought, "Geez that's kind of cool." I went into K-9, I spent basically just short of 10 years as a dog handler. My experience in K-9 took me down to the K-9 training center in Texas. I spent 2 years there, went to Vietnam for a year, came right back to the training center for another year plus. That basically, work the dogs and so forth and doing some training and exposure to K-9 was fantastic.

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On the types of dogs used and how they were used in Vietnam:

I worked with the German Shepherds mainly, now when I first came into K-9 we had a boxer and of course other Air Force bases also had Doberman, but the primary dog for the sentry dog program was the German Shepherds.

During the Vietnam era the dogs were used as scout dogs and trackers and sentry dogs. Little bit about the scout dogs, scout dogs were basically what we call a patrol dog nowadays. A dog that was trained in aggressiveness, tracking, able to sniff out ambushes, the enemy hidden in the tunnels, or even underwater breathing through a reed, like a straw. Dogs could pick up that scent. In your armies, the army, Air Force, Marines, use these scout dogs primarily in Vietnam. What they would do they would have a handler out front and being them would be an element of troops, platoon, fire team, whatever, and the dog would be out front and be looking for anything from sniper to an ambush, to people hidden in tunnels or whatever, and they immediately would alert the dog handler and he in turn alert the elements to the rear.

Dogs prevent a lot of injury and death to those patrols and so forth. Now that was the scout dogs. World War II they also used them as messengers. The sentry dog, was harder to work around people. They were trained to attack, they would attack without command, on command. They were a little bit tougher to work around, it was hard to work them around friendly troops. They primarily, we used them along the perimeters of the air bases inside, special weapons areas and so forth, ordinance, things of that nature. They were great dogs. To us they were like puppy dogs.

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 On military dog training techniques:

Okay, we would start, I'll take you one day 1 here. We get a dog down there at the training center at Lackland, and we just take him out of his crate and kind of walk him around and so forth. First couple of days he'd go through medical training. Checking for hip dysplasia, temperament and the vets would check them from head to end of their tail and if they qualified medically, what we would do is go ahead and assign them to a training class. Now this training class would already have their handlers and everything sized up. Like a big fellow to a big dog, smaller fellow to a smaller dog, and attitude played a lot too. They would pair those up with the dogs and then for the first couple of weeks down there what they would do is go through basic obedience and grooming and so forth, teaching the dog to sit, heel, down, stay, that type thing.

Now, after that 2 weeks we go into what they call the aggression and detection phase. Detection, you'd be out there like you're walking your dog on a post and one of the instructors would be say 100, 200 feet down the range there and just jump out on the ground there and create a little turmoil and commotion, and that would get the dog sensitive, that hey somebody could be out there. Plus they would pick up the scent from upwind. Now this would go on until the dog got pretty good at that. So when you and the dog would go out there through the field or what have you, that dog is ready, he's looking, he's expecting. That's was the detection phase, and they got good at it.

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Then we go to the aggression phase, called the fight. This is where the instructors or they would use another handler to put the sleeve, you've seen pictures of the sleeve that the police dogs bite, and we use that to tease the dog with and get the dog to nip and bite and finally do a full bite on that sleeve. Then the dog would progress to the suit, the padded suit. You would have the instructor or another handler in this padded suit and from a distance we would subject them to gunfire, and we would use a small .38 caliber pistol, equipped with blanks and the perpetrator out there would shoot into the ground or up in the air and that would rile the dog up, and build his courage under gunfire. Then the handler would release the dog on the suit and the dog would hit the suit at a full stride. That was called the attack or the bite.

After a couple of months of that, the dog and the handler were ready to go off to Vietnam, their graduation, they graduated and they would either go back to their base and then over to Vietnam. Now keep in mind, the Air Force froze all dog handlers and the dogs for Vietnam. You could not transfer from one American base to another American base here within the states. You were frozen for Vietnam. After 2 months, they go back to their other base they continue their training mode, and then they ship to Vietnam. That's basically just a quick overview.

2 months was about a 240 hour course. The instructor course was 280 hours. Now we did have what they call a replacement dog course and that was 120 hours. I have 4 formal dog schools under my belt. I have each of these, and I went through the supervisor and then I went through the British dog training course, overseas.

On how dog and handler arrived in Vietnam and operated:

What you do, you fly, let me tell you about one particular base over there, Ton Sanut air base. It was known as Pentagon east. It was the hub of all military and incoming civilian traffic into Vietnam. All your troops that were coming into Vietnam for service landed at Ton Sanut and then they would branch out to their respective bases through ground transportation. You flew into Ton Sanut, and branch out from there to your respective unit. When I got there I stayed at Ton Sanut and went into K-9 from there.

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On a soldier's relationship with his dog:

That dog is your soulmate. Not only in a combat zone but stateside also. You know, maybe the wife and girlfriends don't want to hear that about a dog handler but what you've got to understand is when you're out there, especially in a combat zone, you rely on that dog, that dog in the dark is your eyes, is your smell, and the sense of hearing is tremendous. You bank on that dog so that dog whether it's a he or a she is your soulmate. So the attachment is there. These dogs even though you train them as a war dog, you can get down on the ground and wrestle with them and rough them up, and vice versa, and they're just, to me they're puppy dogs and they always will be.

They're tremendously loyal, tremendous. The handlers are loyal to them, unbelievably so.

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On how many lives were saved by combat dogs in Vietnam:

Estimates put them at 10,000 and if you watch Oliver North on war stories, they'll tell you the same there. Anywhere it's written, they say approximately 10,000 American lives were saved. That doesn't count friendly forces like your South Vietnamese forces. We're talking American forces only.

On whether all dogs made it back:

No they didn't. Vietnam was a war where the dogs were considered expendable. We did have 120 return, and 105 of those went to Fort Benning Georgia, and the others went to Lackland Air Force base. Beg your pardon, 105 to Lackland, and the others to Fort Benning Georgia to be retrained as scout dogs.

They were left behind, you bet. Of course, the handlers were not happy and they pushed to try and get the law reversed where they could bring them back, but it didn't work that way so they were either euthanized, or turned over to friendly forces.

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On one of the most prominent memories from Vietnam:

Rocket attacks ... And the reaction of my dog. My dog was a combat vet. When we got hit with the rockets, I'm hitting the ground trying to dig a hole and Buster my dog was a big Shepherd, about 100 pounds, he was a combat vet and he's wanting to fight. I'm trying to dig a hole, you know when the rockets hit and the team work though. You know the dog never cowered, my knees were shaking, my knees were knocking, after the attack. Buster he was combat vet and I'll never forget that and the relationship between me and him became even closer after those attacks.

 

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