Working Dogs

Alexander the Great and his dog.
British Museum
Mosaic of a guard dog. From the House of Orpheus, Pompeii, 1st century AD.
Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum
Lee Duncan
Family Collection
German soldiers sending a message on the back of a dog on the Western Front 1914-1918.
Dogs used to hunt down runaway slaves in the USA.

Humans and dogs have lived and worked together for thousands of years. Who domesticated whom is open to debate, however there is no doubt that it has been a relationship that has proved beneficial to both parties.

We have plenty of evidence to show that the Persians, Greeks, Assyrians and Babylonians used dogs for protection and in battle as early as the 5th century B.C. Britain was famous for supplying the Romans with war dogs that were highly prized throughout the Empire. The Saxons employed huge wolf hounds against their Danish enemies and so the faithful canine helped king Althalred become the first king of England.

Documented evidence exists from the Middle Ages showing that money was set aside in towns and villages to pay for the upkeep of bloodhounds to be used by parish constables to track down outlaws and criminals. Landowners often used dogs to protect their property and the use and ownership of dogs was restricted by law. In France in the early part of the 14th Century in St Malo, dogs were used to guard dock installations. This continued until 1770 when it was abolished after a young naval officer was accidentally killed by one of the animals.

The Spanish Conquistadors employed dogs for protection and by 1610 the British colonists of Jamestown were using dogs to protect themselves against the native Indians. In 1840 the US Army used dogs against the Indians in the war with the Seminole in Florida. They were later used to search and seize runaway slaves.

19th century Britain

In 19th century Britain, pet dogs often accompanied police on their patrols. However as for the police dog itself, an early record of what can vaguely be described as a police dog can be traced back to 1859 when police officers in Luton acquired a bloodhound and used the dog for tracking purposes in their attempt to solve a murder.

In 1888 two bloodhounds were used in a simple tracking test set by the then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Charles Warren with a view to using them in the hunt for Jack the Ripper. The results were far from satisfactory, with one of the hounds biting the Commissioner and both dogs later running off requiring a police search to find them. In Scotland bloodhounds became known as ‘Slough’ dogs and it is from this name that the word ‘Sleuth’, usually applied to a detective, is derived. In the 1890s Hyde Park Police Station was the home of Topper, a fox terrier who often accompanied the police officers on patrol.


In 1914 officers of the Metropolitan Police were allowed to take their pet dogs on patrol duty with them. With the advent of the industrial revolution and the rise of large towns in the beginning of the 19th century  people began to treat their dogs more as domestic pets rather than working animals, therefore it’s not surprising that the police had little experience or success with dog training.

Some organisations had greater success. In 1908, the North Eastern Railway Police used Airedales to stop theft from the docks in Hull and formed the first recognised UK Police Dog Section.  By 1910 the British Transport Commission Police had taken over, experimenting with other breeds such as Labradors, Dobermans and finally the German Shepherd or Alsatian as it was then known.

Real success in dog handling was to be found on the Western Front during World War I where the German army trained dogs to perform specific military duties as messengers, guards and sentries. German shepherds were the breed of choice and the training methods were borrowed from the Belgians who were pioneers in new scientific methods of dog training.

Rin Tin Tin

One puppy, abandoned by the retreating Germans in 1918, was taken by US Air Corps Cpl. Lee Duncan  to America. There he became world famous as Rin Tin Tin, starring in 122 Hollywood films. A dark-coated German Shepherd dog, he made his first film in 1923 and was the world’s biggest box-office draw by 1926. He got his own radio show, ‘The Wonder Dog,’ in 1930, doing his own sound effects. Warner Bros. Pictures, saved from bankruptcy by the success of his films, maintained 18 trained stand-ins in order to reduce the strain on their star. By 1926 he was earning $6000 a week and had tenderloin steak for lunch every day.

According to legend, in the very first year of voting for the Oscars, Rin Tin Tin received more votes than any other actor but, to avoid any embarrassment, The Academy eventually decided to award he first Best Actor Award to a human actor, Emil Jannings.

Rin Tin Tin or Rinty, as he was called, died in 1932 aged 14.

In 1920 a school was established in Greenheide, Germany, the first of its kind for the training of dogs for use in the field of law enforcement. Here the dogs were trained in basic obedience, tracking and searching. From this school came the plans and criteria for those to come and much of the training system used in modern dog section operations has been taken from Greenheide.

This prompted Britain to take an interest in using police dogs during the 1920s. An experimental school was established to examine training and to see which breeds had the most aptitude for police work. In the middle of the 1920s they borrowed the techniques that were used in Greenheide and began formally training dogs.


Historical Consultant David Rowland

International Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice

Police Dog Facts Leah Waldron

Metropolitan Police History

Dyfed Powys Police

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