Throughout history, the Red Cross around the world has depended on man’s best friend to help soldiers and veterans.
WORLD WAR I While the American Red Cross did not use dogs during World War I, several other Red Cross societies employed dogs that greatly aided the Allied forces during the war. A number of these dogs were attached to ambulance units and aided their handlers in the search for wounded soldiers. The Red Cross dogs were trained to seek out a wounded soldier and get as close as possible so the soldier could access the dogs’ saddle bags, which contained first aid supplies and rations. Instead of barking and alerting the enemy, the dogs were trained to bring back something belonging to the soldier.
The retrieval method was eventually replaced when it became apparent that the dogs would occasionally rip off a bandage in their eagerness to return with something from the wounded soldier. Some Red Cross societies trained the dogs to return to their handler with an attached leash in their mouth to signify the discovery of a wounded soldier. Red Cross dogs did more than just locate wounded soldiers, they provided messenger and delivery services, often times carrying 25 to 30-pound packs of ammunition and rations through dangerous territory. These dogs also acted as scouts and guarded strategic posts, such as weapons factories.
THERAPY DOGS TODAY Following World War II, the American Red Cross began using therapy dogs with convalescing service members in the Army Air Force Convalescent Center in Pawling, New York.
The American Red Cross still uses therapy dogs today. These dogs and their owners volunteer in shelters and nursing homes across the country and in hospitals around the world. Red Cross animal visitation teams are active all over the world. The American Red Cross has animal visitation teams set up to support veterans and military families stationed in the United States and overseas. From Walter Reed to veteran facilities across America, furry Red Crossers are on the scene helping in a variety of ways.
The dogs are required to undergo special grooming to be in the medical treatment facility and they are specifically trained how to behave in hospital or special needs settings. Recognizing who needs their affection is an innate ability of each dog.
DURING THE PANDEMIC Over the last year, medical and military communities have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Red Cross animal visitation teams have been by their side. When guidance changed, not allowing the teams inside access, they shifted gears. They switched to standing outside as a group with a round of smiles, tail wags and more to share their support. They made sure to be the first welcome and the last farewell of the day for rotating medical staff and patients in those grueling first few months.
When the COVID-19 vaccines became available, they leapt into action. Today, donning their Red Cross vests and hospital badges, animal teams show up to lend courage and a welcome distraction to all of those in line or drive-thru waiting to get a vaccine. Medical staff are equally excited to have their favorite fur partners work alongside them.
Red Cross dogs use their training and calming presence to help and heal. Wherever they go, the Red Cross dogs turn heads, and people can’t help but smile. Many people don’t even realize the impact that animal therapy can make on their staff or patients – but the effect is immense.
This story is part of a special historical series marking the 140th anniversary of the American Red Cross. Visit redcross.org/RedCross140 to learn more.