<em>Topper’s GI Benefits, Good Homes, and Vivisection Fears: </em>The Treatment of World War II War Dog Veterans

Topper’s GI Benefits, Good Homes, and Vivisection Fears: The Treatment of World War II War Dog Veterans

In 1946, a German Shepherd named Topper made headlines in newspapers throughout the United States. Discharged from the K-9 Corps in February 1945, Topper had, according to owner Horace Turner, “not been up to snuff.” Turner sought treatment for the dog under the GI Bill, claiming overexertion during military service had weakened Topper’s heart.[1] The GI Bill, passed in 1944 and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 22, afforded war veterans funding for college, low interest and zero down payment home loans for ex-servicemen, and help with medical treatment for wounds sustained in combat through the VA.[2] Topper served honorably during his time with his fellow canine soldiers, and his owner believed that he was entitled to receive veterinary care the remainder of his life. Unfortunately for Topper, he was unable to collect VA benefits as he was not a human.[3] Topper may have been ineligible for free veterinary care, but the postwar status of dogs like Topper raised larger questions about veterans and their medical and social treatment, and contributed to gains in animal welfare rights.

At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was the only major military power without a dog army. In an interview with Roland Kilbon, for his column Popular Dogs, Alene Erlanger, founder of Dogs for Defense, stated: “The dog game must play its part in this thing. . .  Other countries have used dogs in their Armies for years and ours has not. We’ve got to do it. Just think what dogs can do guarding forts, munition plants, and other such places.”[4] Enlisting the help of other prominent figures in the dog world, Erlanger founded the Dogs for Defense organization in 1942. On March 13 of that year, the Army authorized the training of 200 sentries to be donated to Dogs for Defense. It would be the first time that war dogs were recognized by the United States military.[5] The organization was met with overwhelming support from citizens. Armed with their filled-in questionnaires, they were ready to donate their animals and to serve their duty to the war effort.[6] Overall, the American public donated over 20,000 dogs to Dogs for Defense, roughly half of which served in the US military during World War II.

A drawing of dogs under a banner "Dogs for Defense, Inc."
Dogs for Defense recruited Americans’ pets for the war effort. (Courtesy Jefferson Public Radio)

At the end of the war, dogs were reunited with their owners or adopted by the handlers they had served. Some dogs, however, had no loving homes. Instead, Dogs of Defense assumed responsibility for the surplus of military dogs. The organization justified their actions by stating: “To say that a dog should be kept confined to a kennel, robbed of the pleasure of companionship only to be found in a home, seemed to us just like arguing that the soldier for whom no job is in sight should be kept in uniform indefinitely.”[7] To prepare for their new homes, dogs went through a detraining process, which took nearly eight weeks. Dogs learned through a multitude of pets and scratches that they were no longer a one-person dog. They were reacclimated to the sights and sounds of busy city life. Trainers stressed the importance of erasing a dog’s aggression toward unfamiliar strangers. A bark or even a small growl were acceptable, but snarling and snapping were forbidden. Once dogs were fit for civilian society, the call went out that they were seeking good homes.

The public responded in droves. Dogs for Defense received a total of 15,000 applications for some 3,000 dogs. World War II veterans took priority, and owners whose dogs died in service were also heavily considered. The adoption process proved so successful that letters inquiring about war dogs for adoption continued to arrive in 1947. The application process was thorough, and each applicant was carefully screened to assure that dogs went into loving homes. Dogs for Defense had a reason to be cautious. Concerns rose over the fear that canine veterans would be dognapped and sold for vivisection.[8] 

A little girl in uniform with big smile gives a salute and so does her spotted dog, who looks up at her.
Four-year-old Marilyn Clark and her dog, Blue Smoke Alice, whom she enlisted in the WAVES, the U.S. Naval Women’s Reserve, as a third class petty officer. (Courtesy Smithsonian)

The American Legion also sought to protect war dogs from being subjects of vivisection experiments following the war’s end. Vivisection involved the process of mutilating an animal for medical advancement. Debates over vivisection began in the late 1890s with the animal welfare movement. Antivivisection sentiment continued into the twentieth century, propelled by the fondness for pets in the United States. Twentieth-century Americans loved their dogs, and could not bear the thought of them being subjected to barbaric cruelty. Legion members and the American public argued that war dogs were veterans who had risked their lives in service of their country. It would be cruel and unjust to subject them to the barbarics of vivisection. The Legion warned that there was a great threat to demobilized dogs, fearing they “may be stolen and sold to vivisection laboratories, where they would be submitted to extreme barbarities.”[9] Fears stemmed from the belief that war dogs fetched a higher price upon being sold to laboratories and medical colleges. A writer to the “Mr. Moise” column in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph stated: “If we, the people of America, let these dogs come back to be destroyed by vivisectors, WE ARE NOT DESERVING OF THE NAME AMERICANS.”[10] If a former K-9 Corps veteran ended up in a vivisection laboratory, the Legion would pursue every available avenue to make sure the dog would not be a victim of experimentation.[11]

Newspapers portrayed dogs that came home to no loving family as “orphans of war” that needed to be protected from the horrors of vivisection.[12] In a letter to the editor of The San Francisco Examiner, Mrs. Nadine D. Oxford likened those who sold or bought dogs for vivisection purposes to the “Jap that tortured our sons and husbands in prison camps.”[13] The animal trader became the new enemy that the dog lovers rallied against. Japanese combatants in the Pacific had targeted their brave war dogs during the war, and now their canine veterans were being targeted by heartless animal dealers. War dogs were used as propaganda in support of antivivisection laws.[14] By highlighting the heroic service of the war dog, in addition to services of seeing-eye dogs and heroic family pets, antivivisection opponents hoped to show the helpful and heroic nature of the dog, whether canine veteran or family pet. The Animal Welfare Laboratory Act would not be passed until 1966, establishing standards for the treatment of animals used in laboratory experiments, but the crusade by antivivisectionists and war dog supporters again helped illustrate the war dog as both canine soldier and respected veteran.[15]

War dogs entered World War II with their tails held high on March 13, 1942. The first 200 dogs for sentry service soon blossomed into 10,000 dogs “in uniform.” Upon the end of World War II, dogs who had served were regarded as canine veterans. Careful consideration was made for each ownerless war dog as concerns of being dognapped and sold for vivisection rose. Those fears soon faded by the end of 1945, and the veterans were afforded a peaceful retirement.


    1. Middletown Times Herald, “War Dogs Rate VA Treatment,” (September 13, 1946), 1; Rapid City Journal, “Dog Gets No GI Benefits,” (November 2, 1946), 5.
    2. Glenn Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin, The GI Bill: A New Deal for Veterans (Oxford University Press, 2009), 60–63.
    3. The Berkshire Evening Eagle, “War Dog Ruled Ineligible For GI Benefits,” (November 1, 1946), 10.
    4. Fairfax Downey, Dogs for Defense: American Dogs in the Second World War 1941–1945 (Trustees of Dogs for Defense, 1955), 16.
    5. Downey, Dogs for Defense, 18–21.
    6. Ibid, 24. The questionnaire required owners to list their animal’s breed, sex, shoulder height, call name, sex, and American Kennel Club registration number and name if applicable. It also allowed for information regarding health, temperament and whether the dog was fearful of loud noises, such as guns or storms. The questionnaire also made note that owners were not to receive their animals back unless it was deemed unfit for service; however, a provision was made in a later questionnaire to ask if the owners would like their animals back following the end of the war effort.
    7. Ibid, 109.
    8. Ibid 109–110.
    9. The San Francisco Examiner, “Vivisection Torture of War Dogs Hit by Vets” (September 10, 1945), 8.
    10. Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, “Vivisection Exposé Shocks Hearst Newspaper Readers” (April 11, 1945), 16.
    11. Ibid.
    12. The San Francisco Examiner, “Laws to Assure Dog Heroes Welfare” (February 4, 1945), 71.
    13. The San Francisco Examiner, “Editor’s Mailbox” (September 20, 1945), 16.
    14. The Journal News, “War Dogs Join to Ban Vivisection” (December 28, 1945), 3.
    15. Diane L. Beers, For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States (Swallow Press 2006), 146.

Hannah Palsa is a PhD student at Kansas State University. Her research focuses on Dogs for Defense and the K9 Corps of World War II. Her research is focused on the Dogs for Defense Program and the K9 Corps of World War II. She is interested in the development of dogs and soldiers within the War Dog Platoons, and how visual and material culture convinced owners to donate their animals to the war effort. She also is very interested how children processed and understood Dogs for Defense, particularly those who donated their own dogs to the cause.