Poodles in WWII

by Suzanne Carter Isaacson

"When after the perfidious attack of the Nipponese at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States was plunged into the all-out struggle against the Axis aggressors, a nation-wide organization sprang up for the training of dogs for defense."1

It was in January of 1942 when Mrs. Milton S. (Arlene) Erlanger, owner of Pillicoc Kennels, a premier breeder of Poodles, both Standard and Miniature, announced to Roland Kilbon, a writer for the New York Sun, "The dog must play a game in this thing. Other countries have used dogs in their Armies for years and ours has not. Just think what dogs can do guarding forts, munition plants, and other such places."2

Realizing the importance of the project before them, both Mrs. Erlanger and Mr. Kilbon knew that they would have to have the backing of more than their one newspaper and one kennel. As Mrs. Erlanger phrased it, "I wouldn't want somebody to think that this was just something to glorify the Poodle Club or Pillicoc Kennels."3 After discussion with several others in the dog world and her kennel manager and handler, Henry Stoecker, they turned to the Professional Handlers Association. It was an organization that was not limited to a breed or region, and they were a group experienced handling and training dogs. With the blessing of the American Kennel Club, the Professional Handlers Association, obedience training clubs across the country, and Seeing Eye, Inc., a nation-wide program known as Dogs for Defense, Inc. was initiated and became the official procurement agency for all war dogs used in the Army, Navy and Coast Guard.

The original focus for DFD was to obtain dogs for war service, train them and then turn them over to the Armed Services. By the middle of 1942, it became clear that some reorganization needed to take place. The Army took over the training aspect, leaving DFD in charge of procuring the animals.

At first, there was no limit to breeds accepted. The Quartermaster General called for "any purebred dog of either sex, physically sound, between the ages of one and five years, with characteristics of a watch-dog, qualifying under the physical examination and standard inspection of Dogs for Defense." In the beginning days those requirements were relaxed to accept positively identified crosses of dogs where the ancestry was known. With purebreds at a minimum, cross breeds would have to be acceptable.

However, by spring of 1942, 32 official breeds were classed as war dogs by the Army. Of the breeds listed, Standard Poodles were included. It was noted:

"This breed has unusual ability to learn and retain and keen senses. A drawback is a rapidly-growing coat, never shed and required constant cutting to prevent its becoming matted."4

In late 1943 that acceptable list was cut to 18 breeds, still including Standard Poodles. By the end of 1944 breeds preferred was cut to five, finally eliminating the Poodle. In 1946 the German Shepherd was named the official US Army dog. Doberman Pinschers were named the official Marine war dog.

While evidence suggests that Poodles were never shipped overseas for service, there is a great deal of documentation to show that Poodles were used with some frequency on the home front, doing just what Mrs. Erlanger had suggested; guarding defense plants, military instillations, and the nation's coast-line.

The very first dogs trained by Dogs for Defense for the Army were a German Shepherd, a Norwegian Elkhound and a Greyhound. These dogs were assigned to guard duty at a munitions plant in the Hudson River Valley, N.Y. The dogs had been contributed by Harry T. Peters, Jr., Mrs. H. Bradley Martin and the Long Island Obedience Training Club.

"A few weeks later eight show dogs were turned over to Brig. Gen. Phillips S. Gage, commanding the harbor defenses of Sandy Hook, N.J., by Mrs. Milton Erlanger, of Elberon, N.J., director of finance for DFDI. The dogs now accompanying sentries at Fort Hancock include three black Poodles, two Dalmatians, and Airedale, a German Shepherd and an Afghan Hound."5

The Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 5, 1942, described the same event like this:

"On a Jersey hilltop neat Fort Hancock, last fall, a Doberman, a Dalmatian, two Golden Retrievers, an Afghan Hound, an Airedale, a group of Poodles and a man with a rope faced one another to launch America's first Plattsburg for dogs."6

This article, however, continues further to describe the training these early dogs for defense received. Mrs. Erlanger's kennel manager, Henry Stoecker, was a second generation dog trainer, emigrated from Germany in the 1920's. There, his family had trained dogs for military and police work. In America, he did the same. Impressed by the training he had done with one of her Poodles which Stoecker purchased, Mrs. Erlanger hired him to become her kennel manager. As DFD geared up to supply the 25,000 dogs it had promised to the Army, Mrs. Erlanger tasked Mr. Stoecker to train the dogs she donated, Pillicoc Poodles, and the other dogs she recruited from her many dog-breeding friends.

When Stoecker started the training school at Mrs. Erlanger's Pillicoc Kennels, military police were the first to be assigned to attend classes and learn to work with the dogs. Skeptical at first of the "exotic breeds," particularly the Poodles, these men soon learned that even such "Park Avenue" pets were he-men at heart.

Mr. Stoecker joined the army 1942; he was stationed at Front Royal, Cat Island and San Carlos Training and War Dog Reception Centers until his discharge in 1945.

In November and December 1942 Capt. Henry Stoecker toured various dog unit installations in the mid-Atlantic region to follow up on the dogs and handlers assigned. On November 24, 1942 he reported: "York, Pa. - York Safe and Lock Co. I contacted Lt. Scarlett and the Captain of the Guard, Capt. Armstrong. They were very much disappointed in the appearance of the dogs upon arrival, but decided to give them a chance. They found them completely unfit to do the job. The guards refused to walk post with them, two of the dogs, one Setter, and one Poodle, failed completely, and the other, another Poodle, would growl a little but then shy away. I would recommend exchanging these dogs with three sharp man-sized dogs. I am sure the dogs will be of great value in protecting one of the most vital spots in American Defense. Special care should be taken in selecting dogs that are not gun-shy, as there is continuous shooting on the Navy Proving Grounds connected with the same plant. Pvt. Snipes, M.P. sent from Front Royal, claimed that he knew one of the dogs at Front Royal, the others were strange to him. Snipes seems to be O.K. but on questioning him, he did not seem to know much about the care and feeding of dogs, on which I gave him some pointers."7

Other evidence of Poodles serving in the armed forces can be found in movie "shorts" and newsreels of the day. Residing in the National Archives are a series of pictures and film footage that capture dog training at the Front Royal Va. War Dog Training and Reception Center. In these photographs is a black Standard Poodle. As the photos were taken in August 1942, it's clear to see how overheated that Poodle is in Virginia's hot sun! There is film footage that also shows a black Standard Poodle. As this footage was taken in winter with snow on the ground, the Poodle is probably a different dog from the first-mentioned Poodle, because training at Front Royal usually took 8 weeks.

To guide soldiers and sailors in their training of dogs, a Technical Manual was developed in 1943. Within is the listing of acceptable dog breeds and their general characteristics. The section concerning Poodles states:

"52. Standard Poodle. a. General appearance. The Standard Poodle as a military dog presents a far different appearance from the traditionally landscaped Poodle seen at a dog show. He is clipped all over for Army work, and his coat is allowed to grow out to a length of 1 or 2 inches, either all over, or with the face and feet clipped bare. Thus cut down, the Poodle looks like a medium-sized retriever. He stands from 20 to 25 inches high, weighing from 50 to 75 pounds. His coat is tightly curled, very dense, of any solid color. He is a sturdy, squarely built dog, active and poised. b. Special traits. Unusual ability to learn rapidly, good retention, patience, agility, versatility, courage, keen nose and hearing. The Poodle's one drawback is his rapidly growing coat, which is never shed and must constantly be cut down to prevent its becoming matted or knotted, or entangled with foreign matter. Some specimens are too small or too light to be serviceable."8

"62. Ears. c. When the wax has been removed, the ear canal should be examined for excessive hair growth. In some breeds, notably Poodles, this condition is very common and, unless the hair is removed at frequent intervals, it will become matted and cause the dog considerable discomfort."9

From the time of its inception, the war dog program was publicized, discussed and photographed through most of the war. In almost every war-time dog publication, there was some mention of the war dog program, either asking for dogs, money or support. The following was seen in Dog World, 1942:

"Training Notes: A second government training camp for WAGS will be established at Ft. Robinson, Neb. To answer a question oft asked, here are the most desired breeds as announced by the War Department: 'For sentries and messenger: Doberman Pinschers, Airdales, Boxers, Collies, retrievers, Ger. Shepherds, Great Danes, Bulldogs, and Standard Poodles. For sledge duty: Malamute, and Siberian Husky. For pack duty: Newfoundland, St. Bernard and Great Pyrenees.' But, it adds that temperament, aptitude, and character are more important than breed."10

As the nation plunged itself into the war effort, everyone got into the act, including Hollywood: "Dogs which formerly lounged in the Hollywood homes of motion picture stars are now doing guard duty in the K-9 Corps. Enlisted through Dogs for Defense, they include Greer Garson's Poodle, Cliquot; Mary Pickford's German Shepherd, Silver; Bruce Cabot's Boxer, Frits; Rudy Vallee's Doberman Pinscher, King."11 As a note of interest, Greer Garson purchased her Poodles from none other than Mrs. Erlanger.

Mrs. Helene Whitehouse Walker was also a breeder of Poodles, breeding under the kennel name Carillon Kennels. She wrote in Dog World magazine in 1943:

"The Poodle fancy has done its share in the great Dogs for Defense movement, as first of all the idea for the whole thing originated with a famous Poodle fancier, Mrs. Milton Erlanger of Pillicoc fame. Since then the Interstate Poodle Club has contributed very generously to the cause, giving a hundred dollars at each Specialty to DFD. Many Poodles have been offered, but the breed, because of its coat, is not as much in demand as others. When the war is ended the Poodle fanciers' record will be a proved one, for not only have they enlisted and are fighting on the actual battlefronts, but those remaining at home are in important war work and doing good jobs."12

Mrs. Walker would have known much about the obedience training required for war dogs, as she had been instrumental in importing the British style of obedience training to the US. The AKC web page states:

"In the mid 30's, Helene Whitehouse Walker was instrumental in establishing obedience tests. She submitted a pamphlet of procedures to the AKC in December 1935, and three months later the Board of Directors approved it in principle. In April 1936, AKC published the first official "Regulations and Standard for Obedience Test Field Trials".13

With this sort of background, it only seems logical that Poodle breeders of the time would have viewed Standard Poodles as suitable for war work. As Mrs. Walker had stated, in the Dog World Magazine, that was not necessarily true.

In 1941 the AKC registration of Poodles numbered 717, ranking them as the 22nd most popular dog in the country. By 1942, however, the AKC registrations had dropped to 611 and Poodles ranked 23rd in the country.14 The most popular dogs of the day were Cocker Spaniels, Beagles and Boston Terriers. Life Magazine in 1940 reported Poodles, “have in the last five years become so popular among U.S. dog lovers, that ...[the breed] now ranks 23rd among the American Kennel Club's 108 pedigreed breeds. In the 1890's it was at its peak. During the last World War it practically disappeared. But now it is back again, as waggishly ridiculous as ever, as grotesquely ornamental, though its original German Pudel ancestors were once famous duck retrieving dogs."15

The real reason Poodles were not a huge success as war dogs can be more accurately summed up by the following exerpt from the Saturday Evening Post, 1942:

"Just a word, though, Fido, before you trot off to the recruiting office! Being in the Army is no picnic for a dog. It involves a pretty considerable sacrifice. You may be enlisting for life. You are giving up human companionship - a deeply felt need for most dogs - for a disciplined camaraderie, which is a very different sort of thing. Petting and reassurance that you are loved must be renounced by a dog going into the Army. The Army dog lives a monastic and regimented life, associating only with his handlers lest his militarily valuable suspicion of strangers be submerged in that other desire he has to romp with any friendly soul."16

Here within, is the very antithesis of behavior for any Poodle; the very antithesis of that "Poodley-ness" that Poodle lovers adore. Anyone who has ever owned a Poodle knows that the lack of human companionship, the lack of petting and romping with "any friendly soul" is just not in their nature.

So while Poodles had a great start in the WWII Dogs for Defense movement, their very being, heart and soul was also their downfall. Many of the instrumental people in the movement went on to judge in the dog world, write books and breed dogs. Many of the dogs that served in the armed forces of WWII were returned to their previous owners or to the serviceman they served with, returning home to a hero's welcome. Poodles went on into the 1950's as one of the most popular breeds in America, not only in the flesh, but also as a representation on clothing, in ceramic figurines and a variety of other images.

"He serves us all to keep his country free,
This hero dog who works for victory."

--G.J. Ferry, 3rd., 17


1. William F. Brown, How to train Hunting dogs (A. S. Barnes & Co., Inc. 1942), page 221.

2. Fairfax Downey, The History of Dogs for Defense ( ), page 16.

3. Roland Kilbon, "An Inspiration and Its Fulfillment; Dogs for Defense" Popular Dogs September 1943, page 162.

4. Fairfax Downey, The History of Dogs for Defense ( ), page 16.

5. Leo Pollock, "U.S. Dogs in War" Our Dogs vol.1 no.2, page 21.

6. Josef Israels II, The Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 5, 1942, page 20.

7.Correspondence from Capt. Henry Stoecker to Commanding Officer, Front Royal Quartermaster Depot, Headquarters, Dog Reception and Training Center, Front Royal, Va.; December 2, 1942.

8. Technical Manual 10-396, War Dogs. War Department, 1 July 1943, pages 24-26.

9.Ibid; page 31.

10."Training Notes." Dog World, October 1942, page 22.

11. Clayton Going, Dogs at War (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1945), page 10.

12. "Your Breeds; Poodles", by Mrs. Whitehouse Walker, from the Poodle Club of America and Mrs. Sherman R. Hoyt, Interstate Poodle Club. Popular Dogs September, 1943, page 229.

13. AKC webpage.

14."1942 AKC Registrations by Breeds." Dog World, April 1943, page 16.

15. "Greer Garson's Poodles Are Sent to School for Manners", Life Magazine, June 23, 1941, Vol. 10, No. 25, page 80.

16. Josef Israels, II, The Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 5, 1942, page 20.

17."Music and Poetry, Dogs for Defense Inspires Both," Popular Dogs, September 1943, page 164.

Illustrations captions in order of their appearance above:

Stormy.JPG: Photograph found in the National Archives. The caption reads, "9 April 1943; Coast Guard dog patrols somewhere along the Atlantic coast. Harold L. Oxman (SN2) with 'Stormy' a French Poodle."

sep9542.JPG: Picture from Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 5, 1942 of the same group of dogs that were first trained at Pillicoc Kennels for use on the harbor defenses of NYC as discussed in the article above.

pillicoc ad.JPG: Pillicoc ad seen in many dog magazines during the war years.

our dogs spr1943.JPG: First dog handlers trained at Pillicoc in the spring of 1942, published in Our Dogs, Spring 1943 and Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 5, 1942. Note the Poodle in the middle.

gg life40.JPG: Actress Greer Garson and her Poodles, Gogo and Cliquot, from a Life Magazine, 1940. Cliquot was donated to Dogs for Defense.

Front Royal.JPG; Front Royal poodle.JPG; Front Royal poodle back.JPG: Three photos of a Poodle in training at Front Royal, VA War Dog Training and Reception Center, taken Aug. 28, 1942 on opening day of the training center.

DFD poster closeup.JPG: Poster made for Dogs for Defense rallys and collection points in Texas. In the close-up of the center of the poster is a Poodle.

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