The Relationship Between Soldier and Military Working Dog During the Vietnam War: An Empirical Existential Phenomenological Study


Sherri McGraw

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Spring 1-1-2007



Submission Type


Degree Name



Clinical Psychology


McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Eva-Marie Simms

Committee Member

Anthony Barton

Committee Member

Jessie Goicoechea


human-animal relationship, psychology


This qualitative research study explores the relationship between soldier and military working dog during wartime service. Seven former military dog handlers were interviewed about what led up to, what happened during, and what followed a combat situation, which they experienced with their dog. Six of the men were former scout dog handlers. Their task was to support various infantry units, often walking point at the front of a patrol unit. One of the men was a former sentry dog handler, who worked as a sentry or guard around the perimeter of an airbase during the war.

The qualitative empirical data consist of written protocols and transcribed interviews with veteran U.S. military dog handlers. The transcripts were interpreted using a psychological phenomenological method. The relationship between soldiers and dogs evolved through the development of mutual trust, reliance, and interdependence, eventually leading to the soldiers gaining greater confidence in their ability to function in the combat environment. They developed a sense of being accompanied and understood by another living being, which made it possible to relax following periods of intense anxiety. Through the dog, they experienced a pronounced awareness of the sensory landscape. The dog, as an extension of the handler's body, allowed for a deeper sense of the present time as it unfolded as well as of the future time as it was approaching. The dogs became a necessary tool in the performance of the soldiers' work, but were also experienced as living beings capable of engaging in a prolonged and varied relationship, which led the soldiers to a deep sense of responsibility and care for another living being, as well as for their own self. The military dog-handlers identified with their dogs and felt empowered to survive and save other lives because they and their dogs were a well attuned working team. When, after the Vietnam War, the dogs were decommissioned and destroyed, the soldiers experienced a profound sense of loss and bereavement regarding the fate of their dog.

The U.S. military has traditionally viewed working dogs as basic equipment, a distinction which means that, like other ancillary military equipment, the dog can be destroyed at any time if and when the military deems it no longer useful. This tenet perpetuates the historical view of animals as machines that have little value beyond their means to perform a specific task. However, this limited perspective ignores the physical, psychological, and social implications that the experience of having a relationship with a working dog has for the human handler. This study provides an inside view of the complex psychological relationship between soldier and military working dog, and suggests a revision of military guidelines which takes the psychological nature of human/canine interaction into account.





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