Thursday, May 26, 2011

Breeding Dogs and Other Critters to Kill Us

Training air-scenting dogs in 1930s Germany, with pulleys to kept feet off ground.

Someone should probably write a book about the use of animals in war.

We tried to use bats to firebomb Japan.

We have used "killer" porpoises, seals, and walruses to patrol harbors, locate mines, and retrieve lost equipment.

We have used dogs as four-legged tank-killer bombs as well as beasts of burden hauling machine guns and rolls of razor-wire.

We have trained pigeons to deliver wartime messages, and also guide wartime bombs.

We have used dead cats to spread plague, as well as used pots of poisonous snakes to spread fear.

We have used giant rats to locate mines and the Bible even mentions Sampson tying burning torches to the tails of 300 foxes in order to have them set fire to the fields (Judges 15:4)
War dogs with gas masks, Germany, World War I.

More recently, the U.S. miltary has experimented with using 'spy crows' to locate terrorists, and honey bees to help locate hidden drugs and explosives.

So what's the latest? 

The latest is that the Germans, during World War II, were interested in breeding smarter dogs and testing the limits of their sensing abilities.  A British tabloid framed the story as breathlessly as possible:

In his new book Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, Cardiff University historian Jan Bondeson mines obscure German periodicals to reveal the Nazis' failed attempt to breed an army of educated dogs that could read, write and talk. "In the 1920s, Germany had numerous 'new animal psychologists' who believed dogs were nearly as intelligent as humans, and capable of abstract thinking and communication," he writes. "When the Nazi party took over, one might have thought they would be building concentration camps to lock these fanatics up, but instead they were actually very interested in their ideas."

Of course, it's easy to see crackpot ideas looking backwards, but a bit harder to see them when they sit straight ahead.

For example, how about tracking dogs?  Can a dog really track a lost person six months or a year after they have crossed through field or forest?  Not a chance, and never mind if canine fraudsters have made the claim and people have believed them to the point that people were sent to jail.

Not all fraud is intentional, of course. 'Clever Hans' the counting horse was probably not a deliberate fraud -- simply a case of a very perceptive animal picking up on un-noticed cues being telegraphed by a human handler.

More recently, Psychology Today did a piece on drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs marking on locations where no bombs or drugs had ever been placed.  What was going on?  Simple:  the handlers were told that drugs and explosives were about and that was enough to trigger false positives by the dogs -- another case of the "Clever Hans" effect.
Dog guards sleeping soldier, Iwo Jima, 1945.


M said...

I seem to recall a tale of burning a sieged Istanbul by the invading commander's order to capture sparrows, tie thatching to their back and light them on fire. The frightened birds were then released to fly over the wall and would hide in the thatched rooftops lighting the city on fire.

Jenn said...

Venomous snakes.

Unless they were on the menu?

Thea said...

There are many books about animals in war.