1. Sergeant Stubby—The Most Decorated Dog of World War I

On a fateful day in 1917, a stray pit bull mix wandered onto the Yale University campus while members of the 102nd Infantry Regiment were training. This lost pup fit right in, participating in drills and even learning to salute with his right paw. He won the heart of Private J. Robert Conroy who adopted the dog, dubbed him Stubby (because of his short, stubby tail) and smuggled him to the trenches in France.

It was there that Stubby was exposed to mustard gas. After he recovered, he returned to the frontlines with his own specially-designed gas mask. This exposure, combined with a dog’s heightened sense of smell, allowed him to warn the 102nd of imminent poison gas attacks. He also learned how to locate wounded soldiers during patrols. This brave mascot earned the rank of sergeant after he spotted a German spy and attacked the bewildered man until reinforcements arrived. In his 18 months of service, Stubby participated in 17 battles, survived a series of wounds and provided a much-needed morale boost to his fellow soldiers.

PHOTOS: Dog Heroes of WWI

After the war, the decorated hero made his way back to the United States with Conroy (the dog now outranked his owner) becoming a national icon, leading parades and receiving awards until his death in 1926. Stubby’s body was donated to the Smithsonian in 1956, where he is still on display to this day.

2. Owney—The U.S. Postal Pup

Owney with some of his dog tags. (Credit: Public Domain)
Owney with some of his dog tags. (Credit: Public Domain)

Adopted in 1888 by post office workers at a branch in Albany, New York, after his previous owner abandoned him, Owney became an unofficial mascot of the U.S. Postal Service. This border terrier would sleep on mailbags, until he eventually started accompanying his new owners on their delivery routes. Within a few years, he was traveling the country by train with them, and then the world.

As newspapers chronicled this canine’s travels, his fame grew. Clerks affixed so many medals and tags to his collar that he needed a harness to hold all the bounty. In 1895, Owney embarked on a 129-day “Around the World” publicity tour aboard the Northern Pacific mail steamer Victoria. Over the course of his nine years of service, he traveled more than 140,000 miles as a mascot of the Railway Post Office and the United States Postal Service.

While the details of his 1897 death are murky, it is believed that Owney bit the hand of an Ohio mail clerk and tried to attack the deputy U.S. marshal who was sent to investigate the situation. Newspapers across the country published Owney obituaries as America mourned the passing of this famous mail mutt. Today, Owney’s spirit lives on. He’s on both Facebook and Twitter, serves as the inspiration for a blog that recreates his adventures on the rails, was honored in July 2011 with a commemorative stamp and his preserved body is on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

3. Laika—First Animal to Orbit Earth

On November 3, 1957, Laika (which means “barker” in Russian) become the first animal to orbit Earth when she traveled aboard the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2. A small, female mutt (or “muttnik” as she was dubbed in America), Laika was a stray dog from the streets of Moscow. She trained along with two other dogs for the Soviet space program in 1957, eventually being selected as the sole occupant of the capsule.

Although Soviet officials initially claimed Laika survived aboard Sputnik 2 for about a week before perishing, in 2002 it was revealed that the space pup actually died within hours of the launch, due to overheating and stress. After circling Earth more than 2,000 times, Sputnik 2, with Laika’s remains inside, burned up upon re-entering the planet’s atmosphere in April 1958.

Two years later, Soviet space dogs Belka and Strelka became the first animals to circumnavigate Earth and survive. Laika was honored in 2008 by Soviet officials who erected a small monument near the military research facility where she trained.

4. Balto—A Town’s Salvation

Sledder Gunnar Kasson hugs his famous dog Balto. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)
Sledder Gunnar Kasson hugs his famous dog Balto. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

It was January 1925, and the children of Nome, Alaska, were dying of diphtheria. The town’s lone doctor, Dr. Curtis Welch, feared an epidemic could put the entire village of 1,400 at risk. While Dr. Curtis issued a quarantine, what he needed was medicine, but the nearest batch of antitoxin serum was more than 1,000 miles away in Anchorage.

With the harbors filled with impenetrable ice and the subzero temperatures too extreme for open-cockpit airplanes to fly, the stage was set for the heroism of sled dogs. The territory’s governor arranged for the best drivers and dogs to participate in a round-the-clock relay to transport the serum to Nome. The “Great Race of Mercy” covered 674-miles of rugged wilderness, frozen waterways and treeless tundra. It took five-and-a-half days (cutting the previous record in half) and involved more than 150 dogs and 20 drivers, but it was the black-and-white Siberian husky, Balto, who emerged as a national superstar.

When it was time for this trusted lead dog to take off, the driver and 13-dog team encountered a blizzard with pelting snow so fierce it blocked the driver’s sight. Balto relied on scent (rather than sight), leading his team of dogs over the beaten trail of ice to safety. After completing their 53 miles of the relay, the next team was not ready to leave. The driver, Balto and the rest of the dogs forged on, and it was Balto who was Nome’s first sight of salvation. 

Within weeks, Balto was a media superstar, receiving a Hollywood contract and a nine-month vaudeville tour. In December 1925, a bronze statue of his likeness was unveiled in Central Park. While Balto often receives much of the credit for the trip‘s success, as well as a Disney film adaptation, it couldn’t have been done without the help of Togo, a 12-year-old Siberian Husky who led his team for more 261 miles through the longest, and most dangerous, leg of the trip.

5. Sinbad—The Coast Guard Sailor

Sinbad USCG publicity still. (Credit: Public Domain)
Sinbad USCG publicity still. (Credit: Public Domain)

A mixed-breed canine, Sinbad served 11 years aboard the United States Coast Guard Cutter George W. Campbell. Originally intended as a present for the girlfriend of crewmember A. A. “Blackie” Rother, Sinbad was left without an owner when her apartment wouldn’t allow dogs. Rother returned to service with Sinbad. The pooch was enlisted in the Coast Guard, with a paw print on his papers making it official, and was assigned the rank of K9C (or “Chief Dog”), the equivalent to Chief Petty Officer.

Sinbad became the mascot of US Coast Guard Cutter Campbell and remained aboard during its entire World War II tour, during which it sank the German submarine U-606. Sinbad received many awards is his lifetime, including The American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal and the Navy Occupation Service Medal.