by Tony Dunnell
War dogs have been used in battle for millennia. Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylon, is believed to have used dogs in battle c. 1760 BC. The Ancient Egyptians also used war dogs, so too the Greeks and Persians. The Romans trained entire companies of war dogs, thought to be a cross between their own hunting breed and larger, more powerful dogs imported from Britain. Mastiffs were used by both Henry VIII of England and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. It was these mastiffs, among others, that would soon be fighting as Conquistador war dogs in the New World.
The Conquistadores War Dogs
War dogs were not an afterthought for the Spanish Conquistadors. When Hernán Cortes set sail for the Yucatan Peninsula in 1519 his fleet carried more than 500 men, eleven horses and a large pack of war dogs. The Spanish had been using these dogs in Europe and they did not hesitate to bring them to the New World.
According to military historian Ian Heath, these dogs were “a mixture of wolfhounds, deerhounds, and mastiffs, and could stand up to about 2½ ft (
The dogs were often given quilted cotton armor as protection against enemy missile fire. This was the same type of armor worn by many native warriors and soon adopted by the Spanish themselves. As a defense against throttling by enemy warriors, Spanish war dogs were commonly equipped with a spiked leather collar.
War Dogs and Conquistador Tactics
War dogs would have played a role in skirmishes and larger battlefield engagements, but their principal role was to guard positions, track enemies and bring down fleeing warriors. Human handlers would have been unlikely to set the dogs upon large, unbroken enemy formations.
War dogs were a valuable asset and, especially in the early years of the Spanish Conquest, were in relatively short supply; they would not have been thrown away needlessly. Matthew Restall, in Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, states that war dogs would have been used mainly “at close quarters, preferably against the unarmed.”
Conquistadores War Dogs and Native Reactions
“It is true that cannons, guns, crossbows, steel blades, horses, and war dogs were advances on the Aztecs’ weaponry,” says historian Ross Hassig in Aztec Warfare, “But the advantage these gave a few hundred Spanish soldiers was not overwhelming.” Similarly, the Spanish campaign against the Inca Empire was not won by European weaponry alone.
Horses and war dogs gave the Spanish an extra card to play on the battlefield when circumstances (such as terrain and proximity) allowed. They also served as a psychological weapon against indigenous warriors, although this advantage faded over time.
Furthermore, dogs, unlike horses, were not unknown to the native population (the Aztecs had the xoloitzcuintle, or Mexican Hairless Dog, and the Inca had the Peruvian Hairless Dog). Spanish war dogs were larger and far more aggressive than dogs native to the New World, but they did not provoke the same initial reaction as the sight of armored, mounted and completely alien horses.
War Dogs & Conquistador Brutality
It was not uncommon for war dogs to be used to carry out brutal acts against the native population away from the battlefield. Significantly, there are more accounts of war dogs used in this manner than on the battlefield.
According to Cynthia Jean Van Zandt in Brothers Among Nations, the Spanish Conquistador and explorer Hernan de Soto used his mastiffs for sport “by pretending to release Indian captives, only to let the dogs loose to hunt them as hounds would chase a fox or other game animal in Europe.” Juan Ponce de León, in his position as governor of Puerto Rico, used his dogs to put down slave rebellions and instill fear into the native population. His favorite war dog, Becerrillo, became notorious throughout the settlement. Núñez de Balboa took a pack of war dogs with him during his journey across the Isthmus of Panama. He used these dogs to tear apart natives captured in battle, including caciques (tribal overlords), to set an example to other potentially hostile tribes.