The dogs in the Long Island City training facility are heirs to an ancient and bloodthirsty line. Their ancestors, descended from the great mastiffs and sighthounds of Mesopotamia, were used as shock troops by the Assyrians, the Persians, the Babylonians, and the Greeks. (Alexander the Great’s dog, Peritas, is said to have saved his life at Gaugamela by leaping in front of a Persian elephant and biting its lip.) They wrought havoc in the Roman Colosseum, ran with Attila’s hordes, and wore battle armor beside the knights of the Middle Ages. In 1495, when Columbus sailed to what is now the Dominican Republic, he brought Spanish mastiffs almost three feet high at the withers and greyhounds that could run down an enemy and disembowel him.
The German shepherd, first registered as a breed in 1889 by a former cavalry captain, Max von Stephanitz, was selected for intelligence and steadiness as well as power. The Germans fielded thirty thousand dogs in World War I, and used them for everything from transporting medicine and wounded soldiers to shuttling messages between trenches. When the war was over, the animals were mostly killed, discarded, or consumed by the starving populace. “Dog meat has been eaten in every major German crisis at least since the time of Frederick the Great, and is commonly referred to as ‘blockade mutton,’” Time noted in 1940. “Dachshund is considered the most succulent.”