When Conan the dog valiantly cornered ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he played a crucial part in bringing an end to the reign of one of the most notorious terrorists in modern history.
Conan became an overnight sensation a few days later, when President Donald Trump tweeted out a declassified picture of the Belgian Malinois wearing his military harness and sporting a goofy smile with his tongue flopping to the side.
The public became even more enamored with the heroic canine when Gen. Frank McKenzie reported Conan had been injured by some exposed live wires during the raid, prompting calls for him to receive a Purple Heart for his troubles.
While Conan’s actions are extraordinary, there is a long and storied history of military canines that have shaped human affairs.
The earliest recorded use of military dogs dates back to antiquity, when the Lydian empire employed them against their Cimmerian enemies around 600 B.C. Julius Caesar’s treatise on the Gallic wars described the massive Irish wolfhounds that accompanied the Celts.
More recent historical accounts describe the individual actions of man’s best friend in battle.
In the middle of the muck-ridden trenches of World War I, a brindle-colored dog named Stubby caught a German spy mapping out American lines, thus earning himself a battlefield promotion to sergeant. Whether Sgt. Stubby was formally promoted is still debated, but his remarkable service record is not.
Stubby, named for his close-cropped tail, started his military career as the 102nd Infantry Regiment’s mascot, but his service included much more than just a boost to morale. Before his promotion, Stubby reportedly warned his unit of mustard gas attacks, saved wounded soldiers caught in deadly no-man’s land, and used his sharp hearing to warn of artillery attacks. He fought in the trenches with the U.S. Doughboys for eight months, participating in 17 battles and suffering two injuries along the way.
When World War II broke out, Edward Wren of Pleasantville, New York, donated his German Shepherd-Collie-Siberian Husky mix, Chips, for military duty. Chips would go on to be trained as a sentry dog, serving with the 3rd Infantry Division in eight campaigns spanning North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany.
Perhaps his most famous exploit occurred during the invasion of Sicily, when he assaulted a machine gun nest that had pinned down his unit on a beach. While he suffered light wounds, Chips’s actions led to the capture of four German soldiers and likely saved several lives.
For his valor, Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (the nation’s second-highest military award), the Silver Star, and a Purple Heart. Sadly, such recognition led to a backlash within the military over honoring dogs this way. Chips was discharged from the Army in 1945 and went on to live out his life with the Wren family.
Before Conan, another Belgian Malinois named Cairo captured the public eye in 2011 when he joined SEAL Team Six in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The titanium-toothed canine helped secure the perimeter of the facility, allowing the SEALs inside to kill the world’s most notorious terrorist leader without fear of being flanked. Time magazine would award Cairo “Animal of the Year” in recognition of his service.
War dogs such as Conan and Cairo may share a legacy with their historical peers, but the military has moved beyond borrowing family pets and has begun breeding warriors itself. “Selection is an ongoing process” is a phrase commonly heard within the special operations forces. It means only the best are chosen and only the best stick around, and that philosophy applies to the dogs just as much as the troops themselves.
While several breeds, including the German shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, and Dutch shepherds, are used by military and police forces, the Belgian Malinois has become increasingly popular since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The stocky breed is essentially the pocket-carry version of a German shepherd, often procured in places such as the Netherlands and Czech Republic.
Its convenient size offers several advantages useful for special operations. First, its short hair is ideal for arid climates in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, its compact size makes it easier to transport, especially when jumping out of planes. Third, it is remarkably agile and has a strong jaw, traits that have earned it nicknames such as “fur missile” and “maligator.”
They aren’t cheap. It can cost as much as $40,000 to train a military working dog, but the troops that fight beside them say they are an invaluable force multiplier on the battlefield.
Lackland Air Force base is the home of the military’s working dog training program, where the 341st Training Squadron ensures the special canines are ready to serve across the force. Some dogs are bred at the base itself, where they are raised by Puppy Development Specialists (yes, it’s a real military job) who begin to assess them for military service at birth.
At 8 weeks old, they are put into a foster program with locals in nearby San Antonio so they can socialize and get used to people. At 7 months old, they return to Lackland for an intensive, five-month-long initial training phase. Dogs that can’t get over being separated from their family or are otherwise unsuitable are usually put up for adoption at this point.
Those that make the cut go into a 120-day training program, where they will learn how to patrol and detect bombs and drugs. It’s during this stage where the dog’s personality will help determine its future: those that prefer smelling things might be better suited for detection detail, while pups that like chewing on bite sleeves and balls are more likely to be used in patrol.
After they graduate, the dogs will be assigned to handlers across the military. The best of the best will have the chance to work with units such as SEAL Team Six and Delta Force. James Hatch, a Navy SEAL veteran who helped foster the unit’s dog program, worked with several of these top-tier dogs in his military career.
“They don’t give up, they don’t shut down,” Hatch told the Washington Examiner. “Training humans is harder than training dogs. And humans make mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes with my first dog, Spike. But Spike was so strong that he could overcome my mistakes and still be focused on the mission.”
The relationship between dog and handler is an indescribable bond. Handlers are known to sleep with their dogs in their kennels in order to earn their trust and will often take care of them in their old age after they retire.
Sadly, that bond makes losing a dog difficult. Hatch felt this pain firsthand when Spike was killed during an operation in 2006.
“He was killed in what’s called a shoot-through,” Hatch explained. “It was our second deployment together in Iraq, and he was fighting a guy and I shot the guy, and the bullet went through the guy and killed him. It was difficult, obviously, and I really, really struggled with it.”
After grieving Spike’s death, Hatch went on to work with other dogs. He would ultimately have his life saved by one during a firefight looking for none other than Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who deserted his base in Afghanistan and was captured in 2009.
In July of that year, U.S. forces got word that the Taliban and al-Qaida were trying to smuggle Bergdahl out of the country so he could not be retrieved. Hatch and his unit were ordered to prevent that from happening. In his memoir, Touching the Dragon, Hatch recalled telling one his teammates, “Somebody’s going to get hurt or killed trying to rescue this kid.”
Little did he know at the time, he would be one of them.
The mission had red flags from the start, but it was clear this was the best chance they had of retrieving Bergdahl. As professionals, Hatch and his team focused on getting Bergdahl home, regardless of how they felt about the situation.
After being inserted via helicopter, the team began to move in to their target location. Hatch’s colleague sent his dog, Remco, forward to recon a ditch full of what appeared to be enemy forces just ahead of them.
But just as Remco moved in, he did something Hatch had never seen before: He stopped short and nipped at the shoulder of one of the shadowy figures. Making his way toward the ditch, Hatch quickly found out why. It wasn’t full of enemy combatants, just three scared children Remco had known not to hurt — a testament to his training.
Hatch moved the children away from the area in order to prevent them from being injured in the firefight. With the children secured, he turned his attention toward a group moving far off in the distance carrying what looked like heavy equipment.
Hatch wondered if one of them might be Bergdahl, but it was difficult to make them out in the tall brush. He could either wait to see if they moved again or close in on them. Hatch, not exactly known as a guy who likes to wait, chose to move in.
With Remco in tow, Hatch’s small team made their way toward the group. The dog honed in on a ditch they were hiding in and charged. Just 20 feet from the location, one of the men shot Remco in the face, mortally wounding him. The dog’s sacrifice gave Hatch just enough time to shoot the man, who had been illuminated by his rifle’s muzzle flash. But just as Hatch was about to finish the gunman off, a second man, wildly firing his AK-47, shot him through the femur.
The team ultimately did not recover Bergdahl, though Remco would be posthumously awarded a Silver Star for saving the team.
What followed for Hatch was a painful period full of guilt and self-blame. In addition to his mental wounds, he would endure 18 surgeries in an attempt to repair his damaged leg.
After coming to grips with what had happened, Hatch founded Spike’s K9 Fund, a nonprofit organization that makes sure military working dogs receive high-quality medical care, ballistic vests, and other equipment they need. He believes it’s the duty of all Americans to ensure these canine heroes are taken care of.
“I volunteered for war, my buddies volunteered for it, but the dogs did not,” Hatch said. “If they understood bullets, and they understood what we were asking them to do, they would not do it, because it’s insane. And because of that, I feel quite strongly that I owe them.”
Russ Read is a defense reporter for the Washington Examiner.