According to Trump’s account of the raid, Conan pursued Baghdadi down a tunnel in Syria, moments before the Islamic State leader killed himself. The dog was injured but has recovered.
Over the past few days, Conan has received an amount of attention that is rare for a military working dog. The White House released a photo. And on Wednesday, Trump doubled down, tweeting a photoshopped image of the dog receiving a modified Medal of Honor from him.
Sharing an image of the military dog’s head photoshopped onto the face of a real Medal of Honor recipient struck some as bizarre and inappropriate, despite Conan’s rapidly growing fan base.
But it may still fit a broader trend: In the United States and abroad, military working dogs are now treated with a great deal more respect than they used to receive.
The praise Conan has gotten stands in strong contrast with the treatment he might have faced up to two decades ago. Whereas dogs deployed during World War II returned to their former owners after the war or were subsequently used as beloved therapy dogs, military working dogs faced a more dire fate in the following decades.
When the United States withdrew from Vietnam, many dogs were left behind — "something certainly that they did not deserve,” said Rebecca Frankel, the author of “War Dogs: Tales of Canine History, Heroism and Love.”
As was the case in a number of other countries, many U.S. military working dogs also used to be killed upon retirement — a practice that was abandoned in 2000.
Since then, many former military dogs have been adopted. Euthanasia has occurred only when absolutely necessary, as in cases of serious illness.
Key to those changes, Frankel said, was a new approach to the training of dogs. Whereas training is today “primarily motivated by reward- and praise-based training,” it instead used to be an approach focused on “obedience motivated by corrections,” and many of those dogs may not have been suitable for home life upon retirement.
The changes in the United States that allowed dogs to retire instead of being killed coincided with similar efforts in other countries where militaries now go to great lengths to care for retired war dogs.
Some countries stopped mass killings only recently. India, for instance, ended the practice in 2016.
Meanwhile, Germany is several steps ahead and has developed dedicated programs to facilitate military working dogs’ transition into retirement. One major obstacle to that transition, German military researchers have found, is psychological in nature, as dogs have to adapt to a less challenging and diverse life.
“That is the hard part — the transition, which is not dissimilar from people who retire from the military,” Frankel said. “It’s hard to adjust to civilian life, for everybody.”
To alleviate the effect for canines, the German military’s dog handlers have conceived a variety of games and activities to allow the dogs to continue a life that resembles their military past, at least to some extent.
After long killing retired military working dogs over concerns that they might endanger the public, the Royal Australian Air Force has similarly begun a program to let them retire with their handlers.
Dogs still have to undergo a strict assessment to exclude possible safety concerns. But speaking to ABC News Australia in 2013, Sgt. Russ Durre, the program head, said the possibility of a release was “a big step from what we’ve done in the past.”
“We now can release dogs from military service into their handlers’ care and they can spend the rest of their years out in the home environment rather than the service environment,” Durre told ABC at the time.
Similar procedures have at times encountered fierce public resistance elsewhere.
In Britain, the case of two former military dogs captivated the country for weeks in 2017. After almost 400,000 people signed a petition to keep the dogs alive, the government finally caved in.
Since then, the British military’s euthanasia practices have remained under scrutiny. Critics allege that the military’s criteria for what constitutes a justifiable euthanasia of a former working dog are too broad — and have resulted in unnecessary deaths.
The 2017 case, according to Spectator writer Camilla Swift, exposed a double standard in a country where military dogs are regularly awarded medals.
“When a service dog is given a medal, everyone aahs and says how deserving of it he was,” Swift wrote. But, she added, if the army wants “the positive PR that comes with awarding a dog a medal for bravery, they’ll need to come up with a better retirement plan for their former service dogs."