The rigors of war dog training and why Conan is our latest war hero

Here’s a look at the bonding that takes place between military dogs and their handlers.

Since at least the Civil War, American military personnel have served alongside highly trained dogs, many of which have saved lives by sniffing out explosives, locating enemy positions, or otherwise protecting their handlers.

This week a military dog named Conan, a Belgian Malinois, became the latest K-9 hero for helping chase down Islamic State leader Abu Baker al-Baghdadi.

It’s estimated that each military dog saves the lives of 150 to 200 service members. In the past, many of these dogs were treated like equipment and euthanized after they were no longer useful. But in recent years, that attitude has changed to one of giving back to those who serve, even if they were bred for the purpose. And in November 2015, the nation gave something back to these war dogs.

<p>Senior Airman Stephen Risiger plays with 7-week old Belgian Malinois puppies at the 341st Training Squadron Military Working Dog breeding program at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where the dogs are bred for a life of service.</p>

Training Military Dogs

Senior Airman Stephen Risiger plays with 7-week old Belgian Malinois puppies at the 341st Training Squadron Military Working Dog breeding program at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where the dogs are bred for a life of service.

Photograph by Adam Ferguson, National Geographic

The National Defense Authorization Act signed into law by then-President Barack Obama includes a provision that guarantees war dogs a retirement in the U.S.

“Best of all, the people who know these dogs better than anyone—their handlers who served bravely alongside them on the hot desert sands of Iraq and Afghanistan and on bases around the world—will be given the first rights at adopting these canine heroes,” said American Humane Association president Robin Ganzert in a statement.

These photos by Adam Ferguson show the bond that forms between men and women and their service animals as they learn to trust each other and work together, sometimes with their lives on the line.

Editor's note: This story was originally published December 15, 2015. It has been updated to reflect recent events.

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