By Samantha L. Quigley
Clothes, shoes and charging cables soar through the air before landing in the suitcase lying open on the bed. Your beloved pooch stares from the doorway, not sure whether to run and hide or get excited for his own vacation at the local pet resort. There, he has his own suite, personalized attention and a spa day.
This scenario plays out daily as pet parents head out on work trips or the guilt-inducing vacation that doesn’t include Fido or Fluffy. If you do your homework, your pets may actually look forward to these doggy staycations at pet-pampering resorts. But anyone who’s had to board a pet knows it can come at a steep price, depending on how many nights Fido kicks back and how many biscuits his lodgings rate.
Now imagine your work trip isn’t just a few days somewhere in the United States, but six months to a year halfway around the world. You’ve worked hard to come up with a Family Care Plan that accounts for any and all foreseen situations, including a long military deployment, but Plans A through Z have fallen through. Now the big eyes peering at you are asking, “What now?”
Long-term boarding – if you can find it in your area – is out, and that’s really not what you want for your pet anyway. Family is out – your dog doesn’t get along with their dog or somebody is allergic to cats. Friends have offered – only to find their lease doesn’t allow for pets or some other situation prevents them from helping.
Many military pet parents have faced similar scenarios and, until recently, there weren’t many good alternatives. In fact, some service members are left with no alternative but to surrender pets to a shelter.
In 2011, Alisa and Shawn Johnson found themselves in a pet-care predicament when he was heading out on his second deployment with the Navy and she was headed to The Basic School as a newly-commissioned Marine second lieutenant. Their beloved dog was about to be homeless and Johnson was beside herself. As it turned out, her husband’s cousin lived nearby her new duty station and was willing to care for the pup.
It all worked out for the Johnsons, but between their situation and learning of a friend who had to surrender a pet to a shelter due to a lack of options, the couple created a far better alternative: Dogs on Deployment.
DoD pairs military pets in need of short-term care with foster families willing to open their homes.
Katie Frischmann is a full-time graduate student in Minnesota. She’d been considering adopting a pup, but remembering that her friends, a dual-Army couple that deployed simultaneously and found a family to foster their pets through DoD, she chose the foster route instead.
“These men and women sacrifice so much for us so we can have the rights we do. Watching their pet to avoid them surrendering it to a shelter is the least I can do,” she said. “Reading [about] the individuals who had posted looking for foster homes, [it] was really moving to hear some of the resources they had exhausted. They were really reaching out as a last-ditch effort to avoid surrendering their pets.”
Dmitry, a male pit bull mix and the only pet in Frischmann’s home, has gotten quite comfortable since arriving in 2014 at the start of his owner’s three-year deployment. And the experience has been a good one, and much like one would expect of two roommates.
“He’s been with me through major life changes and I’m grateful for that,” Frischmann said. “He has extremely strong willpower and will bark just to get me to move so he can have my spot on the couch if he’s decided he wants to lay there.”
And he’s always good for a laugh. “He legitimately watches TV and barks at the bad guys and dogs – even cartoon ones.”
She said he’s also a great walking buddy … unless it’s raining. If he sees raindrops out the front door, he heads for the back door hoping the weather is better there.
“This experience, as a whole, has been great.”
‘It’s Me Being Rescued’
While the thought of leaving a beloved pet with strangers can be anxiety-inducing, the foster parent usually meets the pet and owner beforehand to make sure everyone is comfortable.
Michael Kenny is a good example. His roommate and her two cats were moving out and he knew he was going to be lonely. Instead of accepting his fate, he took to the internet and found Dogs on Deployment and Zelda and Big Boy, who needed a helping hand.
“David and Emily are a wonderful couple that were unable to care for [their cats] during this transition,” Kenny said. “They had to give up their apartment while he is in training, and Emily’s roommate wouldn’t let her have cats.”
But don’t think for a minute that Kenny sees himself as a hometown hero.
“If this story is about a rescue, it’s me being rescued,” he said. “Now I have constant companions … [Big Boy] is literally curled up next to me … snoring softly into my knee.”
Keeping it in the Family
While all foster families have their reasons for welcoming someone else’s pet into their home – whether for a couple weeks or a few years – a fair number have personal reasons.
“I thought that since my husband had served 20 years in the Navy, that would be a way to give back to those who are serving,” said Jenny Martinez, who has two sons. “We live in the Florida panhandle and have Air Force bases, a Navy base and a Coast Guard base near us, so there seems to always be someone in need of fostering.”
The Martinez family’s first foster pet, a German shepherd named Nala, was the pet of a dual-military couple. She only stayed with them for a few months, but was a “good dog to start out us ‘newbies’ with.”
Currently, the Martinez residence is under the watchful eye of Batman, a Great Dane. Martinez describes the dog, 2, as big and goofy. He’s scheduled to stay with the family until his sailor mom finishes her enlistment.
Martinez sees this as an opportunity to pass on lessons about caring, understanding, generosity and selflessness to her two children. They’ve also learned some practical lessons as well. “Our boys have learned a lot having Batman with us,” she said. “Don’t leave food on the table because Batman is tall enough he can lick it right off the table.”
And, if the boys get silly, the dog gets silly, she said, adding that the boys have learned to tone it down to avoid a solid bump or a heavy paw. But learning is a two-way street.
“Batman has had to learn about children and cats – we’re still working on leaving the cats alone,” Martinez said.
And, while every foster family’s experience differs, most reports are positive. There can be some challenges, but Martinez said they’re outweighed by the good times. “Sure, there are scratches on the back door and nose marks on the dining room window, but also a warmth that wasn’t there before. It’s almost as if, by having Batman with us, he has made us closer as a family – and more loving, too.” That experience translates to the family pets, as well.
Jessica Anderson noticed a change in Bandit, her family cat, the longer their foster charge, Ophelia, was with them.
“I arrived home from work one day to find Ophelia and Bandit snuggled up together on the bed,” she said. “Our cat, Bandit, has never really taken to any other animal we’ve had. He is a Siamese cat and they aren’t known for having the most loving personality.
“It amazed me that this sweet, loving cat finally got my cat to bond with it. Foster animals can be good for other animals just as much as they are for people.”
Anderson, whose husband serves in the Navy, said she and her family are always looking for ways to help other service members. They know it’s hard to find affordable, trustworthy care for a pet and found a way to help remedy that.
“There are many assistance programs out there for the deployed person, but very few for their pets,” she said. “So many pet owners don’t have family or friends close by to help care for their animal. By participating in this program, it’s one less thing they have to worry about.”
That’s exactly why Kimberly Kandros and her family have welcomed Samson, a male Labrador-shepherd mix, and Millay, a female pit bull mix. That and it helped them overcome the grief over the passing of their beloved family dogs.
“Our own dogs, Chloe and Emily, passed away in June ,” Kandros said. “We were heartbroken, but weren’t ready to adopt another dog. Fostering dogs in need was a way that we could honor the memory of our own dogs while also doing something positive to support our troops.” Kandros and her family have enjoyed fostering Samson and Millay so much that they are planning to adopt their own dog later this year and continue fostering in the future.
“This experience has made us more aware of the enormous sacrifices military families make,” she said. “Our family is so grateful for our armed services.”
For pet lovers looking for a way to make deployments a little easier for our dedicated service members, offering a warm, welcoming home to their pets could be a win-win. And the American Humane Society has some suggestions for those wanting to foster and service members in need of a temporary home for Fido or Fluffy.
—Samantha L. Quigley is the former editor in chief of On Patrol magazine.