By Danielle DeSimone
Maybe it’s the gentle thump, thump, thump of the tail. Maybe it’s the wide, friendly smile. Or maybe it’s that they seem to know exactly when you need something to – literally and figuratively – lean on. Regardless of what makes therapy dogs so special, they clearly make an impact, and the USO brings some of these furry friends to USO locations around the world to assist in the organization’s mission of supporting service members and military families.
Research shows that interacting with animals can make an incredible difference – and improvement – in one’s physical and mental health. Studies have found that petting an animal can lower blood pressure and release hormones such as phenylethylamine, an anti-depressant. Other studies have shown that after petting animals, people were found to have increased levels of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin – all hormones that can play a part in elevating moods and decreasing anxiety and the feeling of loneliness.
With emotional and mental health listed as some of the top issues that face active-duty military families today, utilizing therapy dogs to help service members struggling with the challenges of military life is just another creative way in which the USO is supporting the military community.
While there is no formal, nationwide USO program for therapy dogs, over the years the organization has welcomed several, trained furry volunteers to spread joy at a handful of USO locations around the world. As part of a multi-part story series about our USO canine volunteers, get to know Aspen and a handful of other pups who support the military as therapy dogs, working hard every day to bring smiles and cheer to our service members and their families.
Aspen and her Alaska Adventures
Even while Aspen was still a puppy, USO Mobile Operations & Programs Specialist Catherine Moore knew that her Bernese Mountain Dog was meant to be a therapy dog. Aspen had a calm, sweet temperament, making her a perfect pup for offering comfort and support to service members.
Moore quickly trained Aspen to be a certified therapy dog. Then, once Moore began working for USO Alaska, she began to bring Aspen along with her to briefings with base leadership – and here, she caught service members’ attention. Unit leaders and military chaplains quickly began reaching out to Moore, asking if Aspen could visit different units for a morale boost.
Alaska may not sound like a challenging location to be stationed, but with its extreme seasons, and remote duty stations, living and working as a service member in Alaska is not for the faint of heart. In fact, the loneliness and weather conditions of Alaska have actually led to an increased number of service member suicides, which is already an issue within the military community.
That is why the USO is such a crucial element of support for service members stationed in Alaska – and it is why any form of support, including therapy dogs, is so welcome.
“Especially the guys that are in the dorms or the barracks, they can’t have dogs, so they absolutely love [seeing Aspen],” Moore said. “I’ve had guys almost in tears as they just lay on the ground and pet her.”
Over the course of her three years as a therapy dog in Alaska, Aspen became incredibly popular. Not only did she boost morale by spending time with service members in the USO center, but she also visited them along the flight line, apparently unfazed by the roar of jets and other aircraft that passed through. In fact, Aspen became such a staple within the military community in Alaska that one service member even asked if Aspen could attend his award ceremony as his personal guest.
“I guess I didn’t realize how important it was until I got Aspen certified [as a therapy dog] and started bringing her out and seeing airmen and soldiers’ reactions to having her,” Moore said.
“They’ll just sit there for 30 minutes and just hug her and pet her … and they’ll walk away and say, ‘That literally just made my week.’ So, I didn’t realize how important it was until I did bring her out and realized how important dogs are to morale. And it brings something different than what USO already offers.”
The USO is committed to supporting all members of the military community and working hard to keep morale high, especially in challenging locations such as Alaska. Aspen and her human family have since moved to Colorado, where the Bernese Mountain Dog will have a chance to share her comforting presence with new military communities. But regardless of where they are, with the help of dogs like Aspen, service members are assured that they have some place – or someone – to turn to in times of need.
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