By Danielle DeSimone
For USO Field and Programs Manager Krystle Lipetzky, it all started with her dog Zeke.
Zeke, who passed away in 2019, had been previously trained as a service dog – that is, a dog trained to do and assist with tasks for someone with a disability – before becoming a therapy dog to the military community. He had already put in years of therapy dog work alongside sailors and Marines stationed at Naval Base Point Loma and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California, before his human family moved to Virginia.
In 2016, when his owner, Lipetzky, began volunteering with the USO in Hampton Roads, Virginia, bringing Zeke along with her to the USO center seemed like the perfect fit. Zeke fully embraced his role as a therapy dog – that is, a dog trained to provide affection, comfort and support to people in stressful settings such as hospitals, disaster areas, retirement homes and schools.
From these humble beginnings with Zeke, USO of Hampton Roads and Central Virginia grew an entire therapy dog network, with approximately 10 dogs working throughout the region on the Canine Comfort Crew, many of whom are Golden Retrievers. When joining the crew, the dog’s handler first becomes a USO volunteer, undergoing all of the standard USO volunteer training, before later bringing their therapy dog into the USO centers to also volunteer.
As the Canine Comfort Crew established a presence at USO centers throughout southern and central Virginia, they – and Zeke – have grown in popularity and notoriety. In fact, Zeke had his own Facebook and Instagram accounts, which service members, military family members and others followed to keep up with his adventures.
Lipetzky explained that seeing the dogs in the USO centers has an incredible impact on the service members. Some will sit on the floor with the dogs and simply pet them, while others will even play fetch with the dogs inside the center. As they pet the therapy dogs, many service members will share stories about how much they miss their childhood dog back home, or how sad they are that they had to leave their own dog with family members because they are about to be deployed to the Middle East.
“So, it really is – especially for dog lovers – that extra piece of home,” Lipetzky said.
The Canine Comfort Crew has been especially helpful for service members attending training or further education in the area. Because these service members are only in the area temporarily, many of them use their nearby USO as it is intended – as their home away from home. Having therapy dogs in the USO centers makes it feel like they are playing with their “family dog in the center.”
However, service members aren’t the only people the Canine Comfort Crew supports. These pups, much like USO staff and volunteers, are there to support all members of the military community – including military children.
The Canine Comfort Crew has partnered with libraries on base to assist military kids with a reading program, in which children were each assigned a dog and could practice reading out loud to them.
Many military children struggle with unique challenges that their fellow civilian children never deal with, such as frequent moves to new duty stations, parents deploying and constant change. While a reading program with dogs may seem simple at first glance, it can actually make a world of difference to these children, whose lives are constantly uprooted. Studies show that child-dog literacy programs can actually improve a child’s reading abilities, as well as decrease stress in the face of a four-legged and non-judgmental listener.
Lipetzky explained that many military parents brought their children back repeatedly to the program and shared with her that their children hardly ever read out loud – except when they are with their furry companions.
When Lipetzky’s dog Zeke passed away in 2019, there was an outpouring of love on the Golden Retriever’s Facebook page. Many lauded his crucial work with the military across the country, and others talked about how much they would miss seeing him at the USO centers.
Today, Zeke’s work and legacy lives on through the dogs still offering support to service members via the USO of Hampton Roads and Central Virginia’s Canine Comfort Crew, one furry hug at a time.
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