By Barry Morris
A wagging tail, an enthusiastic bark, a napping buddy, a furry whirlwind of affection. These are just a few examples of what the USO Canine Program delivers to service members and their families at USO centers across the globe.
Perhaps these service members and families are far away from their own dogs, or maybe they have fond memories of a pet growing up, or maybe they simply find comfort in the blissful face of man’s best friend. Regardless of their reasons, the USO Canine Program aims to help strengthen service members and their families by incorporating canine companionship into USO programs and events.
In many USO centers, the USO brings certified therapy dogs into our centers so that service members and military families can spend time with them.
For young service members attending their initial Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) school, where they train after boot camp to become proficient in a selected job specialty, at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola and Information Warfare Training Command (IWTC) Corry Station, the USO Canine Program provides them with comfort and companionship when days get stressful or overwhelming. These service members also serve as USO Volunteers in their free time.
“The USO Canine Program is often the talk of the town aboard NAS Pensacola main side and Corry Station. Service members and even active-duty volunteers never miss a Tuesday at 16:30,” said Amanda Wood, USO center operations supervisor at NAS Pensacola, Florida.
“Not only does the love from a sweet pup bring smiles to our service members’ faces, but it also allows them to connect with their peers who may feel homesick. This is by far one of the most heartwarming programs we offer.”
“I love animals and I personally feel that they are a great therapy for service members who are away from family and loved ones, and it can be mentally exhausting and emotional,” said U.S. Navy parachute rigger third class Samuel Mercado. “The canines are really fun to be around and very comforting, it makes you forget everything around you and all the stress and anxiety is gone.”
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.
“The USO Canine Program has a big impact on people like me, who have had family dogs and enjoyed them,” said U.S. Navy seaman apprentice second class Elijah Penman and active USO Volunteer.
“I also think the USO Canine Program is important because it supports the mental health and wellbeing of troops, [and] supports the USO’s mission of providing a home away from home by allowing students aboard IWTC Corry Station to build a connection and interact with dogs.”
It would be an understatement to say the USO Canine Program is beneficial to troops and families. When service members have a long day navigating the stresses of military service, they know they can come to several of the 250+ USO centers throughout the world offering the program and find a connection to home.
“Our canine program is one of the most popular events in our centers amongst the service members,” said Catherine Lysek, USO center programs manager at IWTC Corry Station, Florida. “It’s a very laid-back event where the service animals and their USO Volunteer and Canines for Christ handlers spend time relaxing and enjoying the comfort and companionship of these furry friends, just like back home.”
The USO Canine Program at NAS Pensacola and IWTC Corry Station would not be possible if not for the support from a local partner, Canines for Christ (C4C), that uses ordinary people and their beloved therapy dogs to share hope, kindness and compassion with the community.
“I believe that the USO Canine Program provides comfort and support to our service members by showing them unconditional love through our dogs and spending time with them talking about their pets and families,” said Karen Wahowski, a USO Volunteer, C4C handler and Air Force mom of 23 years. “I have had many service members say that spending time with Hope [a C4C canine] brightened their otherwise tough day.”
Not only does the program’s success rely on local partners support, but also on dedicated USO Volunteers who volunteer their time supporting the USO and the USO Canine Program.
“I enjoy bringing joy and smiles to these young troops and helping them by communicating with them,” said Sally Severson, a USO Volunteer and C4C handler.
“Our family served 25 years in the Marine Corps, and we know how lonely it can be serving away from family and home. I believe it is one of the best mental and physical health medicines available to them.”
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.
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