Therapy Dogs Lend a Helpful Paw at the USO, Supporting Sailors in Sicily

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Samayaah Smith

In the midst of the rigid routines and tough training that happens on Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella, Italy, an extraordinary team of furry friends was silently at work, offering wagging tails and a gentle presence that provided solace and strength to U.S. sailors stationed overseas.

The USO Canine Program was recently brought overseas to NAS Sigonella to bring support to service members and their families who are stationed far from home. The program - which is a relatively new and creative addition to the USO’s many programs, services and events - was implemented to assist military families with all the challenges that come with military life.

Oliver and Morgan, two therapy dogs who volunteered at USO Sigonella, pose for a photo. | Photo credit DVIDS/ Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelsey Culbertson

“The benefits of pet therapy have proven to be so beneficial to service members that the USO wants it to be accessible wherever we are,” said Sabrina Pullido, USO Sigonella’s senior area director.

After seeing the success of the program, which has been offered at several USO centers around the world, USO Sigonella was excited to welcome these furry volunteers to the center on base to spread joy to the local military community.

I think it could be extremely successful [here], because this is where service members are most often separated from their pets and families,” said Margaret McCullough, USO Sigonella’s center manager.

USO Sigonella believes the new program will help fill the void many service members may face due to life stressors and often having to leave their own pets behind due to PCS moves abroad.

Studies have found that interacting with animals can help lower blood pressure, reduce stress and release phenylethylamine, an anti-depressant. Additional studies have found 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. And with mental health being a major concern for active-duty military families today, the use of therapy dogs is just one of the many ways the USO has found to support members of the military community.

“Dogs bring happiness, they bring joy and they connect you to things you love,” said Luisa Mazzella, USO senior area operations manager of Italy and Spain. “People are going to have that connection when they come into the USO, being able to pet the dogs will provide that time away from the stressors. Allowing them to recharge, reconnect and regroup!”

Studies show that therapy dogs can improve both the mental and physical health of those who pet and interact with them. For our military, this extra boost can improve morale in the face of challenges such as deployments or time apart from loved ones. | Photo credit DVIDS/ Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelsey Culbertson

The USO Canine Program in Sigonella will be open to service members, military families and anyone who has access to the USO. The plan is to keep this program running for as long as possible, as well as open the opportunity for individuals to get their animals certified and volunteer for the program.

“My personal goal is to make the program as successful as possible in terms of it bringing a lot of joy,“ said Margaret. “I want this program to exist long past its start.”

No matter where their military journey takes them, the USO and its canine volunteers will continue to be committed to the people who serve every step of the way.

-This story was originally published on it has been edited and expanded for

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