By Tammie Pech
This year, USO Canines have touched the lives of almost 21,000 people at USO centers in the Central Region of the United States.
The program, which is growing throughout the USO’s more than 250 locations around the world, brings certified therapy dogs into USO Centers to provide support to the military community. Throughout the Central Region, the USO Canine program has become a mainstay for service members and their families. Each week, Paws with Love, a therapy dog organization, visits the USO Center at Fort Sill during service members’ lunch breaks.
The USO Canine Program has expanded at the USO Fort Cavazos, Texas Center to include visits by USO Canine Volunteers at events such as weekly Power Hour lunches, Hotdogs & Hounds events and Family Game nights. The Pup Stop Friday at the USO Warrior and Family Support Center in San Antonio, Texas, brings comfort to wounded, ill and injured service members, while therapy dog visits at the USO center at Fort Riley provide support for service members and their families through companionship at events.
USO Volunteer Natalie Pittman, who is also the handler of USO Canine, Freedom, a Giant Schnauzer, thinks it is important for soldiers at USO Fort Cavazos to interact with the dogs, especially individuals who need a calming influence to get through their day.
“We get big smiles, [the dogs] get pets and soldiers get down on the floor to hug him,” Natalie said. She loves that service members get so excited when they visit the USO center.
Staff Sgt. Colin Peden commented, “I can come to the USO and actually have a dog, a canine partner that I can hang around with and just love. It makes my day better!”
After Colin’s dog passed away a while back, he was not feeling like himself and wasn’t interested in being around other dogs. Since going to the USO and getting to know Freedom and Natalie’s other canine, Shiloh, he was inspired to adopt a dog named Mila from a local kennel into his family.
Service members and their families visit the USO to find comfort, connection and reprieve from the busy days and challenges of military life. Unlike service animals, USO Canines are therapy dogs that love getting hugs and pets, while bringing joy, smiles and raising spirits during their visits.
During a recent visit to the USO at San Antonio, one service member commented, “I really miss my dog back home. Going through training can be extremely grueling, and I have little to no time to relax. It does make me a little depressed, but when I came [to the USO] today it was such a nice surprise to see a dog. It absolutely made my day and weekend!”
At the Fort Leonard Wood USO center, therapy dogs Maverick and Apache welcome service members with a touch of home and unconditional love. Apache has followed his brother’s footsteps by helping military children with their reading at school and caring for guests at the center. Maverick won the USO Canine Volunteer of the Year and took home the honor of the American Humane Hero Dog Therapy Dog category award. Maverick’s exceptional intuition allows him to empathize with emotions, and he actively works with the military on suicide watch, demonstrating the true essence of unconditional love and guiding them towards healing.
Volunteer handlers who bring their dogs to events are essential to the USO Canine program. Those who handle the canines understand the benefits of dogs and are happy to share their furry companions with others. Diana White, a dog handler with Canine for Christ, visits the USO at Fort Sam Houston and Warrior and Family Support Center during Pup Stop Friday. You can see the immediate joy these small puppies bring as service members enjoy the snuggle and hug sessions.
“I have seen emotions range from tears to pure joy from service members when we visit,” Diana said. “Many of the service members haven’t had the opportunity to snuggle or hang out with a dog since entering boot camp, so they get so excited and love telling their stories to the dogs.”
When asked about the most meaningful canine visits, Diana shared, “During the Gulf War, there were many wounded soldiers. One was burned over 80% of his body, he was beyond recognition. He told me ‘When I pet Jake, I feel no pain.’ No words can express how that makes me feel.”
Whether it is a quick lunch visit or spending the day welcoming visitors, our USO Canine volunteers have wagged their tails into hearts across the Central Region.
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