The Importance of Therapy Dogs and the Military
The importance of therapy dogs on military bases has emerged as a vital role in supporting military personnel. These furry companions not only share smiles and joy but they offer tremendous emotional comfort to those who are grappling with the complex challenges of their duties.
Learn more about the positive impact of certified therapy dogs from some of our ATD members who volunteer at military bases.
Why Are Therapy Dogs Important For The Military?
There are several reasons why therapy dogs are important for military personnel. One of the biggest reasons is the support therapy dogs can provide individuals as they deal with managing their mental health.
“Life in the military is a challenge,” says Col. Elizabeth Hoettels, U.S. Air Force. “You move to unfamiliar places, must make new friends, learn new jobs, try to figure out work-life balance, take on some stressful jobs, and still stay connected to your family. Our hours are long and sometimes we deploy. A friendly, furry face helps reduce anxiety, allows for bursts of happiness, and provides emotional safety.”
Hoettels and her Golden Retriever, Rio, who is a Major General (in the military, dogs outrank their handler by one rank) are currently stationed in Alaska. Rio has been supporting the military for over 7 years.
“When I was stationed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany (2011-2015) we had an entire team of therapy dogs that would come and check on us as staff,” says Hoettels. “I worked on the trauma/ICU team and as you can imagine it was busy and many of the patients we had were seriously injured. As caregivers, we give our all and it can be both physically and emotionally exhausting, but who cares for the caregivers? I saw firsthand that one of those who cared were the therapy dogs. They didn’t judge – they just sat and loved us no matter how bad or challenging our day was. It was at that point I knew that I wanted to be able to provide the same thing to my military family – to be able to bring in love, joy, comfort, peace, and understanding in the form of a four-footed fur ball.”
When Hoettels moved to Alabama from Germany, she and Rio found each other and decided to join Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
“When we finished our (therapy dog certification) test Rio looked at me as if to say, ‘Of course I passed mom – we’ve been practicing, and I know what to do’,” says Hoettels.
Hoettels and Rio both love volunteering and being able to give back.
Therapy dogs also provide immense emotional companionship and foster a sense of community.
“It is so rewarding to affect people’s day for the better,” says Stephanie Keenan, Speech-Language Pathologist and therapy dog team member at the military post in Baumholder, Germany with her Mini Goldendoodle, Finlea.
Together, they take part in Motor Pool Monday and ‘Finlea Friday’ where they offer refreshments to soldiers. Keenan says Finlea is the highlight of the visits as some soldiers skip the refreshments to pet her.
“Soldiers light up when they see Finlea come for a visit. Many soldiers had to leave their pets with family in the United States when they got stationed here as they aren’t allowed to have pets in their barracks. Some families had to leave their pets behind due to the logistics and the high cost of getting their pet overseas. It’s so nice that Finlea can help to fill that void for both soldiers and military children,” says Keenan.
The duo also volunteer at the elementary school on their military post demonstrating the importance of therapy dogs in educational settings.
“Some mornings, Finlea stands outside the door to greet students as they enter the building. I collaborated with our librarian to start the ‘Tails for Tales’ reading program. Students come to the library and read to Finlea for 15 minutes at a time. Finlea snuggles up next to the kids and they read aloud to her. It’s amazing to see how students are more willing to read to Finlea than to another adult/student. It creates a safe place where the students don’t feel additional pressure to perform or read perfectly,” says Keenan. “We have also conducted classroom visits, especially to our special needs Pre-K class. It is so rewarding to see nonverbal students initiate interactions with Finlea. I collaborate with the teachers and we work with the students on turn-taking, requesting, and overall communication. Our health clinic asked for Finlea’s participation in our flu shot drives. Finlea provided a positive distraction to members of our community as they were getting their flu shots. Many children who were feeling anxious and scared benefitted from her presence!”
How You Can Get Involved With ATD
If you would like to volunteer at a military base like our therapy dog teams: Col. Elizabeth Hoettels and Rio and Stephanie and Finlea do, you can browse our site to learn more about being an ATD member. If you are a facility interested in our free therapy dog visits, contact our ATD office for more information.
The importance of therapy dogs is remarkable. The unconditional love they offer is something people don’t forget. We thank our handlers who share their canine companions and thank those who are serving!