Benjamin Conway was one week away from spending two months in Hawaii for military training when the sitter he had arranged to watch Buddy, his Beagle/Bassett Hound mix, backed out.
“I was left with nothing, and I was having a lot of stress and anxiety about who was going to watch him,” said Conway, who is an active duty member of the U.S. Navy.
But then Conway remembered hearing about a service called Dogs on Deployment, a national nonprofit that pairs military pets with foster families. Within five minutes of meeting a potential foster couple, Conway knew Buddy would be in capable hands.
It would also be free of charge, as it is to all military members, because it is run by unpaid staff and volunteers, and serves as a social network that helps service members find a potential foster family willing to watch their dog, cat, turtle, ferret, fish or other pet.
“They sent me nightly Facebook updates on how and what he was doing. I felt like a proud dad,” Conway said.
Naturally, when Conway came home, Buddy was so excited that he tore up his bed and refused to leave his owner’s side. But the time came when they did have to part again, and, every time since then—five and counting—Buddy has been fostered by the organization, and has encouraged his military friends to use the service.
Conway’s parents, who live in Wisconsin, have also joined the organization as a foster family.
“I truly believe there is a need,” Conway said of the service. “I trust Dogs on Deployment completely.”
While there isn’t any data on how many military members are pet owners, pet ownership in the United States is very high, with an estimated 70-80 million dogs and 74-96 million cats being kept as pets, and 65 percent of American families keeping animals as pets, according to the 2015-2016 National Pet Owners Survey. The United States has approximately 1.3 million active duty military according to the World Bank.
Dogs on Deployment was founded in 2011 after Alisa Johnson, a Marine, and her husband Shawn, who is in the Navy, were required to leave home for training and deployment at the same time. The Johnsons ultimately relied on a family member to watch their beloved dog, JD, but realized that many service members might not have the same support.
“Pet boarding is so expensive, and especially knowing you’re going to be gone for six months, nine months or a year. A lot of people, even the ones with the best jobs in the world, may not be able to afford that kind of cost,” said Allison Mercer, a rep. for the organization.
“Not every service member is lucky enough to have someone [to watch their pets] or afford multiple months of boarding or pet sitters. We can definitely point you in the right direction and we want to let people know surrendering their pet doesn’t have to be an option.”
As of early 2016, the organization has helped place 900 pets in foster care and has awarded more than $200,000 in grants to families in need.
Dogs on Deployment also has a “Pet Chit” program, which gives military members a grant that can be used to help them relocate their pets from overseas and cover transportation costs or emergency surgery.
Long term, Dogs on Deployment plans to keep growing and expanding to support military members who need pet care.
Check out the video below for more on the organization: