a marine with his dog

When Alisa Johnson, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, was called to military training in Virginia at the same time that her husband, Shawn, a U.S. Navy officer, was deployed, she realized neither of them would be able to care for their dog, JD.

Luckily, family members stepped in to care for JD while the couple was away, but the fact that their dog’s fate could have been unsure worried Johnson. “We were so thankful that we had family to help us, but if we didn’t, what would we have done then?” she says.

When Johnson started looking to see if there were resources offered to military pet owners who needed someone to watch their pet while they were deployed, she was disappointed at the lack of help available. “I don’t think anyone really thought about this problem before,” she says. “We recognized it and decided to provide an answer.”

A New Organization

The answer became Dogs on Deployment, an organization started by Johnson and her husband to help military pet owners find foster homes for their dogs. What started as a small group of volunteers has grown into one of the largest networks of military foster homes, with 4,000 pet boarders across the country.

Since the organization was founded in 2011, Dogs on Deployment has successfully boarded 215 pets. The majority of animals they’ve placed have been dogs, but they have found homes for a variety of pets, even ferrets and chinchillas, in the past.

The group is based online, putting a number of resources right at owners’ fingertips. In addition to providing a foster network and supporting the pets who go through it, Dogs on Deployment promotes responsible pet ownership by offering educational lectures. Johnson is also particularly proud of the group’s Pet Chit Financial Assistance Program.

“We use donations to provide emergency financial assistance to military pet owners who, for example, might find themselves on deployment when their pet breaks a leg. We can help pay for that,” Johnson explains.

The program has also helped returning veterans who find themselves struggling or homeless and unable to afford dog food or other necessities for their pet.

Pets as Family Members

Other than Dogs on Deployment, there are few resources for military pet owners who need someone to take care of their pet while they are deployed. Only a few other nonprofit organizations, such as Guardian Angels for Soldier’s Pet, offer assistance. The Department of Defense’s inconsistent pet policies even prompted Dogs on Deployment to start a petition with Hawaii Military Pets on Change.org hoping to standardize practices.

lily the dog

“Alisa saved my life pretty much,” says Christopher Monahan, a member of the Navy who recently returned from a six-month deployment and used Johnson’s organization.

Monahan’s mother was going to watch his dog, Lily, while he was deployed, but after Hurricane Sandy hit, she no longer had the resources to take care of his dog. He worried about what would happen to Lily after realizing there was no support available. When his mother told him that she had heard something about fostering online, he did a search and found Johnson’s organization. He registered and right away was contacted by several boarders offering to watch Lily, from which he chose one. Monahan says it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

“We [the boarder and I] connected on Facebook, and while I was away we emailed back and forth. I would call every once in a while and the whole time was able to get good updates on my dog,” Monahan says.

He has spread the word about Dogs on Deployment among sailors he knows in similar situations. Monahan doesn’t have a wife or kids, but he says Lily is like his child and should receive help in the same way.

Johnson believes there are a variety of reasons for the gap in the military system when it comes to resources for pet owners. She says these reasons range from military members not admitting the problem to shelters not recognizing how large an issue it is to some in the military believing pets should not be considered members of the family, despite how strongly owners would disagree.

For these reasons and others, Johnson continues to work with her husband to expand the Dogs on Deployment network and raise awareness of the problems faced by military pet owners. Sometimes military officers need an extra hand to rely on just like everyone else, Johnson says. A complete stranger who loves dogs and is willing to help can be a lifesaver for them.

Learn more about the services Dogs on Deployment offers and how you can help by visiting its website.