Wagging Tails, Smiling Faces: Helping America’s Littlest Heroes
By Robin R. Ganzert, Ph.D.
There’s a saying among military families that when one family member enlists, the whole family serves. And for our grandchildren it’s an issue that hits especially close to home.
Whether it’s the empty chair at the dinner table at home or the fear of what might happen abroad, children are often greatly affected when a parent is called to military duty. When a parent leaves home to serve, the families left behind are susceptible to loneliness, depression, and withdrawal as they cope with the stress and uncertainty of deployment, and the kids often struggle in school.
Two million children in the United States have had a parent deployed to active military duty since the start of the Global War on Terrorism, many serving multiple consecutive tours – unprecedented in the U.S. military.
Happily, there is help available for these families’ little heroes, and it comes with four legs, a wagging tail, and a wet nose.
Research has shown that animal-assisted therapy is a powerful tool for bringing relief to children and families. American Humane Association has been a leader in providing innovative animal therapy for children with cancer, the elderly, and returning veterans coping with post-traumatic stress. Since 2011, we have partnered with Pet Partners to provide warm, playful and loving therapy dogs – as well as therapy llamas, mules, miniature horses, and more – at 68 of the National Military Family Association’s Operation Purple camps and family retreats. To date, we have helped some 6,000 children.
With a helping paw, a shoulder to cry on, or just a wagging tail, these animals help to provide comfort for these children in uncertain times. American Humane Association’s experience has shown that children open up to therapy animals in ways they cannot – or maybe will not – with humans about the fear and anxiety they’re facing.
Each visit made by the teams of animal-assisted therapy handlers creates positive lifetime memories for these children who are bravely dealing with the absence of their parents.
A counselor at Camp Shady Brook in Colorado said last year that, “The campers loved having the dogs at camp and really looked to the dogs as an outlet to just relax.”
And because our organization is also concerned for the welfare and well-being of the therapy dogs, we want to make sure these four-legged heroes are enjoying their camp experience, as well. We think the dogs are, as these two handlers testify:
“The kids were all very excited to see us and Bella got more than her daily quota of pets and hugs.”
“What a wonderful rewarding experience. Truitt was a hit with the kids! They loved it and did not want him to leave.”
This program is there to serve those who serve our country, including our littlest heroes here at home. To watch a video of our animal-assisted therapy teams in action, please click here. To support the children and grandchildren of our military families, please visit www.americanhumane.org/military.