When Alisa and Shawn Johnson received simultaneous military orders in 2011, the San Diego-based couple realized they would need to make special arrangements for their beloved Australian shepherd, JD. As a newly commissioned U.S. Marine Corps officer, Alisa had to attend six months of leadership training in Quantico, Virginia. Meanwhile, Shawn, a lieutenant of the U.S. Navy, was scheduled to be deployed overseas.
The Johnsons researched boarding facilities and considered hiring a professional dog sitter, but both options proved impractical and expensive. Just when they thought they had exhausted all options, Shawn’s mother connected them with her cousin, a dog-lover who lived only about an hour away from Alisa’s training school. The family member stepped up and agreed to watch JD.
Although the Johnsons lucked out with the ideal solution, they realized other military families were likely dealing with similar predicaments. That's when the couple came up with the idea to start an organization that would connect military members with volunteers willing to board their pets while they are deployed or have other service commitments.
“We knew we had to do something,” Alisa recalls. “It was crystal clear that a program designed to help foster military members' pets was something that could be not only successful, but highly needed.”
The Johnsons saw junior military members struggle every day with various life challenges, Alisa says. “Pet ownership had to be one of the challenges as well, and we sought to provide assistance.”
While driving across the country to Virginia, the Johnsons crafted a mission statement for their grassroots effort and agreed to name it Dogs on Deployment. What started out as a simple HTML website grew into a thriving national nonprofit organization.
“It took years to build it to what it is today,” Alisa says. “Hours and hours of dedicated volunteer service to fundraise, to program our network, to recruit volunteers—all needed in order to provide the support services we offer.”
Since its inception, Dogs on Deployment has contributed approximately $325,000 to military families in need, put more than 72 percent of all its spending into its programs, placed more than 1,000 military pets in foster care, spread its message and service to all 50 states, and impacted the lives of more than 269,000 Americans.
The Johnsons initially built the network specifically to help junior, single military members with pets, but they have since extended their services to veterans and wounded warriors. Now in its sixth year, Dogs on Deployment is known in the nonprofit community as one of the fastest growing, and well-respected organizations assisting active duty and veteran military members.
“I believe in our mission wholeheartedly, so I knew we'd be successful in achieving our mission,” Alisa says. “What I didn't know was how successful we'd become, how well-known we'd become, and how impactful our mission is across so many facets in the community—both civilian and military.”
Dogs on Deployment has significantly minimized the number of animals who are surrendered to local shelters and gives service members peace of mind while they are fulfilling their commitments. Service members can visit the site, create an account, and provide basic details about their need for boarding. Once their military status is verified, they can search for a boarder who will best fit their pet’s needs.
Dogs on Deployment does not act as a middleman or assign pets to boarders. The goal of the organization is simply to provide a forum where boarders and pet owners can come together. It is then up to users to exchange information, go through the interview process, and ultimately schedule a meet-and-greet to determine whether it’s a good match. It is also up to them how to handle the financial aspects of the pet’s day-to-day care.
Caring for a military member’s pet is a rewarding experience but also a big responsibility. Volunteer Lara Smith decided to become a boarder shortly after her dog’s death. She wasn’t ready to get a new pet, but she missed having a canine companion around, so she decided to pursue Dogs on Deployment. Supporting the military is important to her and her husband, who is an Army veteran. “Our soldiers have to deal with so much, and we thought it must be hard to also have to worry about who will take care of their animals while they are gone,” Smith says. “Unfortunately, sometimes their pets have to be given up or put down. This broke our hearts, and we thought that this would be just a small way to help and thank our soldiers.”
The Smiths took care of a dog named Puddles from Philadelphia, whose family had been relocated to South Korea. Dogs on Deployment provides a sample contract for pet owners and boarders that establishes pet care expectations, reimbursement, emergency planning, and more. “We used the contracts as a guide and worked out what worked best for us,” Smith says. “We were so very glad to be a small part of Dogs on Deployment.”
In addition to matching military pet owners with boarders, Dogs on Deployment “promotes responsible, lifelong pet ownership in the military community by advocating for military pet owner rights on military installations, providing educational resources for military members about responsible pet ownership, granting financial assistance to military members for help with their pet's care during emergencies and promoting healthy pet lifestyles, including spay/neuter, insurance options and vaccinations,” according to press materials.
The organization has also been instrumental in helping to obtain therapy canines for returning service members and veterans who are struggling with PTSD and transitioning to civilian life.
The Johnsons continue to serve in the armed forces today. Their dog JD, who is now 9 years old, has been through three deployments and five military moves, Alisa says. The Johnsons also have a rescue dog named Jersey, two rescue cats, Tegan and Kami, and two parrots, Kiki and Zozo. In October 2016, they had their first daughter. Looking back, Alisa beams with pride about everything Dogs on Deployment has achieved since 2011.
“Receiving an update from a military member who has used our services is one of the best ways to start the day,” she says. “I am utterly dedicated and passionate about the longevity of Dogs on Deployment. I have a vested interest in seeing every service member who needs help receive help. I do it because I, like many of our supporters, love my pets and support our troops.”
Read success stories from Dogs on Deployment here.
Photo: Courtesy of Dogs on Deployment