Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Alisa Johnson and referenced the incorrect service branch for Shawn Johnson. It has been corrected.
Military pet owners preparing for deployment must make hard decisions regarding care for their animals while they are away. Presented with limited options, service members often find themselves with no choice but to surrender their pets to shelters.
The nonprofit organization, Dogs on Deployment, strives to alleviate this hardship and provide deploying military personnel with a better alternative.
The organization was founded in 2011 by Alisa Johnson, a marine, and Shawn Johnson, a sailor, after they found themselves scrambling to make arrangements for their 8-year-old Australian Shepherd, JD.
Born out of necessity
Recently commissioned into the Marine Corps, Alisa Johnson was preparing for a six-month stint in Quantico, Virginia, while her husband was on a deployment. They researched numerous options, all of which were incredibly expensive or otherwise unsatisfactory. When a Virginia relative agreed to take care of JD, they were relieved and deeply grateful.
But the pair was troubled by the knowledge that the story might not end so well for other military members in the same position. Motivated by compassion and the desire to make a positive change, the Johnsons founded Dogs on Deployment later that year, diving headfirst into an unfamiliar world of nonprofit management, business, marketing and communications. If Alisa Johnson could handle being a pilot and was tough enough to become a Marine, she believed she could also help solve such a unique problem.
At 23 years old, while in flight school and bolstered by the support of her family and her boundless determination, Alisa Johnson taught herself HTML and created her first website. She took that first step to creating a successful nonprofit and moving her vision from idea to reality.
In its first five years of operations, Dogs on Deployment helped 860 service members and provided $200,000 in aid to military pet owners in need of assistance.
The entirely-volunteer organization works to support military pet owners in a variety of ways. They aim to promote responsible pet ownership, advocate for military pet owner rights, provide financial support for emergency medical care and build partnerships with organizations to make pet-related resources more readily available. Active duty, reservists, guardsmen and honorably discharged military personnel are eligible for the services offered by Dogs on Deployment.
In her 2016 Clever Talk, Alisa Johnson emphasized, “The cost of doing nothing is so much greater than the cost of doing something.” The more than 30,000 volunteers who run the organization and provide care for service members’ pets might agree.
Lula’s second home
One of its volunteers is Kerri Batista of Rocklin, California. In October 2017, she and her family welcomed Lula, a 3-year-old Goldendoodle into their home for seven months while Lula’s owner, Airman Elizabeth Welch, was deployed overseas.
The Batista family had lost a dog several months before and their remaining dog, Max, a 12-year-old Black Labrador, was lonely. The family didn’t want to adopt a new dog, out of concern for Max’s advanced age, but they had room in their hearts and home for one more.
Batista has many ties to the military, including a grandfather, father and brother in the Air Force and a husband in the Navy. As a result, she is sensitive to military issues. She had read about Dogs on Deployment several years earlier and felt it might be a good time to get involved with the organization.
Since the nearest military installations, Beale and Travis Air Force bases, are located 30 and 60 minutes away from Batista’s home, she was surprised when she received a match on the website. After some initial correspondence, Welch and Batista arranged a first meeting for Max and Lula. The dogs had an instantaneous bond and the families made arrangements for Lula’s temporary stay.
Throughout the deployment, Batista kept in frequent contact with Welch through texts, often sending pictures and videos. Lula became a part of the Batista family, as did Lula’s mom. They formed a lasting friendship that still continues today.
An extension of service
Allison Mercer, executive director for Dogs on Deployment, says she appreciates the relationship-building potential of the organization.
“This is a great way for service members to meet civilians that they might not otherwise meet,” she said. “It’s so cool to see how relationships are born from this organization.”
Dogs on Deployment also provides a way for civilians to be in service to military people.
“While many of the volunteers are active duty, reservist or retired military, others are not. This is how they give back,” Mercer said.
Welch expressed gratitude for her own experiences with the nonprofit.
“I’m still so thankful for [the Batista family] taking [Lula],” she said. “What an amazing experience.”
Batista adds that if she had the opportunity to foster again for another family, she would if the right match arises for aging Max that has developed a knee injury and needs to be surrounded by good influences.
“Everyone asks about whether it was hard for us to give Lula back at the end of the deployment and it really wasn’t,” Batista said. “She was going home to her mom. She was where she belonged.”