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Therapy Dogs Ike and Sage Reduce Stress Aboard Ships

Image of Therapy Dogs Ike and Sage Reduce Stress Aboard Ships. Ike, a combat operational stress control dog, spends time with sailors from the air department’s V-3 division in the hangar bay aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1), June 26, 2023. Wasp is underway conducting basic phase inspections and assessments. (U.S. Navy photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaitlin Young)

Sailors and Marines under stress sometimes need a loving set of eyes and an extended paw to feel better. Enter Ike, a three-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever therapy dog. Honorary U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ike was deployed on May 24, 2023, to the USS Wasp as part of an experiment in boosting the well-being of U.S. Navy crews while deployed.

Ike is part of the U.S. Navy’s Expanded Operational Stress Control canine pilot program, which is gathering quantitative and qualitative data on how a therapy dog aboard a ship can have a positive impact on the emotional and mental challenges crews may face on a day-to-day basis.

Ike joins Sage, a three-year-old female yellow Lab, who was the first therapy dog aboard a Navy vessel in the pilot program. She was deployed with the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier on May 2, 2023, and works with chaplains, resiliency providers, and mental health professionals in formal and daily shipboard activities. Chaplain Genevieve Clark is Sage’s primary handler.

Sage the therapy dog Sage, the USS Gerald R. Ford’s therapeutic support, takes a nap prior to a flight back to the first-in-class aircraft carrier, following her visit the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60), June 20, 2023. Normandy is part of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group and is on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. Naval Forces Europe area of operations, Mediterranean Sea, deployed by U.S. Sixth Fleet to defend U.S., allied, and partner interests. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Malachi Lakey)

Ike’s appointment memo lays out his mission aboard the amphibious assault ship: “Lt. Cmdr. Ike will be present for daily operations and offer trained support and comfort services … as a trained and certified facility dog, he will offer therapy and stress relief to all USS Wasp sailors and Marines with the utmost commitment. Additionally, he will assist in maintaining and increasing morale and welfare across all units on USS Wasp.”

“A dog's greatest super power is the ability to engage and establish an immediate non-judgmental rapport with an unknown human,” said U.S. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Todd French, the Army Veterinary Corps Department of Defense advisor on the human-animal bond and deputy commander of the Fort Cavazos Public Health Activity Hood in Fort Hood, Texas. “This is particularly true of dogs like Sage and Ike who were specifically trained to recognize, approach, and comfort humans exhibiting signs of stress. That's what makes them so special.”

“The only difference between Ike and Sage and service dogs for service members and veterans “is that these dogs are trained to provide psychological and emotional health benefits to an entire group instead of just one individual,” French said.

“This opens the door for psychiatrists/psychologists, chaplains, licensed social workers, or professionals that work in the behavioral or occupational health fields to consider implementing a program.”

“In short, therapeutic support dogs are just facility dogs that get to go on adventures.”

Sailor Reactions to Ike

Ike’s approachability clearly makes him a “crew stress reducer” and a “common denominator,” said Melanie Hennis, the deployed resiliency counselor and Ike’s chief caretaker.

Her log of Ike interactions from June 2023 includes these observations: “A sailor was having a difficult day and voiced he had been very frustrated with his work center. He said he needed the comfort of Ike because Ike did not need him to do anything or be a certain way. Ike would not judge him, and this helped the sailor to have a better day.”

As Ike makes his rounds, runs the chow line, visits working parties, or plays fetch, “one can see the sailors’ stress level being reduced by their body language and … words of affection for Ike. They walk away from the interaction in a more positive frame of mind,” Hennis recounted.

Getting Ready for a Facility Dog at Sea

U.S. Navy Cpt. Chris Purcell, the USS Wasp’s executive officer, began working with the nonprofit service dogs’ organization Mutts with a Mission to establish a facility dog program during the fall of 2022.

The ship was coming out of two years in dry dock, “which is arguably the hardest time mentally for sailors in the Navy,” Purcell said.

In November 2022, the nonprofit was invited on board for a “fun activity” for the crew; Purcell recounted. “However, it was during their first visit that I realized the impact that dogs, especially these trained facility dogs, could have on the morale and mental health of our sailors. I was surprised to see the effect that just petting and playing with the dogs in the hangar bay had on our sailors,” Purcell said.

“Some even had tears running down their faces,” Purcell recounted. “As I talked with these sailors, they expressed to me how much less stressed they felt after spending just a short time with the dogs, and how they were ready to get back to work. They would tell me ‘That is just want I needed today.’”

After that experience, Purcell and Hennis worked fast to get a dedicated therapeutic support dog on board. Purcell worked on “the logistics, legalities, and approvals necessary to get a facility dog on board to be able to work with our sailors whether we are pier-side in Norfolk [Wasp’s home port] or deployed around the world.”

In January 2023, the nonprofit selected Ike for Wasp’s proposed program. In February 2023, Wasp identified volunteers to act as facility dog handlers, who received training “focusing on the care of Ike's physical and emotional welfare, as well as how to continue his specific assistive task training to maintain the dog's Assistance Dogs International certification,” Purcell explained.

During March and April 2023, Ike’s handlers introduced him to navigating ladder wells and getting used to the ship’s noise and activity. He has a full set of protective gear to keep him safe, including goggles, ear protection, a life vest, and booties.

By the end of April, Ike was on board daily interacting with sailors during one-on-one counseling sessions and on Wasp’s common area deck-plates. Wasp gained approval to have Ike onboard full time in May prior to getting underway for New York Fleet Week, and the dog flew to New York to meet the ship at the dock.

Therapy Dogs and Navy’s Overall Mental Health Focus

Having therapy dogs detailed full time to these ships is part of a larger effort by the Navy detailed in its Mental Health Playbook from Feb. 28, 2023.

The playbook states: “To prepare our teams for combat, we must ensure each member of the team, their minds, bodies, and spirits, are ready for combat and for supporting those who go forward. For this reason, ensuring the health, especially the mental health, of our people is paramount … Navy-wide, we must become comfortable with the idea of preventative maintenance for our people. Most of us understand preventative maintenance is necessary for our equipment and machines. Today, it is equally, if not more, important to apply this term to our people.”

“We hope that what we learn with Ike, and what the USS Gerald R. Ford learns with Sage, will inform [the Department of Defense] and Navy policy to establish facility dog programs onboard all the large ships in the fleet, “Purcell said.

“In the end, we want to enable our sailors and Marines to be ‘fully ready warfighters,’ and part of that is giving them all the tools and resources we can to improve their overall morale and well-being.”

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