Volunteers share their pets to help members of the military and veterans

By Eilene E. Guy, American Red Cross volunteer

So, you thought the dog days of summer were over? Wrong! Today is National Dog Day.

At the American Red Cross, we celebrate every day as Dog Day, in honor of our animal volunteers and their human teammates.

Pre-deployment event at Youngstown Air Reserve Station

Bree, a Goldendoodle, and Shane, a Rough Collie, are trained members of the Red Cross Animal Visitation Program (AVP) here in northern Ohio. They – along with their owners, Paul and Katie Svasta of Canfield – bring comfort to members of all branches of the military who deploy from or return to the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. The dogs are also welcome at family days at the air base.

Paul and Katie Svasta with Bree and Shasta

“Bree is spot on,” Paul said. “She can identify somebody who needs her. She’ll pull me over to the person, and if that person gives me the go-ahead, she’ll lean right up next to them, for
them to pet her or hug her.

“It breaks the tension, the anxiety. That unconditional connection,” he said. “It’s rewarding, that something so simple can give so much comfort.”

Paul and Katie began acclimating Bree to therapy work five years ago, when she was a puppy, so she’s the pro of the pair. Shane got a slow start because pandemic protocols interrupted the conditioning all therapy dogs go through. “But he’s coming along,” Paul said affectionately.

The animal visitation program has been operating at the Youngstown base, which hosts the 910th Airlift Wing, for a number of years. The Svastas are part of a team of more than three dozen handlers and their dogs who attend events there.

Red Cross volunteer Kate Mazzolini and Sully

Recently, Jessica Tischler, manager of Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces in northern Ohio expanded the visitation program to send canine therapy teams into the northeast Ohio VA healthcare system, to lift the spirits of hospitalized veterans.

“We’re so grateful that our volunteers are willing to share the love these animals offer during their visits,” Jessica said. Now she’s looking to make contact with more dog owners who already have therapy experience, as the Svastas did.

The Red Cross has been training and dispatching therapy dogs into military hospitals to comfort wounded warriors and veterans undergoing treatment since shortly after World War II.

Red Cross volunteer Michael Falatach and Macee

At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Jen O’Keefe and her Leonberger (“They were bred to look like lions.”) Digory carry on the tradition. Digory is a three-legged cancer survivor, so he’s a uniquely positive presence, especially for amputees.

“We (Digory and I) can’t fix people, but we can help lift the anxiety, the stress, for patients, their families – and for the staff,” she said. “The staff is a huge part of our job.

“For me, this is the highlight of my week,” she said. “This is how I de-stress from my job as an emergency veterinarian. I don’t often get to bring good news, but with Digory, I know we’re welcome.”

If you’d like more information about the animal visitation program or any of the other volunteer opportunities with the Red Cross, go to redcross.org/volunteer.

Posted by Ryan Lang, Red Cross volunteer