Dogs have been part of the maritime world for centuries. The Naval History and Heritage Command website contains a multitude of pictures of sailors who took their dogs on long voyages for companionship. Recent military experience and studies have shown a direct positive impact on mental health from interaction with canine friends. Surprisingly, there are no regulations that prevent dogs on board Navy ships. As the service struggles with retention, mental health challenges, and operational stress, perhaps the answer is staring us in the face: Let’s get dogs to sea!
Sea Dog Stories
Captain Cordle: When the USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, she made a short stop in Rota, Spain. The chiefs’ mess started feeding a dog at a local restaurant and, as we were preparing to depart the next morning, asked if they could bring the dog with us. It wasn’t really a conscious decision, but I said, “Sure!”
The next day we got underway, and Oscar P. Dog, as we named him, came along. Our executive officer had a cousin in Rota who was a veterinarian and was able to get Oscar a physical and all the required shots. He became the ship’s mascot and conducted multiple canal transits and escorts, was adopted by the gunner’s mates, and slept in an equipment room in the aft portion of the ship. He received many packages from families back home and eventually was adopted when we returned to the States.
Unfortunately, I had chosen the route of asking forgiveness rather than permission, which put me at cross-purposes with my immediate boss. He was very unhappy about the dog and that I had not shared my decision with him. In fact, he found out only when a friend of mine on another ship Photoshopped a St. Bernard onto a picture of our ship during a close maneuver as a joke. Everyone laughed but the commodore.
I do not have statistics to prove the value of having Oscar among the crew, but I can tell you they celebrated his presence every day, and he provided a source of amusement, camaraderie, and belonging I’m not sure we would have found anywhere else.
Commander Alpigini: At the 1998 commissioning of my first ship, the USS Mahan (DDG-72), I heard the stories of the crew of the World War II USS Mahan (DD-364), which was lost to kamikazes in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. These “Old Salts” recounted the heroic last stand of the Mahan and her commanding officer, Commander E. G. Campbell, who, as the last man off the stricken ship, carried the ship’s dog in his arms. The affection with which they spoke of their four-legged mascot 50 years later stuck with me.
Advance to 2013, when I was in command of the USS Stout (DDG-55) for a high-speed transit from Norfolk to the eastern Mediterranean to join the anticipated strikes against the Syrian regime in response to its use of chemical weapons.
The Stout had come off a difficult 2010–11 deployment that included enough discipline and morale issues to land us on the front page of Navy Times. During that deployment, the ship turned over a large portion of the crew as a result of medical, psychological, and discipline issues, and the problems persisted after we returned to Norfolk. When I fleeted up from executive officer to commanding officer in 2012, the mission was to turn the ship around. The Med deployment was open-ended (at least eight months, but maybe ten or more), so we needed to get creative about taking care of the crew.
The first 80 days of the deployment were spent on the firing line in the eastern Med. During that time, the crew stuffed the suggestion box with the usual healthy requests and gripes that let me know they were engaged, but there also was an abundance of requests to get a mascot. To see what was possible, I had Doc research getting a dog from a medical/veterinary/hygiene perspective, while I dug into the rules with my executive officer. I was pleased to discover (and confirmed with Sixth Fleet Medical and the judge advocate general) that there was not any specific prohibition, and the commanding officer had significant discretion.
At dinner with some of the wardroom in Crete, the exec and I tasked the junior officers to “look for options,” which to me meant take some time to search the pounds and animal shelters. To them, it meant find a dog immediately, which they did. They discovered a beautiful stray Greek harehound on the waterfront, and they ambushed me with her the next night coming out of a restaurant. After much pleading and negotiating, I gave them my driver and car for the next day to get the dog to a vet for a checkup and all required shots. We were getting underway the day after next, so time was short, but with some help from my local driver’s cousin, they got it all done.
We created a set of standard operating procedures for the new pup, and the crew voted to name her Chania (Hon-ya) after the city in Crete where they found her. They assembled a “nest” for her in the back corner of the pilothouse complete with squeaky toys and a “working dog” vest with the ship’s crest on it. Chania was very smart and took to training by some experienced dog trainers in the crew very quickly. She typically slept at the feet of the helmsman and loved to sit out on the bridge wing letting her ample ears flap in the breeze. There was a sign-out procedure so any crewmember could take Chania for a walk. It was a regular sight to see her out on the flight deck playing with the crew. The damage control assistant did the harder stuff like bathing and grooming.
My deployed and home commodores were both quietly supportive, recognizing the value of Chania to Team Stout. Sixth Fleet also was aware and quietly supportive but seemed to think it best to keep it all below the radar. To this day, the commodores—who have since gone on to do great things in the Navy—happily tell stories of visiting the Stout on deployment and having their pictures taken with Chania and the crew.
When we returned home after nine months, Chania had achieved legendary status among the sailors’ families, who couldn’t wait to meet her. After a little Customs Office paperwork, Chania was officially a U.S. resident and went home with the damage control assistant and her family, where she happily remains to this day.
Beyond normal personnel rotations, we lost only two sailors during the deployment; one for discipline and one for a significant medical episode. I credit the combined team of our dog, our doc, and our chaplain for taking care of that amazing crew. The Stout also won the Battle “E” for the first time in many years, due entirely to the extraordinary efforts of a dedicated crew. Even with all the challenges of an extended, high-tempo deployment, it was hard to be unmotivated when the mission was good and sailors could take a dog for a walk on a warship in the middle of the ocean.
These two stories have a couple common elements: The dogs alleviated the stress of a long deployment, and the crew was easily able to care for and maintain a healthy lifestyle for a dog on a ship. They also involved the adoption of a stray dog in a foreign country, but there are other options that would make this an enduring program and provide a formal structure and framework for dogs on board ships.
There is science behind this idea. In 2022, researchers in Switzerland measured the brain activity of 19 healthy adults alone, then in the presence of a dog, then sitting next to the dog, and finally while petting the dog. They found activity in the area of the brain involved in social and emotional cognitive processing increased substantially as participants moved through the stages. This helps explain why pets can provide therapeutic benefits for some people with chronic health conditions and can help reduce stress in their owners.
In the Navy, Commander Tracy Krauss has been visiting ships and sailors on shore duty with her trained dog Patty Mac for several years. While the program is not officially part of her duties as a public health officer, her passion for helping others, combined with her love of dogs, has driven her advocacy for the program. She and Patty Mac routinely visit ships and shore commands, helping sailors face the stresses of life by spending time with someone they can talk to and who will listen without judgment.
“Patty Mac works at a branch health clinic in Norfolk and alerts her handler if someone is experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety and may need help,” explained U.S. Fleet Forces (USFF) in a 7 July 2022 tweet. She spent her visit to USFF “bringing joy and comfort to those around her.”
A New Program
The following recommendations offer a way ahead:
• Establish a pool of dogs to join ships on deployments, much as is done with certain detachments. This could include a trainer or psychologist, or the crew could be trained on the care and feeding of their new crewmember.
• Assign a dog to each ship as a permanent member of the crew with support from the shore side. The ship would provide care and feeding, perhaps including staying at a service member’s home when in port or living on board ship as a member of the duty section.
In an ideal world, these dogs would be service animals with specific training, but the mere presence of a dog is likely to make a difference. And there are plenty of rescue dogs for whom life on a Navy ship would be a huge improvement. Collaboration with rescue agencies would be one place to start.
Certainly there are challenges to shipboard life for a dog. On both our ships, we received a wide variety of gift packages from home, so the dogs were never hungry. There are plenty of deep sinks for bathing, and there was no shortage of volunteers to walk the dog. In both cases, the dogs were trained where to do their business, and everything could be washed away with a water hose. In both cases, a crewmember accepted ownership for the dog and gave it a good life after “retirement” from the ship.
One officer who learned from our stories is Captain Nakia Cooper, commanding officer of the USS Wasp (LHD-1). In late 2022, the Wasp’s executive officer, Captain Chris Purcell, began working with Mutts with a Mission (MWAM), an Assistance Dog International accredited program, to establish a facility dog program to support the Wasp’s sailors and Marines.2 The Wasp’s efforts working through the logistics, legalities, medical issues, and agreements necessary to get accredited facility dogs on board ships while underway enabled the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) to deploy with a dog from MWAM named Sage. Weeks later, the Wasp gained approval to participate in the pilot program and embark their dog, Ike, while participating in New York Fleet Week and future underway periods.
Since December 2022, other ships have expressed interest in bringing facility dogs to their commands as a pilot under the Expanded Operational Stress Control program. These trials will provide data on the benefits to sailors and Marines of having facility dogs on board ships and inform Defense Department and Navy leaders when considering establishing facility dog programs on board ships across the fleet.
The dogs—and the ships—are ready!
1. Rahel Marti, Milena Petignat, Valentine L. Marcar, Jan Hattendorf, Martin Wolf, Margret Hund-Georgiadis, and Karin Hediger, “Effects of Contact with a Dog on Prefrontal Brain Activity: A Controlled Trial,” PLoS One 17, no. 10 (5 October 2022).
2. Mutts with a Mission is the Virginia-based nonprofit organization that raised and trained Sage. Learn more at www.muttswithamission.org.