Five therapy dogs and their handlers, including American Humane Association’s National Director of Animal-Assisted Therapy, Amy McCullough and her therapy dog, Bailey, attended a military family retreat on August 17-20 at Black Mountain, North Carolina. This Operation Purple® family retreat, one of eight operated nationwide by the National Military Family Association, is designed to help families reconnect after experiencing the stresses surrounding a deployment.
Over 100 families applied to attend the NC retreat and twenty were accepted to participate in this fun family getaway at no cost to the family beyond transportation. The four-day retreat took place at a campground in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains. Families from every branch of the military were present including Army, Navy, National Guard, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Nearly 100 people attended, with approximately half of those being children ranging in age from 3-13.
Many of the families were stationed at bases in North Carolina such as Ft. Bragg and Camp Lejeune, but others traveled from as far away as Georgia, Virginia and Maryland. One of the requirements for eligibility is that the military member must have returned from deployment between 3-12 months prior to the camp and many were returning from multiple deployments.
The therapy dogs were present on the first day of the retreat to greet the families as they arrived at camp to check-in. In addition, the therapy dogs were on-site each day during mid-day free time for those families who wanted to spend time with the dogs. As families arrived weary from their hours on the road, children rushed to greet the dogs. Children who were initially afraid of dogs were able to pet the friendly, wagging therapy dogs. Families who missed their own pet were comforted by the dogs’ presence and the dogs served as a way for the children and parents from different bases to begin to talk and get to know each other. At times, the therapy dogs pulled a pensive child sitting by him/herself into the group activities.
As the weekend unfolded, one could witness the families’ increased interaction whether it was a father and son engaging in friendly competition on the basketball court or parents encouraging their children on the climbing wall. One father spoke of the role his son assumed as the “man of the house” in his absence and his surprise when he returned to find his son taller than he is. Through the therapy dog interaction and other camp activities, he’s learning how to relate to his son again.
Overall, the therapy dogs are a valuable part of the camp in helping establish a sense of normalcy and home as the military families begin to adjust to their life upon return from deployment.