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Navy using therapy dogs to stem rising suicide rate

A German shepherd military working dog. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Dietrich/Released)
October 07, 2023

In an innovative move to address rising mental health concerns, the U.S. Navy is returning to a familiar bond with a long-standing companion of service members – the dog.

Once a regular fixture alongside sailors, therapy dogs are now returning to naval bases and ships as part of a broadened approach to mental well-being, according to Stars and Stripes.

In a significant move, Sage, a yellow Labrador retriever, became a part of the USS Gerald R. Ford’s crew in April, marking the first deployment of a support dog on a Navy ship.

“Deploying support dogs such as Sage on ships is another measure the Navy is testing out in its efforts to provide a holistic and well-rounded selection of mental health resources for sailors,” a Navy spokesperson stated.

In July, the Navy publicized the addition of Oliver, a golden retriever, and Morgan, a mixed breed, to its overseas USO centers. Both made their inaugural appearance earlier this summer at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily. Furthermore, six American Red Cross-certified therapy dogs have recently joined the USO center at Naval Support Activity Naples. Expansion plans include Naval Station Rota in Spain, according to USO officials.

Historical data reveals a concerning uptick in sailor suicides since 2006, with 74 active duty sailors killed by suicide in 2019. According to Stars and Stripes, preliminary data for 2022 indicates that 70 active-duty sailors took their own lives. The sobering statistic underlines the urgency of the Navy’s efforts in addressing mental health for its service members.

READ MORE: Pics: Two hero dogs recognized for supporting US troops

The Navy is not the only military branch struggling with rising suicide rates. A Defense Department report unveiled a 25% rise in suicides among active-duty service members in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2022.

Many sailors find solace in the company of dogs. “(Dogs) make you feel like you’re not alone,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Julia Walden, said. “They give you something to look forward to.”

The emotional connection and relief therapy dogs offer to service members can be powerful. Margaret McCullough, USO Sigonella center manager and owner of Morgan, witnessed the deep emotional impact first-hand and emphasized the “undeniable” therapeutic potential of animals.

Historically, sailors have sought companionship in animals for their voyages, a sentiment echoed by Gordon Calhoun, historian at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy. Calhoun told Stars and Stripes that dogs, cats, goats, and various other farm animals were traditionally taken on ships by U.S. Navy members for a considerable portion of the military service’s history.

“Attitudes changed about it and you saw less and less of them coming into today,” Calhoun noted.

This news article was partially created with the assistance of artificial intelligence and edited and fact-checked by a human editor.