She Started a Nonprofit To Care For Military Pets

Dogs on Deployment ensures that canines are cared for when active duty calls.

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- Posted on Jun 25, 2020

Alisa Johnson, founder of Dogs on Deployment, poses with her two dogs.

Alisa Johnson calls her Australian shepherd, JD, her “fluff a lump” and her “soul dog” and says, “I have to fall asleep with my hand touching his fur.” In 2011 Alisa learned that her husband, Shawn, would be deployed with the Navy at the same time she was set to begin her training as a Marine in Quantico, Virginia. The couple found themselves at an agonizing crossroads. “JD couldn’t live with me in the barracks, so our only options were to have family take him or to board him,” she recalls.

Alisa’s family was sympathetic, but “it just wasn’t in their plans to take in a dog,” she says. Luckily, Alisa and her husband were able to avoid the emotional and financial burden of boarding JD after Shawn’s distant relatives, who lived near Quantico, stepped up. The family had a one acre yard and two dogs of their own and were more than willing to adjust to JD’s somewhat anxious nature. “I was so grateful, it brought tears to my eyes,” Alisa says.

Even though they had found help, Alisa couldn’t shake the thought that other military members wouldn’t be able to. “I knew so many other service members who loved their dogs as much as I loved mine, and not everyone was lucky enough to have family nearby.” Some had even had to surrender their pets to shelters, an idea that was unthinkable to Alisa, who had experience fostering shelter dogs.

In between her intense training, flight school to become a Super Hercules pilot and weekends visiting JD, Alisa began laying the foundation for Dogs on Deployment, a nonprofit that matches military members with volunteers who are willing to provide a home for their pets while they’re overseas. Despite her challenging schedule, as well as senior officers who questioned her decision to start a nonprofit in the midst of her grueling training, Alisa surged ahead. “The entire reason I joined the Marines was to be a problem solver, a leader.” Alisa taught herself everything she could about web design, nonprofit management and marketing, and within a few months, Dogs on Deployment had made its first match.

Now a veteran of the Marines, Alisa runs Dogs on Deployment full-time. She and Shawn are also raising their two young children. Nearly 2,000 pets have found loving temporary homes through Dogs on Deployment while their owners serve their country. In addition, the nonprofit offers financial assistance with veterinary bills, vaccinations, microchipping and moving fees for active-duty military as well as veterans. What began as a great idea inspired by her own need has grown into Alisa’s dream come true, with more service members joining the program all the time and people continuing to step up as fosters. “I don’t know any other way of conducting my life,” Alisa says, “except to do something I’m passionate about.”

KALI: Military Pet of the Year

Liz Cornejo kept telling herself she didn’t want a puppy. In 2011 the Army master sergeant was recovering after suffering two strokes and, at the recommendation of a therapist, was searching shelters for her perfect canine companion—preferably one that wouldn’t need much training.

That’s when she met Kali. “She chose me,” Liz says of the Lab puppy who stole her heart (and was well worth the house-training). “She was somebody to spend time with, and she got me through a difficult time. She didn’t realize that I needed her more than she needed me.” The two became inseparable. By 2015 Liz had not only fully recovered, but had also added another dog, the lovable Kaos, to the mix.

A year later she was found fit for duty and was scheduled for an 18-month deployment to Kuwait. The next hurdle would be to find the right temporary home for Kali and Kaos while she was away. An online search led her to Dogs on Deployment, and she quickly connected with Kim and Tim, a couple in California who agreed to keep Kali and Kaos together. “Knowing they were in a home that cared so much for them—it was one less thing to worry about,” Liz says.

With regular updates and photos from her dogs’ caregivers, Liz could, a world away, concentrate on her job. “Kim and Tim treated them like family, loved them like they did their own dogs.”

Liz returned to the U.S. in the summer of 2018 to a joyous reunion with her pooches. “For a second, they didn’t know what to do, then they suddenly realized who I was. They were so excited!”

Kali was named Dogs on Deployment’s Military Pet of the Year in 2019. Liz does everything she can to let soldiers and potential foster families know about the group that gave her such peace of mind. “It’s so great to help relieve that stress for someone who’s about to deploy,” she says. “It’s an awesome organization.”

BEAU

When Melanie McLean’s beloved American Eskimo, Spritz, passed away, a friend made a donation in his memory to Dogs on Deployment, a group Melanie hadn’t heard of but instantly embraced. “I was so touched, I knew I had to help,” says Melanie, who had lived in houses full of pets since childhood. She moved with her husband, Rob Chung, and their two children to San Antonio from Hawaii and found herself living in the ideal location to become a boarder. Plus, in a home that already had two cats and a dog, more is always merrier.

When Melanie heard about a cat named Hippo, whose owner lived nearby and was in need of immediate help, she convinced a friend in Plano to become a foster. “Because of Rob’s allergies, I knew we couldn’t have a third cat in the house,” she says. They took Hippo for a week before driving him to Plano. Last October the McLean-Chung family met Beauregard, a laid-back bloodhound whose owner, Steve, was scrambling to find a home for Beau before deploying with the Air Force. “Steve was so relieved we were able to take him. His only other option was to send Beau across the country to his family in Maryland.”

After running around and smelling everything at first and occasionally waiting for Steve by the door, Beau has adjusted well. He has revealed a bit of a mischievous side, though. “He has never lived with kids before,” Melanie says, “so he thinks the stuffed animals all belong to him.” Between cavorting with the family dog, Boomer, and learning to give the cats their own space, Beau has fit right in.

Melanie and Steve text whenever they can, and Melanie sends pictures of Beau. He has become such a special part of Melanie’s life. “I’ll cry when he leaves. But I’ll always take Beau whenever Steve needs us to.”

DODGE

“I’ve always been a firm believer in helping out other military members,” says Stella Hanley of Abilene, Texas. When she heard about Dogs on Deployment, she was amazed. “I knew there were churches that send care packages to soldiers, but I’d never heard anything about how to help their pets.”

From her own years in the Army, and then as an Army wife, Stella understood well the added worry that military pet owners experience while overseas. “You have to follow through with the commitment you’ve made to your country, and on top of that you might not know what is happening to your pets.” She didn’t hesitate to volunteer as a boarder. “If I’d had pets when I was deployed, I would have wanted to know that somebody was willing to accept them as part of their family.”

Last January, Stella and her family welcomed Dodge, a Lab mix. Dodge immediately hit it off with Allie, Stella’s therapy dog, who has been trained to help her cope with PTSD. Dodge and Allie wrestle and nap together and generally get along like brother and sister.

All of this is a huge relief to Dodge’s owner, Cheyanne, who keeps in touch with Stella through emails, videos and pictures of her boy. “She’d never seen Dodge so active with another dog,” Stella says. Touchingly, Dodge has also caught on to Allie’s therapy dog techniques. “Allie knows to alert me if I’m having a nightmare,” Stella says, “and now Dodge does too. He’ll put his chin on the bed and wag his tail.” It’s a unique connection that Stella is grateful to have, a bonus on top of the satisfaction of helping out a fellow servicewoman. “I know how special Dodge is to her. I am so blessed to be able to spare someone the worry.”

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