When troops deploy for service or return home, they experience emotions that range from anticipation to despair. For many, the sight of a dog is a comfort in itself. The act of petting it provides a glimpse of happiness.
Hampden residents Cheryl and Ron Lare’s two therapy Shih Tzu dogs, Opie and Skylar, have provided that happiness and comfort to troops returning and heading out. The dogs love every moment, they noted.
The Shih Tzus didn’t start their therapy work at the Bangor International Airport. They started working as therapy dogs at Phillips-Strickland House, elementary schools, and libraries. A therapy dog’s role is to enhance the health and well-being of people ranging from children to seniors.
According to Therapy Dogs International, it has been clinically proven that the acts of petting, touching, and talking with animals help with well-being, relieve stress, and ease symptoms of depression. It makes sense that therapy dogs help soldiers returning or leaving in service of our country.
Skylar had a rough start to life. At 14 months old, he was found with a broken jaw and ribs. The Lares took him in to live with them and their other Shih Tzu, Opie.
“The two dogs are the same age, seven years old, and are buddies,” Cheryl said.
Ron’s an Air Force veteran himself. He understands the valuable role that his pup plays in his life. Once they learned about using therapy dogs as troop greeters, they decided it was a service they could provide to other veterans and active-duty troops. The response from soldiers to these small, quiet dogs is heartwarming.
“When you see grown men crying and these two dogs just sitting there licking away the tears, it’s fascinating to hear the comments people make,” Cheryl said.
Opie and Skylar have their uniforms, Cheryl and Ron noted. Patches with their likeness adorn the tan jackets the dogs wear when they’re “on-duty.” That could include late at night, early in the morning, or mid-day.
“They want the dogs,” Cheryl said. “You can’t refuse it. It’s become a passion of ours.”
That passion extends to the dogs. While they don’t know the troops’ stories, they know that they need to provide some TLC. They do it simply by waiting patiently and sitting quietly.
Ron related a story about a recent encounter with a soldier at Bangor International Airport. The chaplain had sought out the Lares. He asked them to keep a watchful eye on one soldier. The next thing they knew, the soldier asked if he could talk to them and hold the dogs.
“Tears were running down his face,” Ron said. “Three days before he came home, he recovered his best friend’s body and hadn’t talked to anyone since then.”
The Bangor Troop Greeters’ work accents the good that therapy dogs can do for soldiers who struggle with overwhelming feelings. Since May 2003, Maine Troop Greeters have greeted over 6,800 flights with more than 1,400,000 service members and 359 military dogs. And the dedicated volunteers who form the troop greeters will be there as long as troops are deployed.
According to the Maine Troop Greeter website, “The mission of the Maine Troop Greeters is to express the nation’s gratitude and appreciation to the troops, for those going overseas for a safe return and those returning for a joyful homecoming and to make their (hopefully brief) stay in Bangor as comfortable and pleasant as possible.”
While Opie and Skylar are essential members of the troop greeter family, their skills as therapy dogs are appreciated by people who encounter them at schools, senior centers, and retirement homes.