Beneath the matted fur of a scrappy dog surrendered to a Tampa shelter was a messenger with an important tale to tell, both to the Army veteran who saw value in her life and to the many other people whose lives she touches every day.
Born to serve
Michelle served in the Army from 1986-1989 as a Military Intelligence Officer. Stationed in Wildflecken, Germany, she was the “eyes and ears” of a front-line infantry division during the Cold War.
Michelle enjoyed her time in the military, noting that her best memory was working as a Platoon Leader when she first arrived in Germany.
“We were a forward-stationed signals intelligence unit, and we would deploy with our equipment to the top of a nearby mountain to listen to the ‘enemy’ over the East German border,” she says. “It was wonderful to see well-trained soldiers in action, listening in the languages they’d learned at the Defense Language Institute to real communication from the other side of the border. While we were never in combat, being that close to the border made daily life interesting.”
The former Army officer is not the first member of her family to serve in the armed forces.
“I had decided to serve in the military following my father’s footsteps as a career Air Force [veteran],” Michelle explains, “but I chose the Army after receiving a full ROTC scholarship from them.”
Saying ‘goodbye’ to long-time friends
Michelle has always had pets in her life, even while she was stationed in Germany. It hit her doubly hard when her Chihuahua mix, Daisy, died in December 2014 and just two month later April, her 13-year-old Chihuahua mix, died as well.
The dogs were long-time companions, often known as a bonded pair.
“Although my cat, Sweet Pea, had found me the year before April’s passing, I felt an emptiness in my home and my heart, but wasn’t quite ready to “replace” April,” Michelle says.
Instead, the Army veteran decided to volunteer at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay to get her doggie “fix” while she grieved her losses. What she did not realize at the time is that the organization is both a Pets for Patriots adoption and veterinary partner, offering no-fee pet adoptions to qualified veterans and ongoing discounted pet medical care at its full-service veterinary hospital.
Good grief; from temporary home to permanent love
Volunteering at the shelter proved to be just the right prescription to heal Michelle’s grief.
“I knew that I would eventually adopt, and really wanted to find a dog that could become a therapy dog in the “Canines for Christ” ministry that started locally,” Michelle says. “I kept searching for the right dog, but not finding one, so I decided that I’d wait till one jumped out of its cage and into my heart.”
Koko did just that.
The five year-old Maltese Terrier had been brought into the shelter severely matted, and with skin infections that needed to be treated with antibiotics and medicated baths. Michelle decided to foster Koko, which would give the dog the opportunity to heal within a home environment instead of the confines of a shelter kennel.
The Army veteran’s foster efforts did not last long.
“Several days later, I became what they call a ‘failed foster,'” Michelle confesses, “and adopted Koko from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.”
Right pup, right place, right time
Although Michelle knew that she wanted to adopt a dog eventually she did not think she was financially prepared to have another pet so soon after caring for both of her senior dogs. But luck – or faith – played a hand, and the former Army intelligence officer saw all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
“Pets for Patriots came at exactly the right time,” she says. “I had finally decided that I was ready to look for another companion animal, but my budget had taken a big hit caring for my previous two, elderly dogs that had recently passed. I wasn’t sure I was ready for the huge financial commitment that a pet requires, particularly as they age.”
The benefits offered through Pets for Patriots, both directly and through participating partners, made the prospect of companion pet adoption affordable for Michelle.
“They [Humane Society of Tampa Bay] waived the adoption fee, reduced prices for veterinary care and the gift card [from Pets for Patriots] made adopting Koko a no-brainer.”
For Michelle, it only got better from there.
“I discovered that her sweet and spunky personality makes her the perfect therapy dog!”
Rescue dog a gift from above
It turns out that Michelle is not the only one in her family who was born to serve: Koko is now an official therapy dog with Canines for Christ, an animal-assisted therapy ministry that uses dogs to share messages of love, hope, kindness and compassion. Remarkably, she has earned her Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dog – Novice titles from the American Kennel Club within just four months of her adoption.
“I really do call her a G-dsend not only because she’s filled up an emptiness left behind by the deaths of two wonderful dogs I’d had for almost 14 years altogether,” Michelle shares, “but also because she brings joy and comfort to the people we visit at nursing homes and rehab facilities…She even has a real soft spot for Sweet Pea, her playtime kitty companion.”
The Army veteran takes every opportunity to share her experiences, particularly with other veterans who may benefit from having a companion pet in their lives.
“I get to talk about how she came into my life through adoption from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and Pets for Patriots,” she says, adding, “She dispels the myth that shelter dogs are badly behaved or unadoptable.”
Quite the contrary, Michelle describes her little charge as “extremely intelligent,” and “willing to do just about anything for a treat – including sitting on the laps of strangers in wheelchairs.”
Michelle encourages both current and former members of the military to apply to Pets for Patriots if they live within one of our program areas around the country.
“It’s an amazing program that matches the least popular shelter dogs with people who will make the commitment to care for them. Because of the financial assistance of reduced or waived adoption fees, reduced veterinary care prices, and the gift card, many people can adopt pets that might not otherwise have done so,” she says.
Michelle believes our focus on the most overlooked sheltered animals – adult and special needs pets, and large breed dogs – actually helps veterans find some of the best companions.
“The pets they adopt are the ones who most need and appreciate a new home,” she says.
Just ask Koko.