When Army Staff Sergeant Bryan Spears was stationed in Baghdad a couple of years ago, he and his buddies found a puppy, a stray, and decided to take him in. They named him Moody.
“We kept him for a while,” explains Spears, “and then we were told we couldn’t have him anymore,” due to military code that prohibits soldiers from adopting stray animals in combat zones. “As soon as we were told we couldn’t have him, he just left.” As if he knew.
A week or two later, in a particularly harrowing attack, “we lost five guys [fellow soldiers] and a linguist to a suicide bomber,” says Spears. “And that night, Moody came back.” As if he knew.
From then on, there was no keeping Spears and Moody apart.
“He did so much for the guys and me while we were deployed,” says Spears, whose higher-ups turned a blind eye, a not-uncommon response.
“Most of the time, we see commanders who are pretty understanding,” says Stephanie Scott, the director of communications for SPCA International (SPCAI), “especially if the soldiers feel really passionate about their dogs.”
Since 2007, the SPCAI’s Operation Baghdad Pups has helped bring home almost 300 dogs and cats adopted by soldiers overseas when their tours are over or they’re redeployed. “These dogs are valuable in multiple ways,” says Scott. “Sometimes they become working dogs, helping protect soldiers. And sometimes soldiers are just able to escape by throwing a ball or wrestling a dog after a stressful patrol. Dogs are a piece of home.”
That little remembrance of home is invaluable. “When soldiers adopt pets, they become their family,” says medical sociologist Joan Liebmann-Smith, Ph.D., who is writing a book about the health benefits of owning pets. “The pets depend on the soldiers for their needs, and the soldiers come to depend on their pets for amusement, loyalty and companionship.”
As anyone with a pet can tell you, it’s not just soldiers who experience this connection. “Relatedness is a basic human need,” says Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Carleton University, who himself has 11 dogs. “People who engage in meaningful relationships are healthier and happier, and that extends to other species—dogs in particular.”
In fact, medical research indicates that caring for a pet can provide physical as well as emotional benefits. Pets help reduce stress and anxiety and can actually lower blood pressure and cholesterol. The National Institutes of Health is even funding research into the health benefits of pets.
And if you adopt a pet—providing a loving home to an animal that might otherwise be neglected or worse—you’re rewarded many times over, from the satisfaction of helping a creature in need to the unconditional love that comes along with it. In Iraq, Scott explains, many of the animals that are taken on by soldiers are in pretty rough shape.
But helping them—washing them, feeding them, playing with them and giving them affection—can take soldiers’ minds completely off of the difficult jobs they perform day in and day out. “Pets can bring out nurturing feelings that may otherwise go untapped,” says Liebmann-Smith.
The benefits for soldiers extend well beyond the combat zones. “We’ve seen incredible results when soldiers bring their dogs home,” says Scott. “They can significantly help with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”
“Many people feel that they can shed tears around their pets even when they can’t around their friends,” says Liebmann-Smith. “This can be especially helpful to soldiers, who often bottle up their feelings.”
Spears certainly appreciated Moody, who returned stateside with him (thanks to Operation Baghdad Pups) and is still his constant companion. “The guys had someone they could talk to and not get judged,” says Spears. “Sometimes you can’t talk to other people, but your dog just lies there and lets you put your hand on him.”