Smiley dogs and military kids

On this Veteran’s Day, we honor the men and women who have and currently do keep our country safe. But it’s also worth honoring the loved ones who keep the fires burning at home, trying to keep some semblance of normalcy going. This is especially prevalent in homes with kids. The support systems left behind are both a lifeline for loved ones, but also for those who are currently deployed or serving stateside.

I come from a Navy family. My Dad, an airplane mechanic for VP-8, travelled around the world while my mom and brother were left behind to wait out his deployment. When I was born, Dad had been in for nearly 15 years and he retired when I was about 6 years old.

I vaguely remember what it was like when he was gone. I remember feeling lonely and sad that my Dad wasn’t with us all the time. And honestly, I think every military kid remembers what it’s like when your parent isn’t home.

It’s lonely.

But this blog isn’t just about people. It’s about pets. And military families that have a pet waiting back home for those military men and women have an additional coping mechanism: The family pet.

Studies have shown that pets in the home ease feelings of loneliness (note, they EASE but don’t eliminate), provide emotional support, and help establish a feeling of stability and routine.

Sarah Smiley and her family are a testament to the studies. The Smiley family consists of Sarah, her husband and Naval officer Dustin and their three boys Ford (12), Owen (10), and Lindell (6).

And, of course, there’s Sparky the dog.

You’ve probably heard about the Smiley’s. Sarah is a syndicated columnist and author. Her work has appeared all over the place and if you’ve been paying attention she has a new book out: “Dinner with the Smileys.” She has appeared on Katie Couric, The Today Show, “Parade Magazine,” the Huffington Post, and in the Bangor Daily News (to name a few).

Having just read Sarah’s newest book “Dinner with the Smileys” (and having stalked the Dinner with the Smileys Facebook page) I was struck by the role Sparky played as Dustin headed off for a 13-month deployment. And if you think 13 months is long, you’ve never met a military family. They’ll tell you it’s like an eternity.

I remember.

So it’s not entirely surprising that Dustin and Sarah opted to bring Sparky (a three-month-old ball of fur) home just prior to Dustin’s deployment. The pair both had dogs growing up and early into their marriage so they knew what they were getting into.

Another reason? The boys were aching for a dog, especially their youngest son Lindell.

“Lindell has let us know he wanted his own dog since he could talk,” Dustin said.

Having a dog around the house while he was gone would also provide an opportunity (and excuse) for the boys to learn about what it takes to care for an animal.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sarah and the boys (over cookies, I might add) and Sparky this fall. Their love of the inquisitive, calm, and cute Brittany Spaniel was evident.

According to the boys, Sparky is smart, friendly, and plays with them while dad is gone. It’s apparent from watching the boys play with Sparky and talk about him that the family dog plays a huge role in their lives. Lindell, the youngest Smiley, sees Sparky as his special friend.

Sarah helped me relay some questions to Dustin, who is working in Washington D.C. currently.

“Our youngest son Lindell has let us know he wanted his own dog since he could talk,” Dustin wrote. “We also wanted to provide the boys an opportunity to learn about caring for an animal and thought it would be a positive experience for them.  Sarah and I both raised dogs in our adolescent or teenage years and knew it would require their dedication while also being a very rewarding process.”

Sparky was a three-month-old puppy when Dustin deployed and in his absence, the pup provided the family with entertainment, love, and companionship “to help fill the void of [his] absence.” But Sparky does far more than “fill a void.” Just ask the family.

Sparky:

  • Plays with the boys in the yard.
  • Licks away worries and concerns.
  • Acts like a clown.
  • Plays in the lake at the family’s camp.
  • Goes for walks around their home and at City Forest.
  • Listens without judging.

In fact, he’s their friend, confidant, and protector. For instance, no one gets into the Smiley home without a vocal greeting from Sparky. And that’s something that Sarah appreciates while Dustin was gone.

“I think Dad is proud of Sparky because he’s here when he’s gone,” Lindell said. “Whenever he sees a car or an animal go by he’ll rush over and bark.”

“Having Sparky gave us purpose,” Sarah said. “When boys were asleep I could lay on the couch and pet Sparky. It made the house feel not so lonely. There were some people who thought we were crazy to bring a puppy home as my husband was leaving for a year. But it was a nice distraction.”

Distraction is a nice way of describing Sparky’s contribution to the family. The boys learned how to train Sparky (the family took Sparky to Green Acres Kennel Shop for training classes), how to care for him, and enjoyed the companionship of a dog in the house.

Here are some of the family’s parting observations about Sparky’s role in the family.

“[Sparky's] really nice because he licks me a lot,” Lindell. “At camp he chases ducks because he’s a bird dog. When we play in the side yard, Sparky peeks through the fence.”

“He sorta reminded me of my dad when I played outside with him,” Owen said.

“He loves the slippery nylon sleeping bags,” Sarah said. “They were arguing about who would sleep with sparky the night we brought him home so they camped out in the living room and he’d go from sleeping bag to sleeping bag.”

“Sometimes when you’re bored, Sparky will come up to you and sometimes when I’m crying Sparky will come up and lick me in the face,” Lindell said.

“Sometimes I put on his leash and we run and I try to keep up with him,” Ford said. “It makes it funny. It’s gives the home a nice feeling.”

Debra Bell is a freelance writer, photographer and graphic designer and is the owner of Bell’s Furry Friends Photography (a division of Bell Imaging & Design LLC). She and her husband Bill, are owned by a Maine coon cat named Olivia and a greyhound named Laura. Visit her website to learn more about the important role of pets and their people: www.bffpetphotos.com and www.bellphotostudio.com. She is also author of the monthly column in The Weekly called “Critters.”