“My husband never had a dog—not because he didn’t want one, but because he didn’t want to impose on others,” said Allison (Conway) Mercer ’07.
“That really struck me.”
Joe Mercer enlisted in the US Navy after high school in 2002. The couple got married in 2014, and shortly after, they became the proud “parents” of Ted, a lovable sheepadoodle.
A few months later, Allison Mercer stumbled upon Dogs on Deployment (DOD) through Instagram. The nonprofit organization connects military members who are deployed or have service commitments with volunteers who will board and care for their pets. Knowing that this concern had prevented her own husband from getting a dog, Mercer immediately reached out to get involved. She started with DOD as its director of marketing in 2015 and recently moved into the role of executive director.
“Dogs on Deployment was started by a dual-military couple in 2011,” Mercer said. "Shawn (Johnson) was deploying (with the US Navy) and Alisa (Sieber-Johnson) was going to training school (for the US Marine Corps). Almost last minute, they said, ‘What do we do with our dog?
When preparing for deployment or training, Mercer said there are so many arrangements to make that sometimes the personal stuff comes last. If family members are unable to assist with pets, boarding them for an extended period becomes expensive. The Johnsons figured if they were having this problem, other military families must be experiencing the same issues, and DOD was born.
The networking site links service members with volunteers and provides the tools they need to “deploy” their pets. On the DOD website, users create a profile. Service members describe their pet, the pet’s needs, emergency information, and how long they need boarding. Mercer said service members also must provide their official orders. Volunteer boarders are asked to describe their households and lifestyle.
“Many times, people then get in touch with each other directly,” Mercer said. “We suggest a meet-and-greet to let the pets meet in a neutral location. If it works, they fill out a contract.”
Boarders often share photos or videos with owners while they are deployed, she said. The best part? “Homecomings are great. There’s a man here who has a beagle named Buddy, and my husband and I watch (the dog) when he trains. If that dog could’ve taken flight when his owner came home he would have.”
No matter how long the owner is gone, that pet remembers them. “That’s unconditional love. It’s a calming feeling when you see an animal so excited to see you.”
Over the past five years, DOD has attracted a lot of attention. The networking site has more than 25,000 registered boarders across the country and has successfully deployed more than 1,000 pets, Mercer said. Although many of the deployed pets are dogs, they also have boarded cats, birds, rabbits, snakes, and more.
The organization is 100 percent volunteer and operates virtually. “We have a wide mix of volunteers located across the country. Technology is a blessing. Our board meetings are held via Google hangout, and many people have their dogs on their laps.”
Although there isn’t a brick-and-mortar office, DOD has several chapters in active volunteer areas, such as Virginia Beach, San Diego, Pensacola, and Phoenix. These chapters often host local fundraisers. DOD also has landed national sponsorships, including one with Purina, which has allowed them to participate in charity events.
Funding benefits programming as well as Pet Chit, which provides financial assistance for pet care to qualified military members. “For example, if a dog tears its ACL, you can’t cover it, and you’re about to deploy, we can help,” she said.
Mercer, who graduated from Ship in communication/journalism with a concentration in public relations, works full time at an ad agency. While at Ship, she volunteered at events through the Public Relations Student Society of America. She said she loves that DOD embodies that volunteer spirit. “This is one of my favorite ways to give back. I’m able to do something greater than myself.”