In a recent YouTube clip of a returning soldier reuniting with his dog Gracie, it is clear she is emotional. In the video, which has had almost 9 million hits, Gracie sounds as if she is crying.
Homecomings are emotional for the whole family, even the furry members. Including family pets in welcoming activities goes a long way to helping animals and humans reconnect and smooth the transition for everyone, said Steve Appelbaum, president and director of Animal Behavior College.
"The best thing to do is to really just be aware of really including the pet in the homecoming,” he said.
Appelbaum also was a security specialist and patrol dog handler and trainer in the Air Force, so he understands the effects of the deployment cycle on the whole family.
“A lot of times somebody will come home, there’s a party planned, friends are coming over and the dog is kind of in the way and the dog gets locked out in the backyard,” he said. “That kind of situation creates stress in a dog that can manifest into a variety of actions.”
That may mean excessive barking, digging, chewing, changes in elimination habits and other annoying behavior. Ideally, prevent those stress reactions by making sure the service member spends some time with the pet — playing, feeding, grooming, etc. — so they can get reacquainted, Appelbaum said.
“Most of the time this can be a seamless process,” he said. “It’s not like they’re attempting to build something brand new; they’re really looking to reconnect. It’s usually not that difficult. Food, love and attention works well for most.”
If that doesn’t work, consult a professional animal trainer, Appelbaum said. Sending your recently returned service member and pet to obedience training also can help address any lingering issues in the wake of a homecoming.
Cats generally don’t require the same level of attention as dogs, Appelbaum said, but it’s still a good idea to have your service member spend some time playing with the cat one-on-one.
You also can help by prepping your pet before your service member returns. Appelbaum suggests leaving out clothing or shoes that may have a bit of his scent left. When the pet stops to sniff, praise and reward it. That helps re-introduce his scent and create a positive association with his smell, Appelbaum said.
“It’s like everything else — it’s a process,” Appelbaum said. “It takes a little bit of time sometimes. With a little bit of patience and love, these types of things are usually pretty effortless.”
Your pets aren’t the only ones who will benefit. It’s very likely family routines such as walking the dog are among the things your service member missed most during deployment, he said.
“This [relationship with pets] will be one of the wonderful normal things they had in their lives before that they didn’t have overseas,” he said. “It goes far in helping people re-adjust. It’s just this injection of ‘normal’ that is very powerful.”