The first-in-class carrier Gerald R. Ford deployed this week with a first-of-kind asset for its sailors: a service dog.
Sage, a 3-year-old female yellow Labrador retriever, is the first dog to deploy with a ship’s crew through a pilot program meant to address mental health and resiliency.
The Virginia-based nonprofit Mutts with a Mission trained Sage and loaned her to the crew for the deployment. The dog will comfort sailors and is trained to help them cope with operational stress. It’s part of what is dubbed, in typical military-speak, the Expanded Operational Stress Control Canine program.
Cmdr. Genevieve Clark, the chaplain for the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group, will serve as Sage’s primary handler and underwent 120 hours of training with Mutts with a Mission. Three other sailors have volunteered to help care for the canine during the deployment, which could last around six months.
“One of the positives of having Sage aboard the ship is her help in breaking down some barriers to utilizing mental, emotional and spiritual resiliency resources,” Clark said in a Navy news release. “Sailors are coming to more warrior toughness events and improving their morale through the vast network of resiliency resources the ship offers, with Sage now present at these opportunities.”
Mutts with a Mission was founded in 2008 to train service dogs for wounded warriors with PTSD and mobility disabilities. The organization in 2019 expanded its mission to train dogs for law enforcement and first responders.
Mutts with a Mission Executive Director Brooke Corson explained that Sage had been raised as a service dog since she was eight weeks old and, in fact, had received the most rigorous level of training to become what the group calls a facility dog: she is trained to assist her handler by performing specific tasks while working with a specific demographic.
Last summer, the group sent dogs to the George H.W. Bush carrier ahead of its deployment to Europe, and the group has also sent canines to visit crews in ship repair yards and other stressful environments as part of this morale-boosting effort.
Ahead of this deployment, Mutts with a Mission brought Sage onboard Ford several times “to visit with the crew and become more accustomed to life on a warship,” Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Dawn Stankus told Navy Times. Based on those visits, Mutts with a Mission “has no concerns with the dog remaining on the ship for deployment.”
Still, Sage’s handlers and the ship’s senior medical officer were all trained in canine first aid, the ship is stocked with basic canine medicines, and the Army Veterinary Services is on standby for telemedicine calls if needed, Stankus said.
The Navy will evaluate the effectiveness of this program during Ford’s deployment and determine whether future carriers or other ships might deploy with dogs of their own. That evaluation will consider the number of interactions between sailors and Sage, whether she increases their morale and willingness to seek out help, and how well she adjusts to life at sea.
The Navy has struggled to address mental health challenges throughout the force, particularly amid a nationwide shortage of mental health professionals. Chaplains have played an increased role here, with the Navy now trying to deploy a chaplain with every destroyer. The service is also looking to train some corpsmen as mental health technicians.
Sage’s daily schedule — which will include general visitation hours, morale-boosting events and time alongside mental health providers — will be made available to the crew.
Many observers will scrutinize Ford’s first full-length deployment, which began May 2, to see how well 20-plus new technologies perform following lengthy and at times difficult development and testing phases.
But certainly the most adorable new gear deploying on the carrier will be Sage’s supplies, provided by Mutts with a Mission: bedding in Clark’s stateroom, a waste collection mat, a life vest and protective gear including paw, hearing and eye protection.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.