Pets help MacDill AFB service members cope with military life

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kendra Fulton says her dog, Mikayla, alerts her to when she's stressing out over taking a test.


By ILEANA NAJARRO | Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. | Published: August 17, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — For Air Force Master Sgt. Michael Fulton and Staff Sgt. Kendra Fulton stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, Mikayla, their 5-year-old Labrador mix, is more than a pet.

She’s the loyal friend that sleeps on the couch waiting for Michael Fulton to get home at 2 a.m. from work so they can have a snack together. She’s the attentive friend that stalks Kendra Fulton when she’s preparing for a test, alerting her to her increased heart rate and letting her know she’s stressed, and that she can find love in her furry paws. She’s the friend attuned to their military hours, ready to be up at 5 a.m. on weekdays and sleep in on the weekend.

“Just having that kind of reliability of companionship, it does great things for us when we come home from a stressful environment,” Kendra Fulton said.

Having a pet while serving in active duty can be challenging, with frequent moves and long-term deployments as a part of life. But whether it’s relying on friends and family, dog boarding businesses or even nonprofits offering free care, service members say the joy and stress relief pets offer are worth the hassle.

When Air Force Capt. Taylor Moore and his wife, Anna Buhigas, moved to Tampa last year, Buhigas was staying at home and wanted a pet to hang out with, Moore said.

They were leaning towards a dog. But when they stopped by a veterinarian’s office, where a box of kittens had been dropped off, one made a beeline for Buhigas. And so the little Tabby/Bengal mix kitten, Dempsey, became part of the family.

“He’s more like a dog,” Moore said. “He’ll greet you at the door and he loves being around people.”

While Buhigas isn’t a service member, this year she ended up having to travel for work as a professional soccer goalie in Spain around the same time Moore deployed to the Middle East. Fortunately for the couple, Moore’s parents live in Pensacola and were eager to help take care of their furry grandson.

Moore knows not everyone is as fortunate to have family close by to rely on, and moving with a pet isn’t always an option.

He knew an airman in Japan who had to find another family for his Great Dane because it was going to cost around $10,000 to $15,000 to ship their dog overseas, and it wasn’t in the cards for them logistically or financially.

Such obstacles are why the California-based nonprofit Dogs on Deployment exists.

The group offers a foster network primarily for active-duty service members to connect with families nationwide. “Dogs on Deployment boarders” can take care of their pets free of charge while they are on deployment or fulfilling other service commitments, said co-founder Alisa Johnson.

That network also allows for families to care for other animals including cats, parrots, ferrets, snakes and more. In addition, the nonprofit provides financial assistance for military and veteran families for help with emergency veterinarian care and military moving costs associated with pets, Johnson said.

Pet owners can connect with families registered on the site and then are responsible for coordinating a meet and greet, home-check and asking for referrals.

Erica Ring in Tampa signed up to care for military pets earlier this year, and within a week or two a U.S. Navy dog dad reached out to see if Ring could care for his 4-year-old Boxer, Bodie, while he was on deployment.

“It was super easy,” Ring said.

But if it’s in the budget and best interest for a dog to stay at a boarding business, there are other local options as well, such as Fuzzie Buddies in Tampa.

While active-duty service members getting ready to deploy aren’t her usual customers, Fuzzie Buddies president Edie Wilhoit gives them discounts and has made special accommodations in the past to offer live video of the dogs to service members overseas.

But with each military case, Wilhoit makes sure to go through the best options for the pet, whether that’s long-term boarding with them, or with a friend or relative.

Mikayla’s parents, the Fultons, are deployed and have relied on Veronica Simonetto of Unique Dog Boarding in Spring Hill for her care.

Simonetto runs the cage-free dog ranch, where she helps families like the Fultons rest easy knowing their furry family member is in good hands.

“They do so much for us and I want them to have that peace of mind when they’re away that they’re going to get their dog back happy and go lucky,” she said.

For the Fultons, Simonetto had been a help in the past with short-notice missions, especially as she knows Mikayla’s smarts. For instance, when the Fultons are getting ready to leave, Kendra Fulton takes her on a walk while Michael Fulton puts luggage into the car and texts his wife to let her know it’s okay to come back. Mikayla knows suitcases and backpacks mean an impending departure.

As the couple is away, they know what to expect when they come home.

“It’s almost like we never left, but then again we have to earn her love again,” Kendra Fulton said. And that love is re-earned with treats.

Lots of love and treats.

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U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michael Fulton said his dog, Mikayla, joins him for late-night snacks. She likes a helping of peanut butter.