When Jonathan Montgomery, 24, opens the door of his home in Tyler, Texas (pop. 96,900), he’s greeted by the welcome waggin’—Willow and Luke. The tail-thumping golden retrievers whoosh to his side for pats and cuddles.
“They brighten my day,” says Montgomery, who served four and a half years with the U.S. Army in Iraq until a medical discharge for fibromyalgia in 2010. “If I’m upset and stressed, the dogs are there to love on. They’re mine, something I can take care of.”
Returning to civilian life has been a challenge for Montgomery after serving as a military policeman in war-torn Baghdad. “I struggle with connecting with people,” he says, explaining how it’s difficult to relate to others who haven’t endured life-and-death situations.
Montgomery credits Willow and Luke—loyal, patient companions who never judge or hold grudges—with helping ease his anger and calm his ragged nerves. He bought Willow in late 2010, then worried about leaving her alone during the day while attending classes at The University of Texas at Tyler. He found Luke in February through Pets2Vets, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that matches animal shelter dogs with military veterans at no charge. Luke had spent his life chained under a carport before ending up in a Houston shelter.
“Recently, we’ve been going on runs together. It’s an experience trying to run with two dogs,” Montgomery says with a laugh. “In many ways, these dogs have saved my life. They’ve certainly saved who I am—my character and my mental state.”
No longer lonely
Dog owners across America credit their four-legged friends with transforming their lives—by easing loneliness, making them laugh and guiding them into new activities, adventures and relationships.
Marcia Cooper, 49, was depressed and homesick five years ago after she and her husband, Ken, 54, moved to Rogers, Ark. (pop. 55,964), for his job transfer, leaving their family and friends behind in Florida.
“I didn’t know a single person here and was extremely lonely,” says Cooper, who suffers from an autoimmune disease that prevents her from working. She thought a Maltese would provide companionship, but never imagined the depth of love she’d feel for the fluffy white puppy that she named Jack Frost.
“The owner brought him out along with his sister in a big Tupperware bowl,” Cooper recalls. “Jack Frost stood his little ears up on his head and wagged his little tail. I said, ‘He’s the one.’”
As she talks, the doting dog watches Cooper’s every movement with a look that says she’s the queen of the universe.
The two are inseparable. Jack Frost shadows Cooper about the house, rides at her elbow in his doggy car seat and leads the way, looking spiffy in a polo shirt, when they visit neighbors.
“For every bit of love I give Jack Frost, he pays me back 10 times over,” Cooper says. “I call him my little miracle dog.”
Teacher Deborah Pack, 47, feels such a strong bond for her deaf bulldog, Junior, that she takes him to her pre-kindergarten classroom at Outreach Christian School in Avondale, Mo. (pop. 440), and makes him the centerpiece of lessons about compassion and community service.
“He’s just a big love bug,” Pack says about the 70-pound pooch, whose deafness was a disability until she bought him from a breeder in 2010.
Because of Junior, Pack teaches her pupils sign language and stresses the importance of accepting people—and dogs—who are different. With Junior by their side, the children work on community-service projects, including picking up litter and raking leaves in downtown Avondale, handing out emergency-preparedness brochures, and collecting dog food and donations for Hero’s Hope Pet Assist for pet owners in need. Last year, the pupils collected nearly $1,000 for animals left injured and homeless by a tornado in Joplin, Mo.
Their most entertaining fundraiser is Junior’s kissing booth, where a dollar earns a slobbery smooch from the lovable bulldog.
Pack can’t imagine life without Junior. “Every day I tell him I love him and there’s a special place for his life,” she says. “I hold his paw at night before he goes to sleep.”
The joy of Scouting
In St. Helen, Mich. (pop. 2,668), Lonnie Olson chauffeurs her boxer Kozi to Dog Scouts of America events, where Kozi earns doggy merit badges and learns new skills.
Olson, 58, founded the organization for four-legged “kids” in 1995 after an insurance agent asked why she had so many photos in
her home of her late collie Karli herding, playing Frisbee and swimming.
“I said, ‘Well, were your kids in band and wrestling and Boy Scouts?’” recalls Olson, recognizing immediately that her dogs, who are like her children, should have a Scouting troop as well to “do good things” and to develop as pets.
While Kozi has earned 45 merit badges that adorn his sash, Olson has made dozens of friends across the United States while having fun hiking, boating, treasure hunting and participating in other troop activities with her devoted dog. Dog Scouts even paint pictures with their bootie-and-sponge-clad paws.
Watching Kozi have fun brings Olson joy.
“He keeps me laughing,” she says. “I’d give my life for that dog.”
Sally Leone Montufar, 56, of Absecon, N.J. (pop. 8,411), never thought about doing volunteer work at nursing homes and hospitals until a pocket-size Yorkshire terrier pranced into her life in 2009.
Montufar was working in a pet shop when a woman arrived with several pound-bound dogs. From her purse, she removed the bedraggled 2-pound Yorkie.
“I just opened my heart,” Montufar says. “I felt she needed me.”
She named and nursed Lucy to a robust 2½ pounds, groomed and dolled her up in dresses, and found that the petite dog attracted attention and smiles from everyone who saw her.
“She’s so tiny and darling that people would gather around her. I even stopped traffic,” Montufar says. “Some people thought she was a hand puppet.”
Last year, Montufar joined Leashes of Love, a volunteer pet-therapy organization in Cherry Hill, N.J., and now she takes Lucy on weekly visits to nursing homes, schools and hospitals. “I put her down on the floor and she just entertains, or I pass her from lap to lap,” she says.
Montufar adds that Lucy, who in January was certified by Guinness World Records as the world’s smallest working dog, has made her a more compassionate and caring person.
“She just inspired that in me,” she says. “I wonder who rescued whom?”