A dog that survived Hurricane Maria provides emotional support at a Japanese air base.

Air Force Staff Sergeant James Kennedy pets Maria, a therapy dog, at the USO on Jan. 25, 2024, at Yokota Air Base, Japan. (Kelly Agee/Stars and Stripes)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — A dear friend is breathing spirit into the home of U.S. forces Japan each week in western Tokyo.

Maria, an 8-year-old lab terrier mix and a rescue dog, is the first certified therapy dog ​​at the USO in Japan, USO Yokota operations specialist Josephine Grenier told Stars and Stripes on Jan. 18.

“Maria’s job is to come in and volunteer her time to boost the morale of her Yokota community,” he said.

As a therapy dog, Maria spends every Thursday from 5-7pm at the USO at Yokota Community Center in Yokota. Visitors can pet and play with Maria and treats are also welcome.

Grenier said Maria, who began visiting the USO in August, reaches 15 people each visit.

“When you’re overseas, at least for an Airman, we’re not really allowed to have dogs, cats or pets in our dorms,” ​​Staff Sgt. U.S. Forces Network Tokyo videographer James Kennedy said Thursday at the USO. “So, for someone to bring their pet and allow us to interact and play is a huge encouragement to me.”

Mariah’s human, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Kristen Yarber, a radio DJ and video broadcaster for AFN, adopted her in 2017.

Maria was a “sato” — Puerto Rican slang for street dog — Yarber recently told Stars & Stripes. She survived two major hurricanes that hit the island in 2017. A storm, Hurricane Maria, is how the dog got its name.

Pregnant and homeless, Maria was rescued by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who took her to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Norfolk, Va., where Maria gave birth, and her dogs were soon adopted. were taken.

Yarber said Maria remained at the shelter, malnourished, underweight, anemic and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“When I first saw her, she was like a glass case,” he said. “They brought her out and she jumped on me, and they were like, she never does that. I told them I was deployed to these islands as a humanitarian aid provider and they were like , ‘It must be your dog’.

It was October, dog adoption month, and Yarber took Maria home for $25.

“I found that when I was around him I had a lot less anxiety, every time I saw him I was really happy,” she said. “So, I decided to register him as a therapy dog ​​in 2020.”

A therapy dog ​​does not require special training like a service dog and is sometimes confused with emotional support animals.

According to servicedogcertifications.org, an unofficial website where owners can register their dogs, therapy dogs provide support to other people, while an emotional support animal provides support to its owner.

According to the University of California at Los Angeles Health website, the simple act of petting animals triggers an automatic relaxation response.

Maria, a therapy dog, visits the USO at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Jan. 18, 2024.

Maria, a therapy dog, visits the USO at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Jan. 18, 2024.

Pets promote mental health by stimulating the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, hormones that can play a role in elevating mood, the website says. It also reduces anxiety and helps people to relax, calm down and reduce loneliness.

For physical health, the practice lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and reduces overall body pain, according to the site.

Mariah seems to tick all those boxes for her fans.

“She’s such a sweet dog, and she loves getting all her pets,” Kennedy said. “He’s a great dog and I want to come back so I can say hello to him.”

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