A big young dog became an unlikely answer to one veteran’s quest for companionship. But person and pet are finding ways to make their relationship work.
A road less traveled
After graduating from high school in Far Rockaway, New York, Marilyn was unsure of where her life was going.
“I was headed in a ‘not good’ direction and didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she says.
After listening to advice from her father, an Army veteran, Marilyn decided she would turn things around by joining the Navy. That decision to enlist transformed everything for the young recruit.
“I was able to learn so much at an accelerated rate,” she says.
The experience was truly unique and special to Marilyn. The Navy expanded her world, and gave her a sense of community and companionship.
Many veterans tell us that the bonds they formed during their military careers are without peer once they transition to civilian life. At times Marilyn feels this emptiness, too.
“I was exposed to so much travel and camaraderie that I have yet, to this day, not been able to match,” she shares.
Not in Queens
Marilyn’s career began at the Naval Weapons Station as a mess specialist, now known as a culinary specialist.
The role is vital to sustaining the health and readiness of Naval personnel. She was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina aboard the USS Holland, and subsequently deployed to Spain, Greece, and other destinations far from her New York hometown.
“I had never traveled, I had never been anywhere,” Marilyn says. “Looking back, that was one of the best experiences I ever had – just being exposed to so many different people.”
Though she loved being abroad, Marilyn’s heart was back home.
“I was content. In the midst of that I got married and had children while I was at the weapons station.”
Marilyn’s husband was a Marine. He stayed home with their two daughters, Brittany and Pauline, while she was at her duty stations and during her various deployments.
In time the couple decided to divorce. Marilyn moved the girls to New Jersey to be with their grandmother, who cared for the children so that Marilyn could continue her Naval career.
Marilyn served aboard the USS Suribachi for a year when her mother’s health began to fail. So she decided it was time to separate from service in order to provide the best care for her children and support her ailing mother.
“That was my last duty station,” she says. “I actually got out because of my children, just not being able to care for them properly. My mom wasn’t doing well, so I made the decision to get out.”
A life devoted to serving others
After Marilyn left the Navy she pursued her bachelor’s degree and graduated from York College with a major in anthropology. But she found a job in an entirely different field where she helped others in need.
“I was a case manager at a homeless shelter,” she says, “I stayed there about four years.”
Marilyn was promoted to supervisor and acquired an additional job as an auditor. Still, a passion to help others would continue to be a powerful force in her life.
Today the Navy veteran is a proud grandmother, licensed clinical professional counselor, pastor, and volunteer chaplain at a local clinical hospital. Although Marilyn stays busy she decided that something – or perhaps someone – was missing from her life.
“I’m single, I’m by myself, so I wanted a companion,” she shares.
Marilyn loves dogs and has great memories of her last dog, a Shepherd-Collie mix who lived until he was 21 years old.
“He was a joke at his vet in New York because he lived so long,” she laughs.
Marilyn was serious about finding another friend. Over time she took home three different dogs from the shelter, but none were the right match. She started to feel dispirited in her quest for canine companionship.
“I didn’t know what kind of dog I was looking for,” she confesses. “I gave up.”
After a short break from searching for a companion pet Marilyn once again submitted applications to adopt a dog.
It was during this time that she discovered Pets for Patriots.
“I had applications in two different shelters and I saw one of their links was to Pets for Patriots.”
Marilyn appreciates that the process of applying and being accepted into our program was fast. With renewed hope she continued her online search and applied for no less than five different dogs – only one of which was accepted.
“The other applications fell though,” she recalls. “The owners came and got three of them, and one had cancer.”
In December 2019, Marilyn visited our partners Prince George’s County Animal Management Division, hoping that her fourth attempt at pet adoption would work out.
Since 2013, the municipal shelter has waived adoption fees for veterans in our program who save program-eligible dogs and cats.
To the Navy veteran’s surprise, she was smitten by a large, young Standard Poodle who had been in the shelter for a few weeks.
Whitaker had been found as a stray and, following a mandatory five-day hold, no one came to claim him.
And although he was regal, the big dog did not exactly match Marilyn’s wish list. She envisioned adopting a small, mature dog for companionship, but there was something about Whitaker that captured her heart.
So almost two months after Marilyn was approved into our program her journey with this very distinguished looking dog began.
To Sir Whitaker, with love
Marilyn is still getting used to Whitaker’s size and is working with him on his manners. Among other things, Whitaker has a poor understanding of personal space and loves stretching out on his new mom’s bed.
But it is the big dog’s too-literal sense of companionship that can be trying for Marilyn.
“He follows me everywhere,” she says. “He is the quintessential Velcro dog.”
The Navy veteran thinks it is funny that Whitaker always seems to find a way to be beside her.
Still, a pet who is unable to be apart from his guardian may have separation anxiety. It is fairly common with shelter animals, many of whom experienced neglect or abandonment. However, it is not healthy for any pet to feel unduly stressed in their guardian’s absence and should be addressed early in the bonding process.
“Even in the shower, I’ll draw the curtain and his nose is sticking through the curtain,” she laughs. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘dog, move, like please.’”
The big pup’s high maintenance behaviors have earned him the title of Sir Whitaker in Marilyn’s household.
“I put the ‘Sir’ in front, when I saw his mannerisms,” she says.
Sir Whitaker loves resting his head on pillows, and when they go for car rides he is cautious and only pokes his head out of the window when they are stopped. Although he is refined and regal in many ways, Marilyn is trying to transform him into a proper gentleman – manners and all.
Since Sir Whitaker’s separation anxiety is not yet fully resolved Marilyn tries different things to manage his stress.
“I take him to daycare, if I go out the store, sometime I’ll take him with me,” she says. “I just know he doesn’t like being left alone.”
The former stray exhibits a few other bothersome behaviors that, at times, challenge Marilyn’s compassionate nature. Bread stealing and butt nipping are a few of his offenses, and it has not been easy for Marilyn to whip him into shape. She once considered giving up her curly-haired companion.
“We had a rough patch,” she shares, “and I thought I was going to take him back.”
In fact, it was Sir Whitaker’s separation anxiety that was causing Marilyn anxiety of her own.
Now the Navy veteran tries to get him out of the house as much as possible to prevent his destructive outbursts. She enrolled Sir Whitaker in doggy day care to help him expend his considerable energy, improve his socialization, and avoid his habit of tearing out the crown moulding in her home when she is at work.
“Everybody loves him, he wants to play with the people more than the dogs,” she says. “They love him at day care.”
The relationship between Marilyn and her four-legged first mate is a work in progress. The Navy veteran is optimistic and chooses to see the best in him. She realizes that he is young and needs proper training to reach his potential.
“He’s a really good dog,” she confides.
When Marilyn chose adoption she got the companionship she craved. And Whitaker got a devoted guardian who understands that he will only thrive with guidance, patience, and love.