On May 2, 2023, the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) departed Naval Station Norfolk for its first global deployment. The roughly 4,500 sailors and Marines aboard the aircraft carrier are joined by a four-legged crew member named Sage. A 3-year-old female yellow Labrador Retriever, Sage's deployment aboard the Ford is part of the Expanded Operational Stress Control Canine pilot program.
A key member of the carrier's warfighter toughness mental health and resiliency team, Sage is specifically trained to help sailors deal with the stress associated with an operational deployment. Animals are clinically proven to provide stress relief and a sense of companionship. Sage will provide this for the Ford's crew throughout the deployment.
Sage is not a Navy dog. Rather, she was raised and trained by Mutts with a Mission. The Virginia-based non-profit organization, accredited by Assistance Dogs International, loaned Sage for the ship's deployment. Ford is the first Navy ship to include an expanded operational stress control canine as part of the its crew. Sage's deployment will offer insight on the efficacy of the program.
During the deployment, Sage's primary handler will be Cmdr. Genevieve Clark. Clark serves as chaplain for both the Ford and Carrier Strike Group 12. Prior to the deployment, Clark completed 120 hours of handler training with Mutts on a Mission. "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," she said in a Navy press 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." Three additional volunteer handlers aboard the Ford will help with Sage's care and mission underway.
Throughout the deployment, Sage's daily schedule will be posted so that sailors can visit her between their assigned duties. Sage will also attend ship-wide Morale, Welfare and Recreation events. "The Sailors of Gerald R. Ford are excited to welcome Sage to the ship. Mutts with a Mission provides an invaluable service to Sailors, one that will aid in stress relief during the ship’s deployment," said Ford's commanding officer, Capt. Rick Burgess in a Navy press release. "Sage is one of the many resources aboard the ship to help Sailors build resiliency and enhance morale."
For the deployment, Mutts with a Mission provided all of the supplies that Sage would need at sea. This included a waste collection mat, proper bedding located in the handler’s stateroom, personal protective gear including paw, hearing, and eye protection, and a life vest.