TRAVERSE CITY -- Allison Merrill can't help but tear up talking about Tank, her trusty German shepherd sidekick for the better part of the last 2 years.
The two have been nearly inseparable since she took in the military working dog while owner Sgt. Alex Baron served overseas in the U.S. Air Force. But Merrill must say her goodbyes come May when Baron's deployment ends and Tank joins him overseas at a military base that will become their new home.
"I cry both sad and happy tears," Merrill said. "I'm very happy I've been able to help, but he became a huge part of my life, so it's going to be hard. It's very bittersweet."
Merrill, owner of Sun Dog Boarding Kennel, didn't plan on growing attached -- or even taking in -- a dog she didn't know from North Carolina.
But she's become passionate about helping dogs like Tank since joining the Military Working Dog Team Support Association. When Merrill isn't pooch-sitting, she's crafting care packages for military working dogs.
"I didn't know I would be this involved when I started," she said. "I'm in the kennel all day every day, so it's a nice break from those duties."
It was hardly the life Merrill pictured while working in finance and obtaining her Master of Business Administration. She'd always loved dogs, but that didn't translate to a career until nearly six years ago when Sun Dog Boarding Kennel went up for sale.
Merrill joined of the Military Working Dog Team Support Association shortly after buying the kennel. The nationwide volunteer group sends 200 quarterly care packages to military working dogs on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They're out there with the men and women on the front lines, searching for IED explosives, drugs and weapons," she said. "Their nose is one of the most important skills in the military in my opinion."
Merrill collects necessities like grooming wipes, paw wax, eye protection and bandaging for the dogs, along with clothing and hygiene items for their handlers. She sends the supplies overseas with dog treats and toys in themed care packages.
"They go through these products so quickly on base because of the conditions they're in," Merrill said. "Every quarter we do a different theme just to keep it fun and exciting. They never know what they're going to get."
Merrill has since expanded into domestic projects with the volunteer organization. She collects treats, toys, beds and other dog goodies to send in Honor Boxes for retired military working dogs.
"It's all fun things for the dogs to spoil them," she said.
The volunteer projects inspired Merrill to launch her own fundraiser to provide local K-9 units with military-grade field medical kits. The $350 kits include supplies to treat dogs for injuries ranging from gunshot and knife wounds to poisoning.
Merrill recently donated her first medical kit to the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's K-9 Unit. She hopes to raise enough money for five more, giving each K-9 in Traverse City, Grand Traverse County and Leelanau County their own kit.
"We collect the donations mostly through word of mouth," Merrill said. "My clients have helped a lot."
Clients and local businesses have also donated ample money, dog toys and treats to her care packages. The Military Working Dog Team Support Association collects donations on its website and updates an Amazon Wish List with necessary items.
"It's just a way to say thank you to our service members," she said. "They're not living glamorous lives overseas, so it's nice to be able to do something that makes a difference and helps boost their day."
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