For a local family, duty howls

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The plastic bags come out as Katie, left, Carl, Natalie and Kurt Christianson walk with their dog, Simba, middle and their two military servicemember foster dogs, Keegan, left, and Luke, right.

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Luke hopes for one of the four tennis balls in Simba's mouth to drop so he can play with it.

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Luke on a walk.

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Keegan spends a moment looking in to the sunlight down the street before heading inside with Katie.

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Keegan soaks up some attention against Katie's knee.

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Simba, left, and Luke, right, eye tennis balls in each others' mouths.

Two close friends almost split apart by a far-away conflict are enjoying the holidays together, thanks to a Walla Walla family.

The lucky duo are Keegan and Luke, whose owners, U.S. Army Capt. Ty Farmer and his wife, Capt. Erin Farmer, were deployed to Afghanistan in June.

Stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, the couple were facing a difficult decision of how to have their beloved pets looked after during their year-long tour of duty. Then Carl and Katie Christianson stepped in.

"They were at the point of splitting up their sibling dogs and flying each to different states," Katie said. Fortunately, the Christiansons had signed up with Guardian Angels for Soldier's Pets, an organization dedicated to helping service members find foster homes for their pets during deployments.

That connection came about thanks to the Christianson's membership in the Best Friends Animal Society, a group which provides sanctuary for homeless and abused animals. In a copy of "Best Friends" magazine, Katie saw an ad for the Guardian Angels and applied to become a host family. After going through the application process, the Christiansons were contacted in April about taking on Keegan and Luke.

The Farmers brought the two dogs over in June, and, after an overnight stay in Walla Walla, "they were comfortable with leaving them with us," Katie said. After a short adjustment period, Keegan and Luke joined the many other members of the Christianson family menagerie, a group that includes one other dog, Simba, a cat, one fire-bellied toad, a guinea pig, two turtles and a small population of fish.

The Christianson's two teenage children, Kurt and Natalie, take care of much of the daily feeding and grooming of Keegan and Luke, as well as the family's other pets. But walks, as well as playtimes, can turn into a family affairs involving everyone.

The two dogs will be returning to their masters when the Farmers return home in June. Until then, the Christiansons keep Ty and Erin posted on their pets' well-being via regular posts on Facebook and via email.

If anyone is thinking of offering their services as a foster family for a serviceman (or woman's) pet, Katie offered several tips:

The first is to make sure the dog or cat "matches your family. That it's a good fit. And be prepared to give the animal the same attention, time, energy and other support that your give your other pets."

Another important thing is to make sure the agreement for care with the owner or owners is "crystal clear" to avoid any misunderstandings. The soldiers are responsible for the expense of feeding and veterinarian care, but it's vital to know if there are limits and how they will be paid for. (In this case, a PayPal account was set up to take care of expenses.)

Finally, "update the service members as often as you can," about their pets and how they are doing, Katie said.

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