For the last five years, Joni Bonilla has matched up over 70 local veterans with rescue dogs through Operation At Ease, Inc.
Just about every day, she meets with veterans who have post-traumatic stress syndrome, and are in need of a service dog. Then, she reaches out to her network of humane societies to find dogs in need of a home that can be trained through OAE as service animals.
“PTSD service dogs are a fairly new concept, only a couple of years old really. We’re one of very few groups in the country that have programs like this,” said Bonilla, a Niskayuna resident.
Finally, the veteran who started it all is getting his own service dog.
“Let’s walk,” Freddy Rocha said, as he led his young and service dog, named Jackel, around OAE’s Rotterdam headquarters this week.
As a twenty-year army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, calling Bonilla about getting a service dog was difficult. The Springfield, Illinois resident was worried about the stigma of having a service dog and struggled with even asking for help.
But Rocha kept thinking back to how much his former dog, Arya helped him on a day-to-day basis.
“She would get him up and moving. She would get him out of the house and he doesn’t really like dogs so it was really meaningful to me that he found so much benefit in this dog,” Bonilla said. She first met Rocha in 1998 and they’ve been friends ever since, despite living in completely different states for most of their friendship.
After Arya died several years ago, Rocha reached out to Bonilla and asked if she could help him find another dog.
Bonilla accepted and immediately started looking for service dogs. But as she began to call service dog organizations she was met with long waiting lists and high price tags, some up to $20,000.
“So then I thought, well, I’ll do it,” Bonilla said. She went on to found the nonprofit OAE in 2015.
The initial idea has grown. OAE does two types of rescuing, pairing dogs from shelters across New York State and with veterans suffering from PTSD and in need of a service dog. When a veteran signs up for the program, it only takes a matter of a few months for Bonilla to find a dog for them and get them started with training.
The training is usually done through weekly group classes, getting the service dogs and veterans ready for the Canine Good Citizen Urban Test and the Public Access test, which evaluate a dog’s level of obedience and how they act with their handler.
“It lets them work in a group again and be around other veterans, and they have to be accountable for it on their own,” Bonilla said. She’s also found that the people going through training form a family of sorts, one that Rocha has joined in the last week.
Even though he’s is an out of state resident, and OAE usually only works with NYS veterans, Bonilla said they made an exception because he’s the organization’s founder in a sense. OAE flew him from Springfield, IL to Albany, where he arrived last week and met with Jackel. The young mixed-breed dog was surrendered to the Animal Protective Foundation before Bonilla evaluated her and asked Terri Rudolph to foster her until Roach could train with her.
“She’s working,” Rocha said, as the pair ran through the sit command and a few others during a group class at OAE.
“I feel better this class because I have more control,” Rocha said, “I’m a substitute teacher and I did 20 years in the army so I’m used to control.”
But training Jackel has taken some of that control away from him, which he said was difficult at first.
“This is forcing me to deal with situations I’m not comfortable with. It’s finding new ways to manage old problems,” Rocha said. A few days after he came to Albany and started working with Jackel, Rocha had a panic attack. It was the first he had in a long time and it made him realize just how much he was micromanaging his life to avoid stressful situations and anything that could trigger him.
Working with Jackel will help him to not micromanage as much and to help him cope in those stressful situations. As a service dog, she’ll be able to provide a buffer in crowds and to provide comfort and pressure when Rocha has either anxiety or a panic attack.
It will take a lot of work to get Jackel fully trained, but Rocha said he knows it’ll be worth it.
“I see the benefits that are going to come with it,” Rocha said.
Over the next week, he’ll be working with Jackel at OAE, but then he’ll fly back to work with a trainer in Springfield. In about six months, OAE plans to bring him back out to finish the training and as Bonilla said: “put a bow on it.”
OAE is paying for the cost of travel and training, which will be around $7,000.
“I don’t want veterans to pay for anything,” Bonilla said.
That goes along with OAE’s mission of pairing veteran with a service dog, no matter what their financial situation.
“Service dog training needs to be more accessible,” Bonilla said. Currently, there are roadblocks for trainers to get into the industry as well as roadblocks for people who need them.
But Bonilla said there doesn’t have to be. She’s working to spread awareness about service dogs not only to help people understand the importance of them but to help veterans with PTSD feel comfortable reaching out and asking for one.
She sometimes finds that veterans are unwilling to ask for help because they think someone else could use it more. But, as Bonilla said, millions of dogs are euthanized each year because there’s no room in shelters for them. Training them as service dogs is a way to rescue to lives at once.
“We’re proof that it works,” Bonilla said.
For those who’d like to donate to OAE to help cover the cost of Jackel and Freddy’s training process, visit Operation At Ease on Facebook.