Rotterdam-based Operation At Ease opens its doors to first responders

The initial orientation starts on Monday, April 6
Joni Bonilla and pal; right, a veteran's rescue dog.
Joni Bonilla and pal; right, a veteran's rescue dog.

Categories: Life & Arts, Schenectady County

Operation At Ease opens the door to first responders

When comedian and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart spoke up about the needs of 9/11 first responders last year, he inspired more than the House Judiciary Committee. 

“You just assume that they’re taken care of, [that] our government and our country will take care of them. To find out that that wasn’t the case was like ‘I guess we did forget [about 9/11],’” said Joni Bonilla, the founder of Operation At Ease.  

OAE is known for pairing veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with rescue dogs from shelters around the Capital Region. From their Rotterdam headquarters, trainers help veterans work with their dogs to become registered service dogs and emotional support dogs. 

This year, OAE is opening its programs to first responders, including dispatchers, firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and others.

“Anybody that just runs in when we run out,” Bonilla said, adding, “We have to take care of the paramedics, the firemen and women, police officers, [etc].”

While many have come to expect veterans to have PTSD, according to Bonilla, people often overlook first responders who also experience trauma on a day-to-day basis. Whether they’re pulling injured community members out of a car wreck, responding to a burglary call or to a security threat at a local school, these experiences can cause symptoms of PTSD. 

It’s why Bonilla and her team wanted to open up their programs to all first responders. 

Those who apply for OAE’s programs, which include service dog training and emotional support dog training, will be placed in an orientation group with fellow first responders. 

“Our goal is we want to keep first responders together just like our veterans are together because they’re two separate lifestyles. We appreciate that, and we always want to make sure that everybody in our classes is comfortable and can relate to each other,” Bonilla said. 

The initial orientation for first responders starts on Monday, April 6. Those interested should fill out an application at and check OAE’s Facebook page (Operation at Ease, Inc) for more information. 

There’s no cap on how many first responders OAE will accept into the program. 

“We just take on whoever applies. The goal is always to break the norm of that long waiting list. The waiting list for service dogs is three to five years and we cut it down to months. As long as they get their application in, we’re ready to help them,” Bonilla said. 

“As they come, we’ll grow. That’s one great thing about OAE, is since we’ve started it’s always just organically taken care of itself. We have such great support from the community. Everybody believes in us and stands behind us. So there’s nothing telling me that we won’t get the same kind of support for this as well. We just have to take care of each other.”

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