ROTTERDAM – As a former firefighter and EMT, Nicole Panetta has always made it a point to help others.
Now, she just needs a little bit of assistance to do that and she’s finding it with Oakley, a pitbull and service dog in-training through Operation At Ease (OAE). The Rotterdam-based organization traditionally pairs shelter dogs with veterans who have posttraumatic stress disorder but opened it up to first responders like Panetta at the start of 2020.
“I struggled with depression [and] anxiety and my doctor suggested possibly getting a service animal,” Panetta said. “So in researching that, insurance companies do not pay for them and they are upwards of 25 [thousand] to $45,000.”
With that financial hurdle, Panetta, who is also in recovery from substance addiction, said she felt like she was doomed until she heard about OAE, which provides the dogs as well as the training for free. She applied for the program last year and a few months later was placed with Oakley, a shelter dog from Mohawk Hudson Humane Society.
“He’s already cut my anxiety in half and that’s huge,” Panetta said. “I’m on medication for anxiety and I don’t have to take it as much from a couple months with him.”
Oakley is the first shelter dog to be placed with a first responder through OAE’s service dog training program.
“This generation of veterans I find is very comfortable seeking what they need,” said Joni Bonilla, the founder of OAE. “The first responder community, there just isn’t a ton of it. . . . I’ve had veterans in class tell me that they feel the majority of their trauma is from when they were an EMT or a cop and not from their military service, which is something I never thought of.”
Over the course of a decade, starting in the early 2000s, Panetta was a firefighter and an EMT, both in Albany and in Oneida County. Though she is disabled now after being in several car accidents and has had to stop her first responder work, she vividly remembers the people she helped.
“I did what I did because I wanted to. I didn’t do it for praise or a thank you. It just makes me feel good to help people. It’s worth every bad moment when you have a cardiac save, or you help someone’s child,” Panetta said.
Bonilla kept that in mind when she was looking for a shelter dog to place with Panetta.
“If you are a firefighter, or an EMT or animal control, there’s some aspect of you that’s nurturing; and Nicole is just a very nurturing person so I thought to myself I need to find her a dog that needs a little help,” Bonilla said, “So we found little Oakley, he came in as a stray and he was very nice and responsive and a little afraid of the world and I thought ‘This is what she needs.’ Just to get him over the hump and to show her that she can still do this. She’s still capable of making someone feel better, healing someone. It’s just now in a different way for her.”
They train together each week, alternating between in-person and virtual training because of COVID-19 safety concerns. Training continues well beyond their sessions, though.
“It’s constant. Yes, we do one hour with Joni one day a week but that’s not where the training ends,” Panetta said. “During the nighttime even, if I have a nightmare and he wakes me up then I’m going to want to praise him for that because that’s his job.”
It takes months to be certified, sometimes over a year depending on the dog and the handler. Beyond training, Bonilla requests that participants be involved in some form of counseling. Panetta also goes to recovery meetings, sometimes bringing Oakley, who not only helps her but those who meet him, according to Panetta.
“Being in recovery is a struggle every day and he’s helped me with that. I haven’t even thought about using a drug or drink. It’s amazing,” Panetta said.
While Oakley and Panetta have their work cut out for them in the coming months, Bonilla believes it’ll pay off.
“She’s just bright and smart,” Bonilla said. “she has a lot to share. I just think that she’ll end up in a good place helping people, probably in a different way than she used to.”
That goes along with Panetta’s plans for the future.
“My big goal in life is to open up some sort of training center to addicts and alcoholics that can’t afford service animals, to [get] them a service dog free or lower cost. That’s kinda my dream,” Panetta said.
OAE is looking to secure funding to open up the program even further this year.
“We are hoping to open the program up to nurses and to do highlight months for emotional support animals for essential workers because, while we always knew this to be true, this is truly a time when the grocery store worker is as important as the emergency room doctor,” Bonilla said. “We really want to at least show our appreciation.”
For more information or to donate, visit operationatease.org.