Rotterdam-based Operation at Ease holds training event in Niskayuna for service dogs to meet first responders

Firefighters in gear with a dog

Veteran Joe Clement introduces his dog, Gunnar, to two suited-up Niskayuna firefighters, Carlo Bergami and Bradley Herrgesell.

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NISKAYUNA – Joe Clement’s dog Gunnar happily ate up treats each time one was thrown his way on Monday. Clement pulled one from a pouch at his waist every time the dog completed one of his training tasks.

The pair visited the Niskayuna Fire District #2 firehouse with Operation at Ease, a Rotterdam-based nonprofit, that matches veterans, like Clement, with dogs in shelters, like Gunnar, then helps train them to be service dogs. The organization held a bonus training session at the Niskayuna firehouse where dogs and their handlers could interact with firefighters.

The event allowed the dogs to become acclimated to the gear and noises associated with a firefighter trying to rescue them. Additionally, it allowed the firefighters to practice emergency drills with a dog present.

Most of the dogs were trained through Operation at Ease. Clement and Gunnar are almost done with the third and final phase of service-dog training.

So far, Gunnar has learned to help Clement with a variety of tasks. Sometimes, he will lean against Clement to provide a calming effect, and other times he will grab things like medication or even a dropped TV remote.

When they is out and about, one of Gunnar’s tasks is to act as a buffer between Clement and other people, as well as remain aware of their surroundings.

“When we’re out in public, with my hypervigilance, it helps me not have to do it,” Clement said.

The dogs were split into different rooms to allow ample space for interacting with the firefighters. Firefighters Carlo Bergami and Bradley Herrgesell worked with Gunnar. First, they met him in their plain clothes. After Gunnar got comfortable with that, the firefighters changed into their gear and the same drills were repeated.

Under the guidance of trainer Kathy Stevens, Clements walked Gunnar to the firefighters and greeted them. Then, they would approach Gunnar on foot, and on their knees — crawling as they would in a real fire.

Once Gunnar was acclimated to their uniforms, they added more gear. The pair of firefighters added their airpacks and masks to practice Gunnar’s drills with noise. They also used their alarms to emit the loud noise they would in a real fire. Gunnar practiced staying calm amid the chaos.

“I thought it would be fun, plus a great experience to learn about handlers and emergency situations,” Bergami said.

Clement and the firefighters also practiced handoffs, this helps Gunnar in the event that something happens to his handler and first responders need to get between the human and the animal.

Stevens is a professional dog trainer and professor in SUNY Cobleskill’s Canine Training and Management program. She volunteers with Operation at Ease and helped Clements and Gunnar with the night’s exercises. She heard about the program and reached out to OAE founder Joni Bonilla to join.

“Joni’s so admired at our school,” Stevens said.

Bill Hubert and his dog Luna were also matched through Operation at Ease. Luna helps him around the house with things like reminding him to take medication.

“I saved her and she saved me,” Hubert said of his relationship with Luna.

Before Monday’s session, Hubert and Luna had already encountered first responders when some saved them as their house flooded in 2021. The training event allowed them a calm introduction to what other emergencies, like a fire, may be like.

Bonilla founded Operation at Ease in 2015. In 2020, they expanded the program to also match dogs with first responders. Monday was her first time holding a training event specifically for practicing training with responders.

“It went way better than I thought it could,” Bonilla said.

Bonilla hopes to hold more events like this. At the end of the night, when thanking the firefighters for participating, she reminded them that service dogs are available to them, too.

“This is the funnest help we can give you,” she said.

Operation at Ease offers a variety of different service dog training programs, as well as telehealth therapy services. For more information, visit

Contact reporter Ameara Ditsche at [email protected]. Keep up with her on Twitter @amearaisawriter.

Categories: -News-, News, Rotterdam, Schenectady County, Your Niskayuna

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