Duty Calls: Military spouse trains canines to ease PTSD
A military spouse has a passion for combining rescuing and pairing canines with post-traumatic stress disorder for veterans and first responders.
Joni Bonilla founded the non-profit Operation At Ease to pair shelter dogs with veterans, military personnel and first responders as a way to keep their post-traumatic stress at ease and or prevent relapses.
Operation At Ease, a service dog program, she says, “was born out of compassion and a willingness to help humans and dogs achieve happiness and freedom together.”
Since Operation At Ease was founded six years ago, 100 handlers and their dogs have been successfully trained and tested, according to Bonilla.
“We have all these veterans who need these dogs … legitimately,” Bonilla says. “We put those (military personnel) in situations which cause them to need these dogs.”
The need for these service dogs arise when combat troops experience and survive horrible situations such as witnessing death and destruction close up as well having to treat and transport the wounded. That can leave a veteran and first responders with PTSD bouts. She saw that impact while at Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Drum and the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia.
Bonilla decided to do something to help those folks while saving dogs from shelters, including the Mohawk-Hudson Humane Society in Menands.
The veterans and first responders are carefully screened and assigned a former shelter dog. Those teams undergo eight months of intense training at Operation at Ease, 203 Central Ave., Rotterdam, their homes and in urban settings such as malls, restaurants, parks crowded with people, Albany International Airport in Colonie and the Stratton Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albany.
At the end of the training, handlers must lead their canines through American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen and other tests.
During training and afterward, Bonilla says, the dogs give the handlers a purpose, training homework, a focus and add mobility by getting the veteran out of their house. All that helps to prevent depression and panic attacks while improving mobility, end their shut-in status and prevent post-traumatic stress relapses, according to Bonilla.
After teams successfully complete their training and tests, the canines can go wherever their handlers go, according to Bonilla.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Sherrie Murray of Gansevoort is benefiting from the training and her service dog Harley. She served for 25 years as a nurse practitioner before retirement. She left her Afghanistan war tour with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
With Harley at her side everywhere she goes, including at her civilian job as a Department of Defense nurse practitioner at the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, it helps her with mobility.
“Having a service dog like Harley gives you freedom,” she says. “I am okay with the presence of Harley letting other people know I am disabled. Harley has made me a better person,” she adds.
The program is free and available to all veterans and first responders, she says.
The program is open to veterans, first responders and others who are dealing with post traumatic stress that could be combat related, relating to sexual and other abuse as well as anything that’s traumatic, according to Bonilla. To enroll in a future class contact Joni Bonilla at 518-847-9941 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bonilla and several other OAE trainers provide additional services to others at a cost for obedience, therapy and puppy training.
Bonilla is assisted by other trainers:
Terri Rudolph, a certified trainer and former EMT, is a public access trainer for OAE.
Bruce MacWatters, a certified trainer and former Air Force security dog handler and a retired state trooper, is a task trainer at OAE.
Jessica Bukovinsky, a daughter of a Vietnam Era veteran, is an AKC evaluator at OAE.
Bonilla knows firsthand how a dog can be therapeutic. As a teenager, Bonilla benefited from her first dog. She says that pet provided comfort, care and friendship in a time of need after she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer that had spread to her lungs. She survived that tough decade of battling cancer.
After the Boston native graduated from high school, she earned an associate degree in animal care in 2005 from North Shore Community College, Lynn, Mass. Over the years, she has volunteered at animal shelters and became certified as a trainer.
To help finance future service dog teams, donations are needed. To make a donation, send checks to Operation At Ease, P.O. Box 9156, Schenectady, NY 12309.
Times Union | Terry Brown |June 11, 2021