Sean Olivier sits with his back protected by bushes, his service dog, Chloe, on his lap. Despite his unmilitary appearance, he still identifies himself Army-style. “Deployed, Iraq 2009-2010, Bagdad, 1st Cav, Sergeant E-5,” he says.
Olivier’s arm is emblazoned with tattooed flames emanating from the letters DAV. Disabled American Veteran. The yellow lab sports an olive drab vest decorated with a U.S Army patch.
“I’m physically injured, but I have Chloe just for PTSD,” he says of the service dog obtained from a breeder six months ago.
But getting a service dog isn't easy or cheap or quick. Some veterans wait as long as two to five years and pay thousands of dollars to get the animal that will allow them to function.
Olivier and Mark Sonnier are out to change that.
They want to give service dogs to veterans and first responders who need them, and they also want to get the canines to them in only three to eight months.
They call their new nonprofit Rescued Abilities Project.
“My idea, or business model, is if you can afford to pay, the money goes to the Rescued Abilities Project,” Sonnier says. "If you can’t, one (a dog and training) will be provided from the nonprofit. … We want to make it easy, not so much red tape."
The cost of a service dog varies wildly, depending on region, the organization involved and the tasks the dog must be trained to perform. Prices can range from $10,000 to $20,000, with sometimes half that cost picked up by the individuals.
Sonnier, 44, has trained dogs for 20 years, since 1997, and says he can do it for $1,300 to $7,000, depending on the tasks the dog must learn to do.
“There’s no difference in a dog picking up a duck or a cane off the ground," he says. "The background transfers, so there’s no reason to charge quadruple for a service dog. … I can require less money."
A dog should be able to perform basic commands including stay, wait, sit, down, come, leave it, heel and look (focus on handler.) They also may be called on to perform additional tasks for veterans, such as “block,” forming a physical barrier in front of the veteran; “behind,” positioning itself behind the veteran; “lights,” where the dog will turn on lights so the veteran doesn’t enter a dark space; “sweep,” checking a house for people or intruders before the veteran enters; and “bring,” fetching an item.
Dog selection, formal obedience training and lessons for the handler all take place at Sonnier’s Mill Pond Kennels. The rest by virtue of necessity takes place in the public environment, and the owner-dog bond is key.
"'Call me when you’re done' is not part of it," Sonnier says. "People have to dedicate their time also. We want to help people who want to help themselves."
Service dogs can help those with post-traumatic stress disorder, like Olivier, do things they have been avoiding, such as standing close to a stranger or going into a building without scanning it for danger first.
“She senses when it kicks in,” says the 39-year-old veteran, whose symptoms include agitation, sweating and shortness of breath. Chloe diverts his attention with nudging and licking, an action called “grounding.”
She also alerts him to someone approaching and forms a physical barrier between him and others.
“She can hear them before I can see them,” he said. “She stops and stares. She doesn’t bark. … It’s your buddy’s job to watch your back, and you watch his.”
True to her task, Chloe ignores everyone else but breaks ranks when she sees Sonnier.
“I call him (Sonnier) the dog whisperer,” says Olivier, who refers to himself as the public relations end of the project.
Olivier has recently completed certification in order to educate the public on the dos and don’ts of service animals.
The U.S. Department of Justice interprets the Americans with Disabilities Act to require that service dog training includes work or tasks to mitigate the user’s disability.
“A service animal has an extremely rough life,” Olivier says. “Wherever I go, she goes. They don’t have a switch to know when they’re just a dog or working.”
Sonnier says he and Olivier did not expect the Rescued Abilities Project to receive its nonprofit status so quickly, and they're having to gear up quickly. He hopes to add another trainer at the kennel and says the operation is still evolving.
“We have people already wanting to line up,” he says.
For more information, go to millpondkennels.com or contact Sonnier at (832) 821-6752.
Are you being served?
The rights of service animals and their owners are protected by federal law, which says businesses may only ask two questions:
1. Is this a service animal?
2. What task does the service animal perform?
Businesses may not:
- Ask for identification of the service animal.
- Ask the handler’s disability.
- Charge additional fees.
- Refuse admittance, isolate or segregate the handler and service animal.
- Bar the service animal from accompanying the individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go.