No time off for Harley, a service dog in training, at the 109th Airlift Wing base

By INDIANA NASH | The Daily Gazette | Published: March 25, 2020

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(Tribune News Service) — Harley might be Sherrie Murray’s service dog in training, but she’s also an emotional support animal for those working at the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Glenville, N.Y.

“She emotionally supports everyone here, and she calls people out," Murray said. "People will look perfectly fine and she’ll pick out that one person that is having a stressful day and she’ll walk over to them and she will put her head right in their hand so that they know that she knows. So she’s a very astute dog."

The Gansevoort resident adopted Harley from the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society last year after the dog’s previous owners abandoned her. They started training at Operation at Ease, a Rotterdam-based organization that brings together rescue dogs with veterans and first responders who have PTSD. Over the last few months, Murray and Harley have been working their way through OAE's psychiatric service dog program.

“While we watch all of our teams grow, every time I see them together [Harley] is so proud of the fact that she has a person. She’s always beaming with pride and always just known what to do,” said Joni Bonilla, the founder of OAE. 

Murray, who served in the military for 25 years before retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2016, works as a nurse practitioner at the 109th Airlift Wing base. Lately, she’s been perhaps busier than usual at work.

“What I respond to is reviewing records for our people here at the 109th and making sure people are medically ready and helping the medical technicians here who are very, very good. Or if somebody has some need and they need to be cleared I can actually see them as a provider and talk to them and see what the issue is to see whether or not it’s okay to send them out on active duty,” Murray said. 

Harley comes into work with her at the base whenever possible. 

“During the week there’s a small group of dedicated staff here full time at the medical group and I have my own office so she has a place to be, she has her own little bed and quite honestly when I have patients come in she gets up and greets every single one of them,” Murray said. 

Harley is the first of OAE’s service dogs in training to serve on a military base during a pandemic, earning her the nickname “Pandemic Pooch.” 

“We have a couple of dogs going to critical appointments but Harley’s still putting in a full workday. She’s our first dog to work at a medical facility during a national crisis,” Bonilla said.

For Murray, Harley helps her more outside of work than anything else. 

“She allows me to go and do things that honestly I have not necessarily felt comfortable doing. It’s not really at the base because I’m comfortable here but it’s open spaces and things that you won’t necessarily think are an issue for most people are an issue for a lot of veterans,” Murray said. 

This coronavirus pandemic has raised the stress levels of most people, especially those working in the medical field and other essential workers.

Having Harley not only helps Murray but also the people she comes into contact with on the base and everywhere else.

“[Harley] is a support for me but I almost feel like I’m able to give something to all the people here that Harley is sort of an ambassador for what a service dog can be,” Murray said. 

While OAE’s in-person training has had to shut down, Bonilla is continuing as much as she can online with virtual classes and exercises. However, it remains challenging because part of the service dog training is being out in public and making sure the dog doesn’t get distracted by other people and dogs. 

“What I hate about this is our whole organization is [built on the] premise of going out, being exposed to situations with your dog that you normally wouldn’t have been in without your dog,” Bonilla said. 

Until they can get back out in public, Bonilla has come up with some exercises to work through. 

“I set up a chair in the hallway the other day and brought my dog to sit between the chair and the wall because when you go to restaurants your dog will have to sit in small spaces. We’re just doing what we can at home to emulate public access training. We’re hoping that everybody’s maintaining it and that we’ll pick up where we left off,” Bonilla said. 

The pandemic has hit OAE financially, as it has with many other not-for-profits, but classes will continue; OAE will still be there as a resource, said Bonilla.

“I started this group in my front yard and I’ll go back to that if I have to. We’re not going anywhere.” 

©2020 The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y.
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