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Man's best friend: Service dog lends helping paw to veteran in Ethan

Daily Republic - 9/22/2018

Sept. 22--ETHAN -- Since being matched with his service dog, Army veteran Roy Sonne has been able to travel safely and independently through Ethan with Bryla by his side.

Sonne and his dog Bryla were matched in March by the nonprofit organization Leader Dogs for the Blind, and Bryla, a 2-year-old black Labrador, is the first service dog for the blind in the region. The philanthropic organization based in Michigan breeds and educates Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and German shepherds.

"Bryla has brought back a lot more of my independence. Being able to get around town by myself, even though it's a small town, has totally changed my life," Sonne said. "I don't have to worry about getting too dazed and confused when we are out on our walks."

Sonne, who was born and raised in Mitchell, enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1993 and was honorably discharged in January 1999.

"I did my basic and advanced training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After that, I was stationed in Kitzingen, Germany, for about three years and then I was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas. I worked as a light-wheel vehicle mechanic, so I didn't see any combat. I was more of a support man for the frontlines," Sonne said.

The veteran lost his sight seven years ago due to a medical condition, possibly caused by blunt force trauma, which resulted in both of his retinas detaching from the eye nerves, according to his doctors.

Sonne decided to move back home to South Dakota to be closer to family in Ethan. Several years ago, he applied for a service animal through the Veterans Benefits Administration office in Sioux Falls, an often lengthy and cumbersome process.

Once a veteran is registered with the Veterans Affairs Health Administration, a referral to a specialist is generally requested through the assigned VA primary care provider. The specialist then completes an evaluation and makes a clinical determination on the need for assistive devices, which can include a service dog. Each veteran's case is reviewed and evaluated, which can take years. Sonne's wish of getting a service animal through the VA never came to fruition.

Then, he met Craig Bennett, the Davison County veterans service officer in Mitchell. Bennett had attended a two-day workshop at Leader Dogs for the Blind last August in Rochester Hills, Michigan, where he toured the facility, met with instructors and was introduced to the working dogs.

"It is unbelievable to see what they can teach these dogs," Bennett said. "In one of these classes, I was blindfolded and had to walk around with a dog. At first, I was a bit disoriented, and then you just really go with the flow and trust the animal."

The organization is funded by individuals, the Lions Club, corporate partners and foundations. Working service dogs are educated in the same way as many pets -- with lots of repetition and positive reinforcement.

For the first year of their lives, the dogs grow up in homes with volunteers who teach them basic obedience and social skills. At about nine weeks old, the puppies undergo a four-month training program with professional guide dog mobility instructors, who teach them guide dog skills such as stopping at curbs, avoiding obstacles and finding doors.

The cost for a professionally trained working service dog can total over $40,000, a price tag that most retired veterans in need of a service animal cannot afford on their own.

Bennett posted pictures of his experience with the Leader Dogs for the Blind on Facebook, and minutes later, he was introduced to the Sonne.

"(Sonne) told me he had applied for a service dog through the Veterans Affairs office several years ago, but it had come to a stall," Bennett said. "I was determined to help him with the application and the entire process."

Bennett reached out to Dennis Bohmont, the president of the Palace City Lions Club, an Ethan resident and the former industrial technology teacher at Ethan High School. The Lions Club requires a person applying for a service dog to submit a 15- to 20-minute video describing their situation and showing their mobility skills.

"I sent three of my students at Ethan High School to go up to Sonne's home and videotape him for 45 minutes. It was a nice calm day in Ethan--the wind was blowing about 50 mph--and we had nothing but wind noise in the background," Bohmont said.

The video was cut down to 20 minutes by the students and sent in to the Palace City Lions Club and the Leader Dogs.

"I had to show the Palace City Lions Club and the Leader Dogs organization that I could walk out of the house, to the post office and back by myself using my white travel cane. They wanted to know that I had a good sense of orientation and mobility," Sonne said. "Craig Bennett and the entire membership of the Palace City Lions club played a huge part in me getting Bryla."

In February, Sonne was invited by the Leader Dogs training facility to attend the guide training for a service animal in Michigan. He completed the 25-day training and was matched with Bryla at the end of the course.

In Ethan, Bryla has quickly become a celebrity among the elementary school children that call her by her name and wave when seeing Sonne and his best friend strolling by on one of their daily walks.

"She steals the show and everybody comes up to ask questions about her. I wouldn't have it any other way," Sonne said.

By his own account, Sonne led a lonesome and uneventful life before he met Bryla. Now, with his newly gained independence, he attends homecoming parades and veteran events like the Sweat for Vets run last weekend in Mitchell, which he helped to organize.

"Man's best friend fits perfectly in this scenario. Bryla is amazing. If she's not in her harness, she is the average puppy and a goofball, but when I strap the harness on, her ears drop back and she's alert and attentive," Sonne said. "I feed her, I take her out three to four times a day, I pick up her business and everything else. The only thing I do not do is the grooming. I have a veterinarian in Mitchell that takes care of all that."

In the future, Sonne said he hopes to be involved with helping other veterans receive assistance, including service animals.


(c)2018 The Daily Republic (Mitchell, S.D.)

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