PTSD Service Dogs: Changing Lives One Dog at a Time

PTSD Service Dogs: Changing Lives One Dog at a Time

By Cassie Jacoby

Salute to PTSD Service Dogs.

Man’s best friend is doing more than playing fetch. Service dogs may be the best prescription for living a healthy life as they lend a paw to save lives of disabled veterans in Polk County.

“We rescue and train service dogs to provide all kinds of life-saving services,” says Allessandro “Sandro” Onorini, a Lake Wales trainer for PTSD4VETS, founded by Marvin Desselle along with the non-profit, Heroes and Angels Inc.

“Marvin gave me a priceless gift by training me and my dog, Max,” says Onorini, about his friend and mentor who passed away at age 66 on July 11.

His voice quivers with emotion as he tearfully credits Marvin with saving his life.

“Marvin showed me how being able to help veterans live a normal life is the best reward,” Onorini says. “Having a service dog gives them back some of the freedoms they deserve to have. His motto was: ‘we’re changing lives one dog at a time.’ Veterans and dogs were Marvin’s passion in life. Now my mission is to carry on his legacy as a celebration of his life.”

In addition to a love for dogs, the two veterans shared another bond — coping with combat-duty-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Max has an uncanny ability to sense my PTSD before it spirals out of control. He knows when I have nightmares and wakes me up,” explains Onorini, as he nuzzles one of Max’s 10 puppies destined to become service dogs.

Onorini, now 48, was 32 when he enlisted in the Army after 9/11 and was deployed to Iraq in the 18th Airborne Infantry Division until 2007 when he was sidelined with uranium poisoning and other wounds.

Desselle served in the Vietnam, Desert Storm and Gulf Wars earning the rank of Master Sergeant before retiring from the U.S. Air Force after 24 years.

Sensing PTSD is just one of the endless health benefits provided by service dogs. “A dog’s sense of smell is so superior. Max is being trained to alert me to check my Type II diabetes when my blood sugar gets too low or too high,” Onorini adds.

Service dogs detect seizures, cancer, tumors and trace amounts of nuts in food for those with allergies; guide the vision impaired; retrieve cell phones and dial phones; pull wheelchairs, open doors, call elevators, turn on and off lights; and provide therapy so veterans can live independently and overcome the challenges of day-to-day life.

Most any family pet can be trained as a service dog. Desselle took pleasure in rescuing dogs from shelters and training them to rescue veterans. “It’s a total win-win. The dog picks you. If you pick the dog you don’t know what you’re getting. When you train the dog yourself there is a bond that can’t be broken,” Onorini says.

Approximately 500,000 service dogs must be given full access to private or public facilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Fully trained dogs are allowed to fly free on commercial airlines and, as long as the dog is house trained and the trainer is making every effort to control the dog, it’s against the law for a business to deny full access.

The Veteran’s Administration pays for veterinary care and equipment including harness and/or backpack, vaccinations, prescribed medications, office visits for medical procedures, and once-a-year dental procedures where the dog is sedated. Grooming, boarding, over-the-counter medications, food, treats, non-sedated dental care, and other routine expenses are not covered.

Although the standard fee for training is estimated from $8,000 to $20,000, with a wait time of three to five years, donations reduce the PTSD4VETS fee for both disabled veterans and disabled civilians to $160 to cover both training and graduation.

Onorini provides a certificate of training and videos each dog as documentation that it meets standards set by Assistance Dogs International or the American Kennel Club.

“More than 100 friends paid tribute to Marvin at his celebration of life,” says his wife of 44 years, Moddie Desselle. “With 131,000 veterans homeless every night and 22 suicides a day, our goal is to ensure heroes receive the support they deserve for the sacrifices they have and continue to make to maintain our freedom, safety and security.”

Veterans must have a verifiable disability and a copy of their DD Form 214. Dogs must be current on shots and vaccinations. Training also is available for non-veterans. For more info, to schedule training, and/or volunteer, contact