Community Connect

Office of the Vice President for Community Services

Troy Tallent and his service dog Katie, who passed the Public Access Testat 5 months. Photos by Patrick Dunn

Hope and Stability through Service Dogs

In 2013 alone, the UTSA Small Business Development Center, part of the Institute for Economic Development, served more than 28,000 businesses. One of them is Service Dog Express, which specializes in training service dogs for wounded veterans and civilians suffering from PTSD and other disabilities.

An estimated 7.7 million adult Americans experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives, and at least 262,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have sought PTSD treatment from the Veterans Administration, according to studies by the National Institutes of Health in 2013. There are thousands of other wounded warriors who do not seek treatment, and that number is dramatically increasing as more soldiers return home.

Service Dog Express LLC was founded in 2012 by Laurie A. Gawelko to provide service dogs for veterans with PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and mobility issues for those in our community. She was an active duty Air Force spouse for eight years, and her husband recently retired after more than 20 years of service. While Service Dog Express originally focused on training service dogs for wounded warriors, due to the afflictions Gawelko saw while visiting Wilford Hall and San Antonio Military Medical Center, her business has expanded to assist civilians who struggle with PTSD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, diabetes, hearing and mobility impairments, and disorders that lie on the autism spectrum.

Left to Right: James Rizzo with Otto, Laurie Gawelko with Bonnie, and Terry with his service dog Nacho.

Gawelko is a certified rape crisis counselor and has worked as a group therapist at several psychiatric clinics after receiving her undergraduate degree in psychology. She has a master’s degree in canine life sciences with an emphasis on service dog training from Assistance Dog International accredited Bergin University for Canine Studies. Not only does she own and run Service Dog Express, she also provides educational programs for public and private schools, girl and boy scout troops, and connects with other service dog organizations across the United States. She and her husband Joey also serve on the Board of Directors for a nonprofit called "In Dog We Trust." The nonprofit is the only one in Texas focused on rescuing dogs that have been evaluated for temperament and trainability, before directly going to Service Dog Express to be paired with clients in need of service dogs.

As a survivor of sexual assaults, PTSD, and anxiety, Gawelko knows first-hand the power a service dog can have in one’s life. Her service dog, Bonnie, has been with her for two years and their bond is remarkable. Because of these past experiences, Gawelko feels she is better able to empathize with her clients, treating them without judgment.

At Service Dog Express, Gawelko and her highly trained staff of nine believe that the animal-human bond is an absolutely indisputable part of psychological, spiritual and physical healing. The more each trainer knows about their clients’ backgrounds, the better they can train service dogs to meet these specific needs. Service Dog Express seeks to make this healing available to everyone possible, regardless of financial or other challenges that might discourage them from seeking this invaluable resource.

Andrew Doyle served in the military for almost a decade and deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he experienced heavy fire, IED blasts and witnessed the loss of several close friends. Upon returning, Andrew had problems with loud noises and crowds. Since meeting Gawelko, he says his life has changed in a lot of ways.

“It started with Laurie hooking me up with the perfect dog for me, Rio. We instantly bonded, so I took him home the first night we met so he would not have to go back to the kennel.” With Rio at his side, Andrew is now able to go to Walmart and other crowded places with his family.

Andrew Doyle with Rio

"My life has changed in a lot of ways; it started with Laurie hooking me up with the perfect dog."
- Andrew Doyle

Gawelko knows that the connection between a service dog and its owner is an extremely special and strong bond that helps each client feel more secure and confident in the world. At Service Dog Express, their motto of “A dog’s life saved and a human’s life enriched” is lived everyday by trainers and clients.

Troy Tallent was wounded in an IED blast in 2005 and was discharged from the military in 2007. He suffers from Torsion Dystonia, a seizure-like disability and impaired mobility. Troy and his wife were on a trip to Gruene, TX, when they first saw Katie at a booth on the side of the road. After stopping and looking over the litter, they decided on Katie.

Troy’s wife says she picked Katie, but Troy had the “final say” as it was his dog. She knew Katie was the one when they first arrived. While holding the puppy up, she could see that Troy and Katie had the same color eyes. “It was just meant to be,” she said.

Katie has the unique ability to detect when Troy is going to have a seizure and alerts him in enough time to take medication to bypass the seizure or decrease its severity. She helps support him by putting pressure on her leash when he is trying to move around without his wheelchair. Troy said it was “not something she was taught, just something she does naturally.”

Service Dog Express believes in giving people and dogs a second chance. They encourage new clients looking for a service dog to choose assessed dogs from local shelters and rescue groups. By choosing shelter/ rescue dogs, they are able to dramatically reduce the cost of services and save a dog that may have otherwise been euthanized.

Wounded warrior James Rizzo’s service dog Otto was rescued from the pound. Otto had acid was poured down his back. The scars are still visible to this day. James said “the moment I saw him, I knew I needed to get him. I felt like no one would want him because of his scars.” James and Otto have been together for a little over a month and are still in training.

Once dogs are identified as possible service dogs, they go through extensive training and situational and behavioral tests. The service dogs are taught to sense when clients are experiencing panic in or out of the home, and they alert the client to this change in mood.

Terry is a decorated Army combat veteran who spent over 16.5 years in the Airborne Infantry, Ranger Regiment, and Special Forces units. After several deployments abroad, Terry was medically discharged from the Army. The Army life was all that Terry knew and upon being discharged, he found it very difficult to adjust to civilian life. He was homeless, wandering the streets for more than two years before an old army friend found him and offered him a job.

Terry has had many struggles in his life, but has found the strength and courage to carry on. His service dog Nacho has been with him for seven years. He says that service dogs can give you the friendship and the companionship that a human cannot offer.

“Service Dogs, like any dogs, can talk. They just do it in dog talk. Once you understand dog talk, you two will become one, and that is a beautiful thing! Nacho is my best friend, child and my lifeline,” Terry says.

Nacho and Terry now visit patients, wounded warriors mostly, at the San Antonio Military Medical Center. He shares his experiences and life challenges with those in need, and service dog Nacho helps break down barriers for other wounded veterans. While helping these brave men and women, Terry says he is actually “helping himself, the veterans and their families.”

Gawelko and her husband Joey first came to the UTSA Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in July 2011 with the idea to provide service dog training for wounded warriors in the San Antonio area. Realizing they had the service expertise needed but not the business knowledge required, they took one of the many training courses offered by the SBDC to make sure they were on the right track.

The couple worked closely with SBDC business advisors David Baenziger and Mark Ahrens, who assisted in developing a benefit- oriented plan focusing on a strong web presence and ongoing networking. “Service Dog Express LLC could not have succeeded without the help of the SBDC workshops and guidance of Mark Ahrens and David Baenziger,” said Gawelko.

They have been the catalyst for our inception and growth and have always been there to meet with us and address any issues regarding business concerns. Because of UTSA SBDC, hundreds of wounded warriors and civilians in the community have been paired with service dogs and receiving life-changing experiences so that they can become fully-functioning, purposeful community members.”