By Jeff Todd
DENVER (CBS4) - After experimenting with a new way to help veterans treat their post traumatic stress disorder, a Colorado charity is working with its first Colorado veteran.
"When I see somebody in need like that and if we've got the opportunity to help, we're going to help," said Kevin Sonka the founder of the Rocky Mountain Dawgs Project.
Sgt. Eli Allen has spent 19 years in the military between the Army, National Guard, and reserves with seven tours overseas. He started helping with some fundraising for the Dawgs Project when he realized one day it was the exact organization he needed.
"It just really sunk in that maybe this was something I needed as well. I've talked to a lot of different folks that have service dogs for various different needs and everyone says they're a godsend," said Allen. "The companionship, the understanding, the unconditional love that you get from a canine."
"I couldn't hold back the tears talking to him. We cried together and it's just my gut," said Sonka. "I could just see it in him. I knew he needed help. I knew he needed something."
Sonka has taken a new approach to service dogs helping veterans with PTSD. The Rocky Mountain Dawgs Project doesn't just hand out service dogs but actually teaches the veteran how to train service dogs.
"They have to be fully invested in this. They have to be the one to train the puppy," Sonka said. "He's going to be able to train this dog, and once he knows how to train it, he'll be able to get another dog and train it up himself. He's got a service dog for life."
Allen was given a German shepherd from the Rocky Mountain Dawgs Project in early March. He named her Ripley.
"I know eventually, as much as it will break my heart, I'll need to have a new dog. And having that experience on the front end with this dog, I'll be more prepared and able to help guide and train my new dog," Allen said.
The organization was started after Cpl. David Sonka was killed in Afghanistan in 2013 alongside his military service dog Flex. The Dawgs Project has been working with three other veterans, and puppies, out-of-state, and Sonka says the experiment is flawless so far.
"They are approximately 8 months old now, and fully trained. They are loving on their veteran when they need the love. The veterans couldn't be any happier," Sonka said.
The work is done with a trainer in Georgia, but Sonka is hoping to expand the operation with a teacher in Colorado. Within the first year of work one veteran has already seen drastic changes.
"His wife came up to me and just tried to tell me how much their family dynamics have changed. He's becoming that family man again," Sonka said.
Allen says within the first week he's already seen a similar change.
"I seem to be a little happier. It helps me re-center and re-focus and get through things," Allen said. "It's going to be a work in progress … everything is. But as we grow together I think we're going to be alright. I think we're going to be alright."
The Rocky Mountain Dawgs Project is hoping donations can help support a fifth puppy and a second Colorado veteran.
To donate visit the Rocky Mountain Dawgs Project website.
Jeff Todd joined the CBS4 team in 2011 covering the Western Slope in the Mountain Newsroom. Since 2015 he's been working across the Front Range in the Denver Headquarters. Follow him on Twitter @CBS4Jeff.
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