Nonprofit that trains service dogs for veterans facing issues with Seminole County code changes

A nonprofit in Chuluota provides service dogs to veterans and disabled members of the community.

Some of the veterans FOX 35 talked with said this nonprofit and the dogs they provide amount to life or death for them.

When Valor Medical Service Dogs first opened a decade ago, they were told they were not considered a commercial kennel because they aren’t a for-profit business.

But Seminole County recently changed its definition of what a commercial kennel is, now including any premises where several dogs are trained, not just those that train for compensation.

The founder and executive director for VMSD, Ernie Rivera, is a Purple Heart recipient.

The National Guardsman medically retired after Iraqi bombs left him with a traumatic brain injury and a cracked vertebra.

He spent a year in the hospital. That’s where he got his first service dog.

"I know the personal impact that it has," Rivera told FOX 35.

He wanted other veterans to have access to service dogs – without the $25,000 barrier.

So he became a certified trainer and opened up Valor Medical Service Dogs.

They provide about 30 people a year with dogs and all the training they need – completely for free.

Ernie gave Thomas Broadway his dog Radar about a year ago.

"Being back is hard. It never it never goes away," Broadway said. "Even all these years later, there's things I still have nightmares for. Stuff that we saw and had to do over there."

Broadway was in the Army for 8 years. He served in Kuwait and Iraq during the Gulf War.

Before he had a service dog, he suffered from alcoholism; he got in a lot of fights, and he struggled with some very dark times.

"Even though I know I'm safe here sometimes my body is still thinks I'm back over there. And so I get nervous, hypervigilant, have a lot of difficulties in public, especially around like, groups of people, things like that. And he just really helps alleviate those issues."

But Radar looks out for him, checking behind him and providing comfort when needed. Broadway says Radar keeps him sane.

While FOX 35 was at the training facility, veteran after veteran came up to tell us how much this place means to them.

That they don’t know where they’d be without it.

But VMSD has run into a problem.

"We're required now to get a special exception through Seminole County in order for us to stay open," Rivera explained. "So we're looking at other options, looking at different places and stuff, but it's really expensive, for us to move and, and it would greatly impact, what we do here as an organization."

They’ve met the County’s demands so far.

They paid for a new commercial license, they moved kennels further away from the property line, and they’re working on a new building that would help with noise.

But if their special exception isn’t granted, they’ll have to find a new place to operate.

"Instead of us doing 30 dogs a year, we're probably going to be able to do maybe 10 or 15," Rivera explained. "It'll impact greatly our ability to help veterans and disabled kids."

Broadway and the other vets are desperately hoping things work out.

They know what these dogs do for people – they don’t want to even think about limiting that.

"This place means everything to me right now," Broadway told FOX 35.

Rivera has a meeting coming up. The pre-application is in, but they don’t have a date for that meeting.

Seminole County’s Public Information Officer told FOX 35 they’re reviewing his pre-application right now.