An Ode to the Service Dog: A Talk with Sonja Ohldag


Chief, Trained service Dog, a scrappy little fellow with light fur.

Leading up to Superfest 2017, Superfest intern Celina Gomez spoke with Sonja Ohldag about her film Chief. To follow the film on Facebook, visit:

Celina Garcia: Chief is comprised of both still imagery and home-video style footage. At what point did you decide you wanted to fashion them into a documentary, and how did this dictate the type of footage you then captured?

Sonja Ohldag: I’ve captured most his training moments on camera. Taping and photographing for me is training diary, progress reports, it gives me feedback on things I could do better in order to improve chief’s progress and mine. The videos help me to determine how well we’re doing in our training schedule. People often times don’t know that legit Owner/Trainers follow individualized task schedules and have a system, which is geared toward their teaching pace and skills, and the dogs’ learning and progressing pace and skill levels. Service dog training for different kinds of disabilities require different types of training. As an Owner/Trainer, we have to discipline ourselves every single day to stay on track. That’s not always easy, but the picture material helps me to stay on track and provide consistency for Chief and myself. I like to have a journal, for mainly me, but also for others to see and experience what goes into service dog training.

Lots of Owner/Trainers have benefitted from the videos and wonderful conversations have come out of it. Those videos and photo material have helped me to resolve access challenges, too. Chief’s movie only shows fragments of it and I wish we could have put every single photo and video into it, but that would be almost 6 years of material. In short - the photos and videos, are for proof of training, self-evaluation and interaction with other Owner/Trainers and of course, for memories. I’ve always wanted to write a book about Jolanda, the dog I worked with before Chief. She was the book kind of dog. But Chief loves the camera and he loves to pose and I knew from day one that he needed to be on screen. People love seeing his photos and videos, which made the final decision easy.

CG: Prior to making Chief, what types of films or stories had you seen where you felt they properly reflected life with a service dog? What sort of influences did you draw inspiration from, or did you feel there was a gap in representation?

SO: Yes, there’s clearly a gap in representation and often times misrepresentation or underrepresentation. Often times people think it’s more than enough to always want to hang out with their dog to turn their pets into service animals, but that’s not how it works. Owner/Trainers are hardly ever mentioned in a positive light, which I find heartbreaking, but somewhat understandable since we have no representative who would promote us in public or share our stories, nor do we have the funds to do it ourselves.  Lots of us have social media pages in which we try to help people access our world. Many people with disabilities literally put their lives on hold and spend lots and lots of hours and money on training their own dogs. We meet up for training and exchange tips, we help each other, we travel far for meetups and have to make all the phone calls ourselves. No one finds us “interesting” enough to follow us around… We have to organize those things and it’s really exhausting, but rewarding. We’re all dealing with daily struggles and the amount of effort and team work it takes can’t be put in words.

I want for people to hear the good things about us. I want for people to see and understand that we’re out there, our dogs are incredible, and they’re highly trained and carefully chosen, and how it isn’t easy to train your own dog while you’re the one who needs the dog’s help. I also want them to see this process, and how owning a service dog is a lifelong responsibility and takes continuous training. My inspiration is my life and the dogs I’ve worked with and people who surround me. It’s such a beautiful feeling when someone truly “sees” your dog and immediately says - wow, what a cool dog you have. I can tell it’s a well-trained service dog. Those are the people I’m grateful for every single day. It’s such a good situation when people ask sincere questions about Chief or training. We’re always happy to explain and educate and people even get to say hi to him when they are respectful and interested. Luckily Chief is perceived very well and people naturally feel drawn to him.

CG:  What kinds of obstacles did you encounter as a first-time filmmaker?

SO: Oy...nothing major. Amir Jaffer generously donated his time and knowledge to make this film happen. It’s was a really amazing process. He was not familiar with owner training initially, so we spent lots of time talking about service animals and training. Many conversations were personal and of course, some subjects were emotional and challenging. But we took our time and worked our way through it. I think the process was an incredible experience. We had a few logistical challenges in regards to finding days to film and do the interviews since we both travel frequently. Some days we met up with other Owner/Trainers and we had to find dates to get us all together. Sometimes I just simply had a hard time finding the right words or was dealing with personal issues. When you live with a disability, the illness doesn’t necessarily define everything you do, but it does influence your days. But other than that, it was a really awesome experience, and I can’t thank Amir enough for being so reliable and for helping me turn my thoughts into an actual film. I can be challenging to work with at times, but he was steady and kept us on track.

CG: In a short amount of time, your film captures a variety of issues. Why do you think film is an important medium in spreading awareness on not only service dogs but also highlighting living with an invisible disability?

SO: Watching or hearing something is oftentimes easier for people to access. It’s less “time consuming” and people are more willing to watch a short movie rather than hear someone talk or read pamphlets or books, plus I find it more personal. I love all media such as books and film and audio. I’ve shown Chief’s movie many times during educational events and people respond with different emotions. Some people were speechless, others cried, many were happy and sincerely appreciated it. They feel connected to Chief and myself, which immediately offers a great baseline for any kind of conversation and discussions. Invisible disabilities are things people don’t like to talk about. There’s still a lot of stigma attached and people often times are judged. I’m at a point where I’m completely open about my disability and feel comfortable sharing when people ask. Chief is such an amazing little guy, he makes me look special. But it’s all him. Chiefie’s movie helps people connect and understand on a cognitive and emotional level. It touches them. I’m glad it does.

CG: Do you feel there’s been an increased skepticism towards guide/service dogs? What do you hope resonates with audiences after viewing your film?

SO: I could go on and on about politics and schools vs Owner/Trainers, and about people thinking they know it all, and all those “specialists” out there who think they’re totally rad.... I don’t think people are “more” skeptical toward service animals, but due to lots of propaganda and the media reporting all the bad things, people now think they know “all about it,” and they are now confronted with things more than they used to be. Not too many years ago any kind of service animal was rather a rarity. Today, more people do have legit service animals and they’ve become more public.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know how to tell a legit working dog from a pet in a harness or vest. There’s lots of stuff going through the media, but hardly any sincere service animal education. Often times people can’t tell a well-trained dog from a training school or from an Owner/Trainer from a poorly trained one. There are poorly trained legit service animals as much as there are amazingly well-trained ones. They don’t know how to look for behavior, connection between handler and dog, synchronicity, etc… What makes me really unhappy is how businesses often times make no effort to keep people with disabilities and their dogs safe. They are poorly informed about existing laws.

CG:  What questions can a covered entity's employees ask to determine if a dog is a service animal?

SO: In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? And (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability. Someone with a legit dog, who has had proper training should, for their own protection, make no fuss and respond accordingly. Businesses need to take responsibility so others can see that the “service dog business” is a serious one and that lives depend on it. Skepticism often times comes from being uninformed or feeling helpless and results in accidental or purposeful discrimination. I like to give people a hand and help them understand. It’s not easy, and it is very exhausting, but it’s worth all the encounters we had.

CG: Finally, what do you look forward to being a part of Superfest?

SO: I’m just so so honored that Chief’s movie was selected for this specific festival - it means the world to me. Can’t wait for the festival to start. My best friend from Germany is flying in to be there for us. It’s just amazing. Looking forward to all the things :)

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.