In October 2017, Smoky Mountain Service Dogs, an organization dedicated to training and providing mobility-assistance service dogs to veterans at no cost, was awarded a check for $225,000 by the American Valor Foundation, founded by American Sniper Chris Kyle’s family. The money kicked off SMSD’s “More Wags for Warriors” campaign to build a larger kennel and provide a more suitable training space than the old Foothills Mall storefront where they had been meeting.
Local businesses and community members followed suit, and soon the organization had more than $500,000 in donations to break ground and build the 3500-square-foot facility. The Veteran Canine Training Center opened in late 2020 and has become everything the group could’ve hoped for.
“Everything has been paid for, so there is no debt,” says Mike Kitchens, chairman of the board. “It was truly a group effort.”
On every wall around the facility are memorials to celebrate veterans and their families, along with donated quilts and drawings, wood-carved pieces and other specialized works from area artists. The Tellico Village Woodworker’s Club, for example, made custom sliding doors for each office. Around every corner is another visual reminder of the mission: to enhance the physical and psychological quality of life for veterans with disabilities. To accomplish that, it takes a village of volunteers, trainers, and, of course, eager pups, usually Labrador and Golden Retrievers.
“We currently have 28 dogs in training, and by the time they’re placed with a veteran, they’ve had 1500 to 1800 hours of training,” says Mike. “By the time the dog has been placed with a veteran, about $22,000 to $25,000 has been invested into the dog over two years.”
Since all administrative duties are accomplished by volunteers, every dollar donated goes straight to the dogs’ training and care. Inside the facility are 18 indoor/outdoor runs, two large training rooms that can be converted into a larger space, offices and a classroom, a veterinary treatment room, and a dedicated grooming space. Heather Wilkerson, the Canine Program Manager, lives on the property with her husband Darrell, a U.S. Navy veteran and the Facilities Manager.
The Wilkersons, along with Lead Trainer Susan Randall and staff trainers Cassie Krause and Laura Porter, are the only paid positions in the organization. That leaves a lot of room for volunteers to help prepare each dog to be placed with a veteran within a few years’ time.
“We’ve served 53 veterans to date,” says Mike. “There’s no federal agency devoted to service animals, but the government recognizes Assistance Dogs International as the standard. That means veterans with accredited organizations like Smoky Mountain Service Dogs are eligible for benefits through the VA, benefits meaning vet care.”
In addition to vet bills being covered, SMSD supplies dog food through Natural Pet Supply and pawTree for the working life of the dog. Once the dog retires from service, he or she assumes the role of family pet.
Despite the success SMSD has had with its facility and financial support, there is still a huge need for help raising puppies and offering weekend respite for dogs that live at the kennel Monday through Friday.
“We get puppies at eight weeks old, and they’re placed with a foster family for 10 months. They bring them to puppy class once a week,” says Laura Porter. “At one year old, the dogs are spayed or neutered and moved into the facility full time. We like for them to go on weekend respites so they get that love and attention.”
Foster families are asked to continue basic training commands at home and avoid things like rough-housing and other aggressive play. They are, however, encouraged to take the pup-in-training on errands, regular walks, and offer lots of love. If volunteers cannot commit to 10 months of housing and raising a puppy, weekend respite offers short but valuable time for dogs who need a break from the kennel.
“You can have other animals as a volunteer. We do an assessment to make sure the dog is compatible with your pets,” says Laura. “People can co-raise dogs too if they don’t want the full-time commitment.”
Read more about Smoky Mountain Service Dogs and how they've impacted the lives of area veterans, go to Citylifestyle.com/WestKnoxville/issues/2019-08.
To inquire about being a puppy raiser or weekend respite, or to sign up as a volunteer in another capacity, visit SmokyMountainServiceDogs.org.
What’s the Training and Placement Process?
- At eight weeks old, puppies are placed with Puppy Raisers for approximately 10 months and are required to attend weekly training sessions at SMSD.
- At one year old, the dog is spayed/neutered and moves into the facility full time. They get weekend respites with foster families from Friday evening to Monday morning.
- Dogs-in-Training learn several essential skills, such as retrieving items for the veteran, like a cell phone or even the dog’s own leash, placing his head on the veteran’s lap for a calming effect, and getting help from another family member in the house. The dogs are trained to look at their handler for instruction and listen for commands. (Note: Dogs are not trained for medical responses, such as seizure or Diabetic alert, nor are they guide dogs for sight impairment.)
- Once a dog is trained, the matching process begins with a meet-and-greet with a veteran. This involves making sure walking speeds and energy levels match. Often, trainers can see if there’s an initial bond that takes place.
- When a pair is matched, the veteran is taught what the dog knows and is provided with all the supplies he or she will need on a regular basis for the working life of the dog.
- Veterans must send monthly reports on the dog’s health and participate in Public Access Tests annually, then every other year.
- SMSD follows the dog for the entirety of its working life.