By Karen Coppock

Have you ever seen a service dog and wondered how it goes from being a wiggly puppy to a focused assistant? A visit to Smoky Mountain Service Dogs (SMSD) provides a fascinating look at this process. Certified by Assistance Dogs International, SMSD is a local nonprofit that serves wounded veterans and first responders by providing custom-trained mobility assistance dogs – at no cost!

What do the dogs learn at SMSD? Besides learning basic commands like sit and place, they are trained to not pull at their leashes. They learn to walk calmly beside their companions, helping veterans who might have balance issues. Other tasks include bringing things to their companion or picking up dropped items like a debit card or a wallet – all without chewing it. They also provide emotional support and devoted companionship to the veterans.

Using an intensive screening process, SMSD staff selects puppies that have the best characteristics for learning necessary skills. These puppies are donated or purchased from reputable breeders. To have enough trainable dogs to match with eligible veterans, SMSD needs help raising puppies from about eight weeks old to a year old. Through the generosity of sponsors and donors, SMSD provides all the food, veterinary care, training, and miscellaneous expenses for the puppy.

“Our greatest need right now is for puppy raisers,” said Debra Sciarretta, SMSD’s Puppy Raiser Coordinator. “Puppy raisers are needed to help with general house manners and then all kinds of exposures.”

What responsibilities do the puppy raisers have? All the usual things you would teach a puppy, such as household training, not biting, and leashed walking. A weekly training class helps reinforce learning and teach them new skills. If needed, puppy transportation volunteers are also available to take the puppies to and from training classes.

When these dogs are placed with their veterans, they’ll need to be comfortable being around people, especially in public spaces (where allowed). According to Heather Wilkerson, SMSD Canine Program Manager, the puppies need “environmental and social exposures that are age appropriate… guided by our trainers. We have handbooks and all kinds of visual aids that help them [puppy raisers]. We are very hands-on, so they will receive a ton of support not only from our training staff, but also through the other volunteer roles.”

Carla Navas, SMSD Volunteer Director, noted that “Smoky Mountain has a little over 200 volunteers and only five paid staff.” Many of those volunteers serve in weekend respite care or transportation, so they still need volunteers to be puppy raisers. Some volunteers co-raise a puppy, which provides for some flexibility.

Do the dogs enjoy training? They seemed to have a great time, especially when reward treats were involved! “They love the trainers, they love the environment, they get very amped up just to be here,” said Debra. “They love to work!”

“Everything that these dogs do is a game,” added Laura Porter, SMSD Staff Trainer. “It is a play session, and it is fun.” The trainers use the games to teach the dogs how to do more complicated actions. [Service Dog Silas] playing tug directly translates to him pulling a door shut, pulling someone’s socks off, pulling a basket,” she said. “And so we can take the skills that he knows as a game and then apply it to different, more practical scenarios as a service dog.”

After fostering, the dogs move into SMSD’s Lenoir City facility to complete their education with professional dog trainers. However, opportunities to help don’t end there: SMSD needs weekend care for the kennel dogs. “They get dropped off (at our facility) on Monday morning by the volunteer, and then they’re picked up by another volunteer on that Friday afternoon,” said Debra. “It gives the dogs a nice mental break from the training.”

Once training is complete, they are matched with a veteran. More than 64 dogs have been matched with veterans since SMSD was founded in 2010. SMSD needs to have about 25 dogs in the system at all stages of training to be able to maintain that pace. “What drives that is, ‘Do I have the puppy raisers?’” said Heather. “I haven’t been able to bring puppies in because we haven’t had the puppy raisers to raise them.”

Is it hard to give up the dog? The puppy raisers agreed that part was tough but worthwhile. Puppy co-raiser Ginger Stone said it helps knowing upfront that you’re raising them “to help somebody else. They’re born for greatness, and we’re just paying it forward – from the time they’re cute little babies till they grow up and be the strong dog that’s going to change someone’s life.”

For more information on volunteering to be a puppy raiser or other opportunities, please contact Smoky Mountain Service Dogs at

How You Can Help

– Monetary Donations: See website for Donor Sponsorship Program information

– Become a Puppy Raiser: All food, veterinary care, training, and expenses are provided

– Weekend Care for Dogs in Training: Transportation is provided

– Purchase Cowboy’s Dream by Haylee Schweibel

– Get a SMSD License Plate by Local Artist Robert Tino

– Link Your Kroger Rewards Card

Cowboy’s Big Dream: Volunteer puppy raiser Haylee Schweibel wrote and illustrated this touching book about Cowboy, a SMSD dog who now serves his veteran, Paul Miles. Haylee enjoyed raising a SMSD puppy with her family and has since volunteered six more times. “It’s not easy to give them up, but I know it’s for a greater good,” she said.

All proceeds from Cowboy’s Big Dream help support SMSD, and it can be found online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The book makes a wonderful gift!

“I would like to thank the Kyle family and Smoky Mountain Service Dogs for Cowboy; he has been a godsend. Cowboy assists me with my mobility and picking up and retrieving items. He is my constant companion and is always by my side to provide me emotional support.” – MSgt. Paul Miles, USMC Ret.