Smoky Mountain Service Dogs at MDW NSDAR Meeting

MDW Treasurer Wendy Randolph presents a $231.50 check to Canine Ambassador Hooligan and SMSD Board Member Laurie Birt for the benefit of physical mobility challenged veterans.

Laurie Birt, at-large member of the Board of Directors, and Hooligan, canine ambassador, for Smoky Mountain Service Dogs (SMSD) informed and entertained the Martha Dandridge Washington Chapter (MDW), National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR), at their October meeting.

Birt shared how SMSD fulfills its mission “to enhance the physical and psychological quality of life for wounded veterans by providing custom trained mobility assistance service dogs.” Although each dog after completing training is valued at approximately $25,000, none of that cost is borne by the veteran.

Approximately 95% of the donations to SMSD go to caring for, maintaining, and training the dogs. The organization’s 150 volunteers and 4 fulltime and 1 halftime employees make that possible.SMSD is certified by Assistance Dogs International which has only 90 members. The local organization which is based in Loudon, TN, and covers an area with a 350-mile radius around Knoxville, is the only group in the Southeast United States accredited to give mobility assistance dogs to veterans. An assistance dog is classified as a medical need, so the Veterans Administration pays the cost for the dog’s veterinary care, supplies, and equipment. The veterans even receive travel benefits for their canine companions.

Every veteran who has a physical mobility challenge such as amputation, traumatic brain injury, or back injury may request a service dog. Once he or she receives the furry assistant, SMSD stays in contact with the veteran, and the veteran reports regularly to the SMSD. Any veteran who receives a service dog becomes part of the SMSD family.

Birt noted that there are 20 dogs currently in training, and 40 dogs have been placed with veterans since the organization was incorporated in 2010 and began placing dogs in 2013.

Most of the dogs selected for the program are provided by 3-4 breeders who produce Labrador Retrievers specially for non-profits. Black or yellow Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and the mixed Golden/Labs have been found to be the right size, intelligence, and temperament to become mobility assistance dogs for vets. They have a good work ethic and are food-motivated. They learn quickly when rewarded with treats. Labs are friendly and well-accepted by the public. They are exceptionally well-suited to helping veterans deal with their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Birt said that children are often drawn to the dogs and ask what tricks they can do. She remarked that the dogs do not do tricks. They are taught to do tasks. When she said this, she demonstrated what she meant by putting Hooligan through his paces. One task is pulling. For example, the dog can pull the refrigerator door open, retrieve a canned or bottled beverage or medicine bag, and close the door before delivering the item to the veteran. Another pulling task is to pull a basket full of laundry to or from the laundry room. The dogs also are taught to help the veteran put on and take off socks.

Hooligan delighted his audience when Birt nonchalantly placed her phone on a chair across the room. Next, she whispered her phone number to an audience member who then called that number. When the phone rang, Hooligan walked over to the phone, picked it up by the braded attachment, and delivered it quickly to Birt as the audience applauded.

Birt told the touching story of how Hooligan got his name. He is sponsored in the memory of John Hargreaves, a deceased veteran. His parents wanted Hooligan to bear the name of John’s platoon, the Hooligan Platoon.

The service dogs are taught not to bark, but if they are suspicious of someone, they sometimes give a low growl. They are not trained to protect the veteran as they are not attack dogs. However, Birt added with a twinkle in her eye, “Our veterans say they are well-prepared to protect their dogs.”

In addition to helping the veterans with their daily tasks, the dogs help with therapy. Birt gave on example of a veteran who could barely move his hand up and down when he first got his dog. By playing fetch with his canine friend, he has now developed the ability to lift his entire forearm to toss the ball more vigorously.

Yearly reports are given by the veterinarians to show that the dogs are maintaining a healthy weight and getting proper exercise. If a veteran does not have a big yard for the dog to exercise in, the dog can be exercised on a treadmill.

Birt concluded her presentation by explaining how volunteers can help SMSD fulfill its mission. One important need is for volunteers to foster puppies. She said people are needed to get the puppies through their months of very busy puppy behavior, housetraining, and the chewing stage. Those volunteers need to be able to love the puppies and then give them up when they reach the age for training, knowing that the dogs will be loved again by a deserving veteran.

Finally, everyone is encouraged to consider buying a SMSD specialty license plate. The plate bears the image of a Golden Retriever painted by area artist Robert Tino. The plates can be pre-ordered online at or on FaceBook. After 1000 orders are received, the plates will be made. A plate costs $35.00 plus the appropriate wheel tax for the purchaser’s area. SMSD receives $15.37 of that amount. Birt said, if you have already paid for your license registration for the year, the motor vehicle license bureau will call you when your specialty plate is ready. You will need to take in your current plate, and they will exchange it for your specialty plate.

Members of the MDW Chapter contribute monthly to the non-profit SMSD. As a result, Birt and Hooligan were presented with a check for $231.50. MDW Treasurer Wendy Randolph handed the check to Hooligan who then passed it on to his human partner.

For information about the DAR, contact Registrar Karen McFarland at (865) 258-8670 or Regent Jane Chambers at (865) 591-3857.

Source: Jane Busdeker, Corresponding Secretary, MDW Chapter, NSDAR