New facility offers chance to expand

Susan Randall, Smoky Mountain Service Dogs lead trainer, instructs Beau on how to grab an object.

After years of work and organization, Smoky Mountain Service Dogs has settled into a new Canine/Veteran Training Facility.

SMSD began in 2010 when Mike Kitchens, chairman, Suzy Kitchens, board member and chairwoman emeritus, and a few close friends embarked on a journey to serve wounded veterans with service dogs.

In 2013, SMSD made its first match. The organization has since matched 41 mobility assistance service dogs to veterans wounded in service.

SMSD is accredited under Assistance Dogs International. While dogs go through 1,400-1,500 hours of training, veterans must also undergo an in-depth application process. The application goes as far as asking for the veteran’s daily schedule so a dog can be matched based on energy and activity level, Suzy said.

Mike hopes the new facility will increase the footprint of SMSD.

“In the past, we’ve been able to place maybe five or six dogs a year,” Mike said. “With our new facility and expanded kennel capacity from six to 18, we hope to pretty much be able to double that going forward. It will take us a while, but we hope to be able to serve more wounded veterans and their families.”

Along with an 18-dog kennel, the facility houses a large kitchen area for preparing dog food, a grooming and laundry room, office space and, most importantly, a 3,000-square-foot training area.

The building has been under planning and construction for four years, Mike said.

There was a small ribbon cutting ceremony Nov. 2 for veterans who are a part of the SMSD family. Mike plans to release a virtual tour today of the new area to the public.

SMSD received help three years ago from the American Valor Foundation, which kickstarted the campaign for the new facility.

“In 2017, we were blessed to be the recipient of funds from the Chris Kyle Memorial Benefit in Fort Worth, Texas,” Mike said. “The family of Chris Kyle, the American Sniper, they do an annual benefit in their son’s memory in Fort Worth. It’s a huge three-day event. They select one charity across the country to help. In 2017, it was Smoky Mountain Service Dogs. It was a huge, huge honor to be the recipient. … They came up in 2017 and brought us a significant check for $225,000.”

Local businesses and families then helped raise funds to build the facility. The building is paid off and ready to use.

One of the fundraising efforts the community can still get involved with is purchasing a SMSD specialty license plate. With a goal to sell 1,000 license plates, 560 plates have been sold, Suzy said.

The organization employs five paid trainers. Everyone else, including board members, a bookkeeper and grant writer, are volunteer.

Seeing the project come together and expanding the SMSD vision has been a “good feeling,” Suzy said.

“In working toward this, you get caught up in the work and the things that you need to do,” she said. “As I walked down into this new facility, and as I’m able to showcase it with some of our veterans already with little private tours and things, it had really made the reality of Smoky Mountain Service Dogs come true. Just the feeling of pride and being able to feel blessed that you were a part of that journey with so many people. It’s real.”