Teaching Lucy: An organization trains pups for veterans, children

11:22 PM, May 3, 2012   |    comments
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  • Lucy in training.
  • Watching Lucy train.
  • Lucy practicing her sitting command.
  • Smoky Mountain Service Dog vest.
  • Willie the Service Dog.
  • Bearden the Service Dog.

It's estimated more than 50,000 Tennessee veterans live with some form of a disability.

So now, a local group wants to put a new "leash" on life for these service men and women.

The group trains dogs for East Tennessee disabled veterans as well as for children with autism.

The training takes time and patience, but has a big pay-off.

Lucy's still a Labrador puppy and she is still learning her commands and tasks at Smoky Mountain Service Dogs.

Her training is not just to become housebroken, but instead to one day provide comfort to someone with PTSD, or be the actual arms and legs of a wounded veteran.

"So many of our veterans are coming back and they have a lot of trauma issues to work through," said Volunteer, Rhoni Standefer, "Lucy has the skill of being a comfort dog."

Standefer is Lucy's foster parent.

During the years leading up to permanent placement with a veteran, child, or someone with psychological or physical need, someone has to love on Lucy while she goes through 1,200 hours of training.

Rhoni has cared for Lucy since she was born. Lucy spends several hours a week being trained and learning new skills with trainer Susan Akers.

Rhoni then reinforces those teachings at home. Every command has a point. Such as getting the car keys, closing a door, and getting a blanket.

Lucy must be able to pick things up when a veteran can't. Besides the physical support, service dogs provide mental support.

Trainer Susan Akers, explained, "These dogs are required to be 100% reliable and they have an individual who is counting on them to be their stability, to be their arms and legs, to have solid nerve strength in any environment."

Akers is a paid trainer with Smoky Mountain Service Dogs.

She will spend countless hours getting Lucy and eight other dogs ready for a home.

10 News first met Lucy in February. She was almost two years old and well into her training.

Founding Friend of Smoky Mountain Service Dogs Mike Kitchens, said, "We can train basic obedience very well with young dogs, but as they begin to mature, they just seem to pick up on things and Lucy is a great example of that, she is 20 months and she really gets it."

Then in early April, Lucy was ready to move on to a harder task: training with a wheelchair.

Cpl. Kevin Stone was injured while on active duty. His current dog Mambo, is his constant companion.

So Frost took his 26 years of knowledge and spends hours helping trainer Susan Akers and other trainers teach Lucy this difficult task.

Akers said, "She is doing very well, we are early."

And it is early, Lucy hasn't been matched with her "person" just yet.

"We don't know where Lucy will go," said Mike Kitchens, "My personal preference is, you see, Lucy has excellent retrieval skills, I'd like to see her be the arms and legs of a disabled veteran."

We last saw Lucy at the very end of April. In the two months since we started filming, she has tried to perfect basic tasks.

Rhoni remarked, "She has gotten really good at picking up things. She gets really excited; she still has a lot of puppy in her."

She doesn't always get the tasks right on the first try, but she will. Because soon, Lucy will have a permanent owner. Someone who will rely on her tail wagging everyday.

"We are just waiting for that person to be exactly what Lucy needs and she what they need," said Rhoni.

Training for these hand selected pups is not cheap. It can cost in upwards of $20,000. Smoky Mountain Service Dogs is working to get that cost lower.

Eventually, the dog's owner will pay some of that cost. Smoky Mountain Service Dogs will work with them to complete fundraisers and cut the cost as much as possible. Insurance can sometimes help as well.

Once Lucy is matched, she will have more than 100 additional hours with her person to make them in sync.

Other Tennessee Service Dog Organizations are Wilderwood Service Dogs and Retrieving Independence.

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