- Associated Press - Saturday, June 28, 2014

MARYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The puppy that Robbie Cuthell has taken under his wing is learning all the right things - he’s house trained, performs several commands, walks on a leash and is getting stronger every day.

But there will come a day when these two will part. That’s because Cuthell is raising Bradley to become a service dog for Smoky Mountain Service Dogs, a nonprofit that will then give the golden retriever to a disabled veteran, free of charge.

It’s the case of a veteran helping another. Cuthell, a resident of Knox County, served in the Vietnam War and is disabled himself. Cuthell said he trained dogs for years, many for hunting. He lost his labrador retriever after 14 years and waited a while to get another dog. When he found out about Smoky Mountain Service Dogs and its mission, he knew he had to be a part.

His wife Norma suggested he give it a try.

“I didn’t know at first about doing all of the hard work,” he said. “But these dogs are provided to veterans, and I am one of them. I knew I needed to do this, to give back to vets. It was not a good situation when we can back from Vietnam. At least now they are coming back heroes. This is something I can do for them.”

Cuthell has had Bradley since he was eight weeks old. The dog was named for Sgt. Bradley Wayne Marshall, a soldier who died while serving his country in Iraq in 2007. It was the sponsor for Bradley that chose the name.

So far, Cuthell has worked with the golden retriever on obeying commands and house manners. Bradley lives with Cuthell and his wife and will do so until he’s ready to go to the SMSD kennel for intensive service dog training. The dog will be ready to work as a service dog by the time he’s 2.

SMSD also provides its dogs to families with autistic children. One of the agency’s dogs, CanDoo, is at Western Kentucky University in the Kelly Autism Program.

Pat Chappell is a board member for SMSD. She said the organization needs more people like Cuthell who are willing to spend time with the dogs. “The main things we are looking for in puppy raisers is just basic house training and house manners,” she said. “Along with basic obedience. We don’t want them to grow up in a kennel. We want them to grow up in a home environment because that is where they will end up.”

SMSD is located right here in East Tennessee. Its service area is in a six-hour radius of Knoxville. Travel to the Knoxville area is required.

Cuthell writes a report each week on the progress he and Bradley are making. He also meets with the lead trainer, Derek Blair, who is responsible for getting Bradley ready to be a certified service dog.

Chappell said SMSD placed five dogs last year and it’s getting ready to graduate two more soon. One of the dogs went to a disabled veteran in Sevier County who was injured by an improvised explosive device. Another went to a disabled man who is now getting ready to go to college. His dog will be right by his side.

“We are hoping to find more puppy raisers like Robbie,” Chappell said. “We have two more golden retrievers coming in. We also need respite providers. These are people willing to take the dogs out of the kennel on the weekends when trainers aren’t working with them.”

As is the procedure, when Cuthell called and inquired about becoming a volunteer, he spoke at length with a representative who asked a series of questions and answered those Cuthell had. SMSD also does a home visit to make sure the environment will be safe for the dogs. An orientation session is part of the process as well.

Volunteers have to love dogs and have a safe environment, Chappell said. There can be other dogs in the family as long as they aren’t aggressive. Families with children are also welcome into the volunteer program.

In addition to providing a home and basic obedience, volunteers are responsible for taking the dogs to veterinary appointments and training classes. The dogs also need to be taken out in public places frequently.

Over the years, Cuthell has volunteered for Disabled American Veterans, homeless shelters and other agencies. He said for him, it’s about putting his admiration and appreciation into action. And when it comes time to turn Bradley over to his owner, it will be tough. But knowing the dog will be providing assistance to someone who put his life on the line for the rest of us, will make it easier.

When Bradley is matched with a veteran, Cuthell may do this all over again. SMSD will always need people like him who want to give back.

Helping raise Bradley to become a service dog has been such a great experience, Cuthell said. “It’s just like training a child with consistency and love and encouragement. Right now, you pump him full of treats for doing a good job.”

___

Information from: The Daily Times, http://www.thedailytimes.com

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