Smoky Mountain Service Dogs places first service animal

Six-year-old Emma Guitard and her service dog Pete sleep together each night. If Emma, who has autism, should awake and get up to wander the house, Pete is trained to alert her parents. Pete is the first service dog placed by the nonprofit Smoky Mountain Service Dogs.

Six-year-old Emma Guitard and her service dog Pete sleep together each night. If Emma, who has autism, should awake and get up to wander the house, Pete is trained to alert her parents. Pete is the first service dog placed by the nonprofit Smoky Mountain Service Dogs.

By Amy McRary

LENOIR CITY Six-year-old Emma Guitard is autistic and nonverbal. But sometimes the Lenoir City kindergartener sounds just a few words.

She's said two names "Mama" and "Pete."

Mama is Emma's mother Christy Guitard. Pete is a 2-year-old, 65-pound black Labrador retriever that's been part of Emma's world for slightly more than a month. He's a service dog trained as her protector and unconditional best friend. J.D. and Christy Guitard wanted a trained canine to make life safer for their oldest child, a slender, quick-moving girl who can bolt from them and loves water but can't swim.

The first time Emma said Pete's name "she was really happy, giggly. Very clearly J.D. and I heard her say, "Pete!' She said it twice. She's said it since. She'll just be excited and say 'Pete!'" says Christy.

The Guitards acquired Pete from Lenoir City-based Smoky Mountain Service Dogs. Begun in July 2010, the nonprofit trains dogs mostly Labs and golden retrievers as service animals for physically disabled military veterans, autistic children and others with physical or psychological disabilities. It takes six months to a year to receive a dog; spokesman Mike Kitchens estimates the group has 20 applications on hand.

Turning a puppy into a service dog takes 1,200 hours of training at a cost of $20,000. Qualifying veterans get animals free. Other recipients pay $12,500. The Guitards paid for Pete with a combination of savings, money they raised and a $5,500 voucher from the national Assistance Dogs United Campaign organization.

Amy McRary/News Sentinel Smoky Mountain Service Dogs trainer Derek Blair trains Copper to use a dog tug toy to help him rise from a chair. Copper will soon use this skill to help his future owner, a disabled wounded veteran.

Pete's the first dog Smoky Mountain Service Dogs has placed. A yellow lab called Copper goes to a local disabled serviceman in December. Counting Pete and Copper, this fall the organization had nine canines seven labs, two goldens in its training program operated out of Savannah Springs Kennels in Lenoir City. Also among them is 1-year-old Bearden, a golden sponsored by the Bearden High School ROTC.

New dog owners get 120 hours of training, from class work to dog handling. They must be realistic about their animal's ability, says Heather Wilkerson, Smoky Mountain's program manager, one of its trainers and Savannah Springs co-owner. "People can think the dog is a cure-all for everything They are not. They are one tool in the toolbox," she says.

While Smoky Mountain Service Dogs' three trainers are paid, the nonprofit depends on a network of some 50 volunteers. Puppies first live in volunteer foster homes to learn basic obedience, be house-trained and socialized. When a puppy is six months old, it moves to Savannah Springs for training that changes it from a nice pet to a dog preparing for a job. At a year the animal is tested to see if it's true service dog material. Canines with the greatest desire and ability to retrieve are further trained as mobility service animals to help people with physical disabilities. Those with the right temperament but without strong retrieval skills get instruction to serve people with psychological challenges.

When a dog is 18 months or 2 years, it's ready to be matched to a future owner. Trainers then spend about three months teaching the animal behaviors and actions specific to what its human needs. One task trainer Derek Blair taught Copper is to pull one end of a dog tug toy as Blair holds the toy's other end, instructing the animal how he'll soon help his disabled veteran owner rise from a chair or bed. Trainer Susan Akers taught Pete a series of commands to keep Emma safe and to interrupt her self-stimulatory autistic behaviors. If Emma uncontrollably flaps her hands Pete nudges her arms with his nose or paw to direct her to pet him instead. He sleeps with her, offering a comforting pressure beside her. But if Emma awakes and leaves her room at night, Pete's goes to wake her parents.

In public child and dog are secured together, a tethering leash connecting Pete's harness to Emma's vest. Partnered with her dog, Emma cannot run if something startles or frightens her. If she tries, Pete adjusts his weight so he stops Emma but doesn't pull her down. If commanded by Emma's parents, Pete knows to drop to the ground, refusing to move, so Emma must stay with him.

Pete doesn't go to kindergarten but he's everywhere else with Emma. Since he's tethered to Emma, Pete makes it possible for Christy Guitard to take her three daughters and the dog grocery shopping. When the Guitards had daughter Katie's 4-year-old birthday party at Lenoir City Park last month, Pete worked secured to Emma.

"It was such a relief to know I could pay attention to Katie because it was her birthday, blow out her candles, help her open her presents, and I didn't have to worry about Emma running to the water or the street," recalls Christy. "Because we knew she was OK we could focus on another child. Pete was there, and Emma was safe. Most parents take for granted that they can take their attention off one child and focus on another child. That's not something we have ever had.

Incorporating a service dog in their family "is hard work. It's like having another child," says Christy. "I expected that. It will be a long time before we will be able to say everything is working out perfectly. But I do believe Pete is absolutely the dog for Emma."