Nobody uses their feet, elbows and knees like the dogs pressed into service by Smoky Mountain Service Dogs — all the more reason to get an annual look-see by someone trained to spot potential problems.
On Monday, Dr. Darryl Millis, of University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, visited SMSD’s new training facility in Lenoir City. Millis is an associate professor of orthopedic surgery. He’s been providing these orthopedic exams for SMSD since its founding. Millis is also surgery section head of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences.
His visit was part of SWOOP Day — Service and Working dog Orthopedic and Ophthalmologic Program.
“The ophthalmology group has done free eye exams for service dogs for a while,” Dr. Millis said. “It just seemed logical these service dogs also need to have joints and bones checked.”
SMSD takes their dogs to UT for the eye exams.
Mills examined 21 SMSD dogs Monday. The procedures included testing the gaits of each animal by having them walk across a pad that measured the weight placed on each paw. Millis also did a visual check of how the service dogs walked and then examined each in a standing posture and lying down to check for any muscle or joint issues, such as hip dysplasia.
There to assist Millis was Heather Wilkerson, SMSD program manager. She and Millis also have worked together in UT’s CARES program, which stands for Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Exercise and Sports Medicine. Lead trainer Susan Randall helped put the dogs through the gait analysis, along with Laura Porter. Cassie Krause is SMSD staff trainer.
SMSD is a nonprofit that was established in 2010 to provide custom-trained mobility assistance service dogs to wounded veterans at no cost. Some veterans are amputees who need help with balance, retrieval of things like their keys or assistance with other issues related to mobility.
Some suffer from PTSD or other health problems. SMSD matches the veterans with dogs that meet their individual needs.
All of the dogs examined by Millis this week were older than 6 months. SMSD uses both male and female dogs, primarily golden retrievers and also Labrador retrievers.
These dogs, Millis explained, already have been screened for elbow and hip problems. It is important to do this on a regular basis in case arthritis has begun to set in or there’s an injury that has gone undetected, he said.
“Hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia, they are the two biggest things we run into,” the veterinarian said. “That can be career ending.”
Dogs, just like humans, can tear their ACL or suffer from arthritis, Millis explained. In the case of arthritis, it can develop when a dog is young.
“Most arthritis in dogs is caused by some type of joint abnormality,” he explained. “It can start at 5 or 6 months old. It is not so much aging like in people. If we don’t treat it, it can snowball. It only takes a dog one year to develop arthritis that can take five years in a person.”
Peace of mind
Suzy Kitchens, co-founder of SMSD with her husband, Mike, said she is grateful to Millis and UT for the thoroughness of these exams.
“As the only service dog organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International in Tennessee, SMSD has to guarantee that any dog that goes out the door doesn’t have any type of dysplasia or health issues as we place that dog into service,” Kitchens said.
She added that it wouldn’t make sense to continue with the yearlong training if a dog is unable to perform required tasks.
“It is not in our best interest to train that dog to get in and out of a car, pick up items, etc.,” she said. “It is better to retire that dog.”
Wilkerson, the program manager, said healthy dogs can work for eight to 10 years. Some they have trained are in that phase now and continue to work.
One of the ways to keep them healthy is by keeping the weight off, Millis said. SMSD stresses that to the veterans receiving the dogs.
In addition to the service dogs at SMSD, Millis tends to search and rescue dogs, diabetic alert dogs and also those trained to detect seizures. He also sees cats on occasion.
Perhaps one of his most well-known patients was Smokey IX, the mascot for the University of Tennessee. Millis said he was watching Smokey at a basketball game and noticed he wasn’t acting normal. He had the dog’s trainers bring him to the clinic and diagnosed him with a torn ACL.
Smokey’s recovery was documented by local and national media. It included work on the underwater treadmill. Eventually, Smokey had surgery.
Success stories are Millis’ goal. He said he understands how important the SMSD dogs are to the veteran recipients.
“I have had the chance over the years to meet some of the recipients of the dogs,” he said. “It is really an emotional experience to know they have done something for us, they have kept our country safe. They have given up something to do that. It gives me a sense of what it is I am doing.”
Kitchens is the one who matches up the veterans with their service dogs.
“These dogs are a lifeline,” she stressed.
“We have several guys who have said they wouldn’t be here were it not for their dogs, if they weren’t by their side.”
At the end of the day, no major problems were discovered with any of the SMSD dogs Monday. One of them, named Jazz, had a sore right shoulder and his handler was advised to rest him. Earlier in the day, the 1-year-old had made whimpering sounds, alerting staff to a possible injury.
It is reassuring to know these working dogs can continue to serve and received the green light from someone like Millis, Wilkerson and Kitchens said.
“If I needed orthopedic surgery, I would call Dr. Millis,” Wilkerson said enthusiastically.