AFTER WORKING IN HER DREAM JOB job training dolphins at Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, Florida, Cassie Krause ’10 took a position in which she was … well, a fish out of water.

For the past five years, Krause has worked as a service dog trainer for Smoky Mountain Service Dogs (SMSD) in Lenoir City, Tennessee, training puppies for disabled veterans.

“It’s something I’m good at that I didn’t think I’d be good at,” Krause said. “Dog training is a dream that I didn’t know was a possibility. It’s really cool to know that I can combine my passion for animals and give back to the military.”

Krause, who earned a degree in wildlife sciences with a minor in biology and was an avid supporter of the Corps of Cadets during her time at Virginia Tech, serves as the organization’s lead puppy trainer. She works with puppies ages 8 weeks to 1 year. After a year, the dogs advance to the next stage of training.

SMSD works mostly with Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers. These dogs innately know how to hold items gently in their mouths. More importantly, though, the breeds are beloved by society and help create an avenue for conversation between veterans and the public.

“Going into public places, strangers seeing a veteran who might be tousled-looking or has a sterner face, they may unfairly judge the veteran,” Krause said. “But if they see a golden retriever or a lab companion with them, they’ll be more approachable. Those two breeds are the friendliest to look at and more likely to be accepted into places, and the veterans will feel more comfortable because the public perception is a positive one.”

Krause said that service dogs require roughly two years of training, though that varies depending on the dog’s personality. SMSD works throughout the process to pair a veteran with a dog that meets specific needs.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter system in which there’s a line of veterans waiting, and then it’s first-come, first-serve with whatever dog is available,” Krause said. “We try to really look at the veteran’s lifestyle and how the dog that’s ready to graduate will fit into that lifestyle.”

Cassie Krause close-up with a dog

Once the dogs pass all their evaluations at the training facility, they live with advanced foster volunteers for a period of time to apply all their learned skills in real-life situations—for example, picking up keys or a ringing cellphone. Eventually, the dogs return to the training facility for a client camp with the veteran.

“We go through all the behaviors with the veteran and the dog just to build their relationship and their confidence with each other,” Krause said. “At the end of their training camp, the veteran has the option of a live-streamed graduation ceremony, where volunteers and other members of the community may come and celebrate the veteran and their new service dog. It’s a heartwarming time, where we honor the veteran and welcome them into the Smoky Mountain Service Dogs family.”

Eligible veterans are paired with SMSD service dogs at no cost. Fundraising efforts and grant money cover the associated expenses, such as care, training, and staff salaries.

As for Krause, she is working her dream job—again.

“It’s nice to watch them grow up and fulfill their destiny of being a great service dog,” Krause said. “They’re going to help somebody live such a different life that they didn’t think was possible and make them so happy.”

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