When Laura Porter (’20) was a sophomore at UT, she took her love for animals and her work with the local nonprofit Smoky Mountain Service Dogs and turned it into a student group dedicated to education around service dogs.
She had been volunteering with SMSD—a nonprofit based in Lenoir City, Tennessee, that provides mobility assistance service dogs for veterans with service-connected physical disabilities at no cost—since her first year at UT. Porter hoped to deepen her community engagement while working to ensure her application to the College of Veterinary Medicine stood out.
“From the first student fundraiser we did, after I was personally involved with SMSD as a weekend respite and puppy socializer, I saw how valuable the campus is to the training of the dogs,” says Porter, who is currently a staff trainer with SMSD.
She recruited friends and other students to join the group, but the week they completed their initial volunteer training, campus shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Porter, who graduated that year with a degree in animal science, says she gave up hope that the group would ever be reestablished on campus.
However, her hope was revived when Amy Engstrom Clugg, a marketing faculty lecturer in the Haslam College of Business, saw the same need and began leading the charge for a student group.
“‘Vol is a Verb’ is more than just a catchphrase,” says Clugg. “It’s an invitation to act, make a difference, lift others up, break trail, welcome, make it count, say yes, and light the way. When I started at UT last fall, I asked myself what more I could do to serve our campus community and ensure that everyone feels that they matter and belong here on Rocky Top.”
Clugg began as an apprentice trainer working with therapy animals in Chicago during the pandemic. She saw firsthand the comfort and joy the dogs brought to those in need. When she began teaching at UT, she thought a student group working with service dogs would be the perfect embodiment of the Volunteer spirit.
“When you’re known as the Volunteers and your mascot is a really great dog, it just makes sense to blend the two and help start a service dog program,” Clugg says. “Smoky Mountain Service Dogs is an incredible partner, and I’m so proud of our students for giving their time—and their hearts—to be in this program.”
After pitching the idea to various people and gathering support, she recruited students from around the university to complete volunteer training with SMSD. Five students—Julianna Budriss, Lauren Haggerson, Amy Li, Grace Nystrom, and Mikayla Rodriguez—completed 20 hours of training, including in-person and online classes, and more students are in training.
Once their training was complete, the students began spending two hours a week with the dogs and puppies in training. They helped socialize the dogs and took them out on campus to learn how to navigate tricky situations like busy sidewalks and challenging locations like stairs, elevators, and even a baseball game at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
“The exposure opportunities on campus are of tremendous value to our dogs in training,” says SMSD Puppy Raiser Coordinator Debra Sciarretta, who worked with Porter’s original student group.
“Fortunately, we have been able to resurrect our program this year with the support of Professor Amy Engstrom Clugg and the UT administration. We will now have the continuity we need on campus to maintain the program as students graduate,” says Sciarretta.
Clugg says she and the students are grateful to everyone at UT who said yes to the idea—like Vice Provost for Student Success Amber Williams and Gerber/Taylor Professor of Marketing Alex Zablah. “With continued support, we have the potential to become a true interdisciplinary university effort and positively support many more students and veterans.”
Rodriguez, a secondary education major, started serving with the student group for personal reasons.
“I want to give back to my community that has given me so much,” says the Knoxville native. “I have had close family members serve in the armed forces, so I thought serving in this way would honor them as well.”
Nystrom, a senior who acts as the student liaison for the Volunteer Puppy Partners, says she has always had a connection with dogs. With an initial inclination to politics, she double majored in political science and anthropology. But after working at places around Knoxville that board, train, and care for dogs, Nystrom discovered a new passion.
“SMSD has made me realize the value dogs can have in a person’s life, and how much a service dog can change a person’s life for the better,” Nystrom says. “It can give them their life back. My original goal was to help people, and now I think I have found a career path that will.”
Nystrom, who came to UT from South Ridings, Virginia, will continue learning about service dog training through the puppy raising process with SMSD.
“My favorite part of working with the dogs is seeing them work through problems and actively make choices for themselves,” she says. “They are so well trained but also incredibly smart and lovable.”
Like Nystrom and Rodriguez, Haggerson—a mechanical engineering major from Charlotte, North Carolina—joined the group for its impact.
“I have seen the impact service dogs have, not only on their companions but on the community . . . learning how to help train them and knowing that the work we are doing truly matters,” she says.
For Porter and Sciarretta, the Volunteer Puppy Partners group is a goal realized.
One of the dogs the students worked with during the spring semester, a two-year-old black lab named Seymour, graduated from training on June 23 and was paired with his veteran at a leash ceremony a few days later.
“It has been so rewarding to see the idea that I dreamt up in my dorm room come to fruition,” Porter says. “The work that these students do with these dogs is truly the Torchbearer’s Creed come to life. These students are giving up their time and their hearts to love on and prepare these dogs for someone else. There is no greater gift than being dedicated to the service of your fellow man.”