Although Vanquish Worldwide has a philanthropic reach across the world, one East Tennessee-based all-volunteer organization that assists members of the armed forces has a special place among the hearts of Vanquish’s president and CEO Eric W. Barton, management and staff. As a result, support and participation with nonprofit Smoky Mountain Service Dogs has abounded over the last couple years.
“As a retired Marine, I have a passion for our military and giving back to our armed forces, wounded warrior and veteran assistance programs,” Vanquish Worldwide President and CEO Eric W. Barton said. “Smoky Mountain Service Dogs does just that. Partnering with this wonderful organization is a great fit for our company.”
Vanquish has been in partnership with SMSD, which provides custom trained mobility assistance service dogs free of charge to disabled veterans, for the past several years. The dogs are used to improve the physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing of its recipients.
In 2013, Vanquish and its sister company, LexLin Gypsy Ranch, initiated a Facebook donation campaign by pledging matching funds from both companies to SMSD and raised enough money to support dog selection, raising, training and certification. That training and certification process takes about 2 ½ years for each dog.
“Without this assistance we would not be as far as we are today because Eric has been behind us from the get go,” SMSD board member and veteran liaison Suzy Kitchens said.
“Smoky Mountain Service Dogs is so extremely thankful for the partnership that we have with Eric Barton and his company,” Suzy Kitchens, SMSD board member and veteran liaison, said. “Without this assistance we would not be as far as we are today because Eric has been behind us from the get go, basically ever since he found out about us. He has proven to be just stellar in his commitment to us. He’s an important part of our support system.”
Vanquish and LexLin hosted a benefit horse auction in 2014 on behalf of SMSD and secured funds for the raising and training of another service dog. According to SMSD Chairman Mike Kitchens, it costs about $20,000 and 1,200 hours of training to prepare a dog for a life of service.
“These placements could not have happened without the support of generous and caring companies like Vanquish Worldwide and their employees,” Mike Kitchens said. “Smoky Mountain Service Dogs was certainly blessed when our paths crossed that of the Barton family. Together we are making a difference in the quality of lives of those who defend us.”
Vanquish is currently sponsoring a golden-Lab mix puppy named Vanner. Though he is currently in his training stages, the puppy will soon serve as the arms and feet for a disabled veteran. He will retrieve items, provide stability and pull wheelchairs up ramps, if the need arises.
Earlier this year, Vanquish asked for the community’s support in naming the puppy, sponsoring a contest on social media outlets and awarding a $50 Amazon gift card to two finalists whose puppy names were selected. Vanquish received more than 150 comments and name suggestions during the puppy naming contest.
The strong name Vanner not only fits the stout, energetic puppy but is also a nod to sister company LexLin and the Gypsy Vanner horse breed, which is used at equine therapy centers across the U.S. to assist disabled veterans.
“We fell in love with the name and thought it would be a perfect fit for Vanner,” Barton said.
Vanner is currently living with a volunteer puppy raiser in Maryville and will continue house-breaking and other basic obedience skills in addition to weekly puppy training plans. When he is six to seven months old, Vanner’s training will transition into more advanced skills at SMSD’s training facility in Lenoir City.
“They also start acclimating him more into public on regular outings at the kennel and he will continue that process until he’s at least 18 months old,” Suzy said. “He stays in the kennel Monday through Friday, and on weekends we try to get our dogs out into homes, so he will hopefully go home on weekends to various homes, people who volunteer for us called weekend respites.”
At the end of his training, Vanner will understand 40 different commands, including how to turn on light switches and how to retrieve items such as car keys, canes and credit cards, Suzy said.
Since its founding in 2010, Smoky Mountain Service Dogs has placed seven dogs with disabled veterans and currently has seven veteran applicants looking to SMSD for a service dog. Vanner will be placed with a veteran in late 2016.
Suzy said she believes Vanner has potential to be a great service dog.
“He’s a highly motivated dog. He loves his food reward. That’s how we train them,” Suzy said. “He just wants to be busy all the time.”
Vanquish will also be sponsoring a baseball jersey auction at the Aug. 30 Tennessee Smokies baseball game against the Jacksonville Suns. Smokies players will be wearing patriotic-colored jerseys featuring the spirit and bond between the service dog and his veteran partner. The jerseys were designed and provided by Vanquish and will be auctioned off as a fundraiser for SMSD.
Barton said he hopes that the jersey auction fundraiser will help spread the word about SMSD’s passionate mission and encourage others to volunteer in puppy raising and support service dog training with the organization.
“The mission, countless success stories and the impact these special dogs make in the lives of wounded warriors is incredible,” Barton said. “I’m proud to partner with and continue the mission of the SMSD organization.”