The Transformative Power of Wilderwood Service Dogs

When I discovered our special education class would help train Wilderwood Service Dogs, I was overjoyed we would receive the opportunity to assist in such a rewarding service for others. Because of my experience with a rescue dog after losing my father, I know first-hand the healing power a dog can have, but nothing prepared me for how important Wilderwood Service Dogs and Nicole Ballard’s visits would become in our students’ lives. 

The transformative power of these service dogs on our students was truly remarkable. The presence of these dogs in our class positively improved our students socially, psychologically, and physically. Our students trained service dogs for the Public Access Test, which allowed our students to take on leadership roles as they taught commands to dogs. Shy and timid students gained confidence and self-esteem. In addition, some students took their knowledge of training to train their dogs at home. Working with service dogs encouraged our students to communicate more clearly and to feel comfortable socializing with others. For example, at a career fair on campus, our students were able to talk to strangers about training the dogs. On a final note, the students learned to be adaptable while working with the dogs. Once, our students practiced walking a dog with a cane because that dog would be placed in an environment where she would assist someone with a cane. Often, the dogs provided an opportunity for the students to learn how to use commands while working either independently or as a group. 

The service dogs nourish the people who surround them. There have been times where our students who have physical limitations overcome their limitation because their love for the adogs motivating them. Our students feel safe and loved with these dogs. One student, who did not like dogs, has fallen completely in love with them and gives the biggest smiles while training the dogs. These dogs bring joy to all of our students and even have the power to change the demeanor of a student with anxiety to a state of complete happiness. These dogs offer students with an outlet for sensory relief and comfort. Our students feel proud of their work with the dogs, and it brings them joy to know they are helping train dogs that go on to improve the lives of others. For example, the knowledge that they helped train a dog for someone with agoraphobia-that person later was empowered to leave the house-brings our students a sense of purpose and accomplishment. 

It is inspiring to think about the many lives Wilderwood Service Dogs have enrichened. It is a privilege and a blessing to be a part of the service dogs’ journey. It is a great gift to watch as our students grow and gain essential skills that help them become contributing members of society.

Heritage High School

On behalf of the students and staff in the Comprehensive Development Classroom at Heritage High School, I would like to recommend Wilderwood Service Dogs to your grant committee. Wilderwood has consistently worked directly with our Special Needs classroom. My students feel a great sense of ownership and pride as the service dogs they train with develop skills and move on to their new homes. 

Nicole Ballard, a Wilderwood trainer, makes each visit educational for both my students and the service dog. She teaches not only how to train dogs but why the dog needs certain skills. My students love the weekly visits and the relationships they build with the service dogs. 

They have met with a service dog recipient and regularly receive feedback from owners about the dogs they have had a hand in training. The stories about the impact these service dogs have made in the owners’ lives gives my students a great sense of achievement. My students have participated in out of school events with Wilderwood because they are deeply invested in the program. I have students who are interested in working as foster’s for Wilderwood as a job when they graduate from high school. 

Our relationship with Wilderwood is a meaningful one that we value beyond words. The visits allow the dogs in training to learn in a school environment with students with disabilities. My students have gained confidence, self awareness, and a connection to their community. The Wilderwood program has positively impacted the lives of my students. Their mission and commitment to positively impact the lives of people with disabilities and service dogs is why we highly recommend Wilderwood Service Dogs to your grant committee.

Diane Hutchison / WILDERWOOD

Diane is the Activities Coordinator at Asbury Place Maryville for 12 years.  Asbury Place Maryville, is a continuing care retirement community located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.  Several years ago, Asbury Place Maryville partnered with Wilderwood on a program that has brought about wonderful results for their residents.   

The program was not anything we planned for but happened quite randomly after Nikki, from Wilderwood, reached out to us about bringing dogs in on a regular basis.  We agreed and the program has been running now for several years.  

Nikki brings several dogs out on a regular basis – different breeds and sizes – and the residents love it and look forward to it.  You can see a change in their attitude and body language as soon as they see the dogs coming in.  

I have several residents who had dogs either as a child or an adult and it is amazing to see the look on their face whenever they see the dog.  You can tell it reaches a part of their heart that only a dog can reach. 

One resident had a German Shepherd in her young married life that had a special place in her heart.  When the dogs come in she says she can’t touch the dog but she will watch them. She said she is afraid if she touches the dog she will fall in love with it and it will hurt when the dog leaves. She associates these dogs with loss but, even more, she associates them with love.   

One of the most surprising things for me is that the residents with some form of dementia do not remember Nikki but they remember the dogs.   You will hear them telling the dog, “I’ve missed you.” Some of them remember having a dog as a child and recall that special bond. For them, a dog brings a sense of home. 

The University of Tennessee has people who bring their personal dogs in on a regular basis but it is a very different program from what we do with Wilderwood.  The Wilderwood dogs are all trained therapy dogs and are incredibly well-behaved. They are calm around wheelchairs and walkers and know how to approach a person lying in bed.  With the other program, they can only stay for an hour at a time but Nikki and her dogs are here for a longer period of time and, therefore, have an impact on more people. It is truly a wonderful thing to witness.  For some of these residents, the only thing I can do for them is bring in a dog. It makes their day and, for some, the only time I see them smile is when the dog comes in.  

A visit from the dog raises their spirit, gives them a chance to tell stories about dogs they had and, even if for a moment, eases their pain, sadness and loneliness. 

The dog’s impact is not isolated to the residents – it also impacts the staff and family members.    When the dogs come in everyone wants to pet them and it helps them relax. 

Research has shown the benefit of pet therapy on those living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.  When a dog is present, there is an overall reduction in stress, anxiety and depression, serotonin and dopamine are released which has a calming and soothing effect.  For those with Alzheimer’s it can decrease unwanted behaviors and quiet agitation. There is also a drop in blood pressure. 

We don’t have to go around with blood pressure cuffs to see how impactful a dog really is – we simply have to look around the room at the faces of the people.  

Whenever the dogs come in, the first thing I notice is the smile on the faces of the staff, the residents and family members.  It is not a fake, polite smile but a genuine, big-hearted smile. The dogs truly reach everyone’s heart and brighten their day.  It helps put everyone at ease and when the dogs are there, people are laughing and happy.  

We are grateful to Nikki and Wilderwood for providing Asbury Place Maryville with this program – and we are immensely grateful to the dogs for providing such happy moments and memories for our residents, staff and family members.

Thank You From The Breakthrough Foundation

Dear Cliff and Judy:

I sent you the standard “receipt letter” for your extraordinarily generous gift, but wanted to add these personal thoughts in an email so you and others who might read them can fully comprehend the significance of the contribution to the ongoing work of Breakthrough.

As you know, I have watched from the periphery as this organization was created in 1999 and has grown over the years. My personal relationship with two of the founders made me more aware than many of the crucial importance of their mission for the lives of both the individuals with the disability and their families. When asked to consider leading an effort to develop resources to move them to a new level of service for the ever-growing population of those on the spectrum, it didn’t take me long to agree.

I have been challenged on a number of fronts as I have moved through the learning curve at Breakthrough. While my position with the Foundation is removed from the day-to-day work of those on the “front lines” of providing services to the participants, I have many opportunities to observe and hear about the great work the staff does. The challenges they face in improving the lives of those in the program are vastly greater than any I have had; yet it would appear they all work very, very hard at doing a great job. I also know everyone goes through a standard regimen of training as they enter employment with the organization, but ongoing opportunities for training and development are usually not very high on any organization’s list of priorities as budgets and missional constraints are addressed every year.

Thus, your restricted gift for staff training is, in my mind, so critical in maintaining both wonderful employees and well-served participants. Exposure to new techniques in the work done by the staff is vitally important in maintaining a level of organizational quality and an environment and culture regularly infused with good morale building opportunities.

So thank you both for your thoughtfulness and foresight in making such a gift. I cannot help but believe it will truly make a significant difference in the short and long term future of Breakthrough.


Robert A. (Archie) Ellis, Jr., CEO