Guide dogs have been helping blind people since the 1930's, but service dogs, which have helped disabled people since the mid 1970's, are a fairly new breed. These animals are trained to perform helpful tasks, like opening doors and retrieving items. About 40 dogs a year are trained at KSDS, the only facility in the United States which trains both guide and service dogs, according to Director William Acree.
Puppies are bred from a carefully distilled breeding stock of golden, black and yellow retrievers. Besides being versatile and well-tempered, retrievers are nicely suited to the job. "They're sociable enough to be able to transfer their bond," Michaels says. This is important, as the dog will move to at least four homes in its life. Puppies are given names based on a theme for their litter (such as famous painters.) Dogs must have good eyesight, and strong bones and joints throughout their lives, so they are screened through x-ray and eye exams.
Each dog is spayed or neutered, given shots, and at eight weeks old, taken in by a foster family ("puppy raiser") for 12 to 16 months. The family provides what Michaels calls "basic training" as they housebreak the animal, take it out in public and teach it to behave. "Mostly, their job is to make them nice, decent dogs," Michaels says. Foster families are encouraged to help the animals interact with people, to not jump on them - even in greeting - and to sit and stay.
There is a waiting list of people who want to be puppy raisers. Everybody loves puppies, and these ones are in the program because they have pleasant personalities. Families are provided with food (for the dog) but they must pay for routine veterinary services. When in public, the dogs wear a cape which simulates a backpack harness. The cape is a good conversation-starter (for the people) but serves a purpose for the animal. A service dog leads a life like a working person. When it is time to work, he or she will wear a harness and small pack. At this time, there is no playing with balls, sticks or humans. So, when wearing the cape, people are discouraged from petting or playing with the dog.
Even the good, honest puppies are sent to prison - about a dozen each year are cared for by inmates in the Kansas penal system. "It's a wonderful program, for us and for the Department of Corrections," says Acree. "We see inmates taking a positive step and trying really hard to succeed with this, which makes the dogs so much better for us." Inmates submit monthly reports on each dog's progress, and in Topeka, they videotape training sessions for the KSDS staff. "We are told that inmates stand in line to be able to do this," Acree says. A look into a retriever puppy's eyes will surely instill kindness into the heart of any criminal.
Lori Michaels gives me a tour of the three-building campus, where five trainers and two administrators work. We start with the canine housing unit ("I just can't call a $450,000 building a kennel," Acree says.) It has 67 indoor/outdoor dog runs, and rooms for grooming, surgery, veterinary exams and food preparation. The training building is essentially a 5,700 square-foot room with a kitchen in one corner, and the administration building is an old restaurant.
After about a year, puppies are returned to KSDS for a year of advanced training. Here, they are taught to retrieve objects, like keys or a cordless telephone. They are taught to open cabinet and entry doors, kitchen drawers, and to turn on light switches. They can even pull a wheelchair, if needed, and are taught to work as a brace. It can be very difficult to get out of a wheelchair without support in front of you, and the retrievers learn to stand firmly for support. The dogs may also be used to help a person who has fallen, get off the floor.
Michaels enlists the help of Rembrandt to demonstrate service dog tasks. She is very positive with him and it is clear that she enjoys working with dogs. "Good boy!" she says repeatedly. She doesn't discourage bad behavior, but instead encourages good behavior, and she constantly rewards him with praise and plenty of petting, but never food. KSDS dogs are not given food as rewards, nor are they given "people food."
Dog food is a concern for handicapped pet owners. Even though Hills Pet Nutrition Company donates food to about 250 service and guide dogs in Kansas, the owners still must handle the chore of feeding their dogs. Since the Hills products are concentrated, Acree says, dogs need only about four cups each day. This is also easier for the owner, on the other end, so to speak, because less food is sent through the, um, waste stream. Tasks like letting the dog out, or cleaning up after it may seem easy, until you imagine doing them while in a wheelchair.
KSDS Service dogs are not necessarily good watch dogs. "We don't train them to be at all aggressive," Michaels says. In fact, they train them to be mild mannered. The most aggressive animal in the facility is a declawed calico cat named Whitney, whose job is to act as a "small animal distraction." It is very important that service dogs focus on their task and not become a burden by chasing squirrels, cats or other dogs. Whitney is a fairly aggressive cat who teaches the canines to stay away from felines. "She can whip any dog in here," Michaels says. "She will teach them a lesson."
Three times each year, the center grants dogs to about a dozen handicapped people, whose only expense is transportation to the facility, and housing during their training class. (Three weeks for guide dogs and two weeks for service dogs.) Michaels enjoys these classes, as she gets to watch her dogs dramatically change the lives of people who greatly deserve such change. A small graduation ceremony marking the end of the class is often attended by the dogs' foster families. Michaels then says goodbye to each of "her" dogs, and loads their wagging tails and floppy ears into cars, and they ride home with their new owners - their new charges. All those retrievers look so alike, but they are all unique to her, and she says she will continue with this work for as long as they will let her. Lori Michaels is one of the fortunate people who has, early in her life, found a career she loves, unconditionally.
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