The air was a little chilly on the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 4, but the mood was warm at the Prairie Village Shops, where about 50 people gathered to learn and teach about assistance dogs for National Assistance Dog Day.
Greg Kincaid, a lawyer and author of children’s books about dogs, helped organize the event. He was inspired when he went to the KSDS Assistance Dogs headquarters in Washington, Kan., to research dog training for a book.
“The things dogs can do to help people is stunning,” Kincaid said. “... These dogs are heroes. Their whole life might be dedicated to helping a blind person.”
Lee’s Summit resident Tom Cruit attended the event with his new KSDS service dog, Jeeves. He’s had three other service dogs in his life to help with his visual impairment, including two others from KSDS.
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“All the commands are the same (with the dogs), but there’s the bond between the dog and you” that changes with each animal, he said.
For example, Cruit said Jeeves is more laid-back than his previous dogs when he’s not working.
Assistance dogs aren’t limited to helping people with vision problems anymore. Service dogs can help people with mobility problems keep their balance, retrieve various items, and even pull a wheelchair.
It can be difficult to navigate the different types of assistance dogs. A guide dog will get different — and more intense — training than a therapy dog, because it has a different practical purpose.
A dog from KSDS gets 18 months to two years of training, plus an annual refresher course. The non-profit provides the dogs for free but values them at $25,000.
The dogs receive 120 hours of formal education and must pass a skills test and a public-access test to be certified as an assistance dog.
Volunteer puppy-raisers train the dogs from the age of 8 weeks with 40 commands and take them everywhere to provide real-world experience and immersion.
“For me, the biggest challenge is really returning them (to KSDS), but they’re going to someone who needs them more than we do,” said Sheila Johnson, a KSDS volunteer puppy-raiser from Grandview.
KSDS also trains facility dogs to help with rehabilitation, therapy, and other situations.
Other groups have their own training as well. MO-KAN Pet Partners has a therapy dog program to help children read, while Pets for Life brings its therapy dogs to comfort people in nursing homes, correctional facilities, and domestic-violence shelters.
Kaitlin Hickerson of Prairie Village brought her dog, Matilda, who trained through Pets for Life, to Saturday’s event. Matilda goes to hospitals, long-term care facilities, and nursing homes to bring comfort to people there.
“I see the residents,” Hickerson said. “They get so excited when they know she’s coming. Their eyes light up.”
Pets for Life also works with the Church of the Resurrection to provide therapy dogs for various emotional support groups.
One important distinction for the public is that an assistance dog isn’t a pet. KSDS advises people not to touch a working dog without asking permission, not to feed the dog, and not to attempt to distract it from its duties by making noises. Distracting a dog from its work can be dangerous for the person who needs its help.
And if you’ve heard of a “K-9 cop,” you know assistance dogs aren’t just for people with physical or emotional problems.
“They’re treated as a partner and a law enforcement tool, but there’s definitely a dog-handler relationship,” said Cory Flaming, a K-9 handler for the Overland Park Police Department.
Police dogs like Flaming’s K-9 partner, Mack — a Belgian Malinois certified in explosive detection and patrol, who has been with the department for six years — help officers search for drugs and explosives, among other duties.
The main point of the event was to showcase the diversity of assistance dogs and educate people about what they do.
“These organizations need financial help and support and that comes from awareness, people seeing what they’re doing,” Kincaid said.