Ten-year-old Carlie Kempton sits on the couch in her family’s Olathe home, quietly watching a movie.
And for her, that is unusual.
The oldest of four children, Carlie was diagnosed at 11 months old with Phelan-McDermid syndrome, a genetic disease with symptoms that include intellectual disabilities, lack of functional language, and poor motor control as well as poor thermoregulation. She is often restless and has trouble sitting still or staying in one place for any length of time. Carlie usually paces around her suburban home.
But on this day she is calm, with fuzzy reason: Nuzzled next to her is Gracie, a large black Labrador retriever who has been trained by Paws for Freedom as a service dog to assist Carlie in achieving a tranquil state.
The big black dog moved into their Olathe home on May 23 and sleeps in a kennel inside Carlie’s bedroom. Wearing a green cape with the words “service dog in training” embroidered on it, Gracie nuzzles Carlie.
“Carlie definitely seeks her out,” mom Natalie Kempton said. “She pets Gracie, and she laughs and smiles at the dog. … Carlie sits on the couch with her and she wouldn’t do that before. She would just walk and walk and walk. Gracie has had a calming effect on all of us. She’s definitely been a good addition.”
This canine caped crusader is among thousands across the nation who make a difference daily for those challenged by disabilities whether physical, developmental or emotional.
An estimated 9 million Americans live with significant physical and sensory impairments; there are roughly 10,000 to 12,000 assistance dogs at work with approximately 70 organizations worldwide that train them. These highly trained canines work on average eight to 10 years before they retire and need to be replaced.
Assistance dogs, more commonly known as service dogs, are in high demand. Wait times for these highly trained canines vary from six months to three years. Training begins when the dogs are young; most common breeds are Labradors, golden retrievers or a mix of the two. Some organizations charge the recipient for their assistance dog to recoup some of the cost of training the animals. Others do not charge for placing their service dogs with recipients. Some programs use a combination of dedicated volunteers and instructors to train the dogs, while others use only professional trainers.
In the metro area, there are three active nonprofit service dog training organizations nearby: Paws for Freedom in Tonganoxie; KSDS Assistance Dogs in Washington, Kan., near the Nebraska border; and the Kansas City Chapter of Canine Companions for Independence, which is headquartered in California.
Carlie Kempton’s dog, Gracie, came to the family through Paws for Freedom.
Lea Ann Shearer started Paws for Freedom in 2005 after being a solo service dog trainer since 1999.
“I became interested back in college, and I tried to find an internship and couldn’t find any nonprofit to do it,” Shearer said.
She did an internship on the East Coast with a therapy dog, “and that sealed the deal for me,” Shearer said. She finally attended the Assistance Dog Institute in Northern California, now known as the Bergin University of Canine Studies.
Shearer grew up in Prairie Village and graduated from Shawnee Mission East. A dog lover since her youth, Shearer went out of state for college and the dog training program in California. She decided to return to the area to set up Paws for Freedom to be near family and because of the lack of programs in the area. She set up in Tonganoxie because the city allows multiple dogs on your property and there was plenty of acreage to kennel and train the pups.
By the end of this month, Paws for Freedom will have placed a total of 13 dogs since its start, including therapy dogs who work with the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City and the American Stroke Foundation. Paws charges about $6,000 for a trained service dog; Shearer estimates it costs about $17,000 to purchase, train and care for the dog. Shearer’s funding comes from private donations and grants.
At any given time, Paws for Freedom is training eight to 12 dogs in various stages. Assisted by Hannah Ozkal, Paws director of canine development, Shearer gets the puppies when they are about eight weeks old and trains them over a two-year period to learn various commands including retrieving items, turning lights on and off and opening and closing doors. Placement occurs with recipients who have completed an extensive application including medical history, professional personal letters of reference and the family situation.
“We look at what do they need from the dog … and we also look at the personalities,” Shearer said. “It’s playing matchmaker. People have told me it’s like getting married.”
Recipients then come to train at the Paws facility in Tonganoxie for two weeks with their dog match unless there are extenuating circumstances. In Gracie and Carlie’s case, Shearer and Ozkal have been doing the training at the Kemptons’ house.
After the training, it’s time to place the dog in the recipient’s home for two weeks without Shearer and Ozkal to see how things work.
Gracie was placed May 23 in the Kemptons’ home, and it’s been a learning process for everyone in the family. The dog is working to bond with Carlie and her mom, Natalie, who has been doing most of the training since Carlie is nonverbal.
Carlie’s dad and three siblings have to keep their distance from Gracie during this two-week period.
“We have to leave her (Gracie) alone for two weeks because she has to know that she’s for Carlie,” said Carlie’s 7-year-old sister Janie Kempton. “That’s been hard.”
Both dog and recipient then go through four public outings so both are used to these situations. Recently Gracie, Carlie and Natalie went to the Home Depot store in Shawnee for their first outing.
The experience was more difficult than Natalie Kempton thought it would be, but was typical for a first outing, Ozkal said.
“Gracie did everything she was supposed to do,” Ozkal said. “A couple of times she just laid down as if to say, ‘Are you really trying to make me do that?’ — her typical dog testing behavior. But Natalie was able to handle it.”
If everything works out, Paws for Freedom has a graduation ceremony for the team; for the Kemptons and Gracie, that will be June 28. Paws then follows up after two weeks, and at one-, three-, six- and nine-month intervals and on the one-year anniversary.
“We retain ownership of the dog for the first year to make sure things work out,” Shearer said.
Paws for Freedom gets some extra loving hands from its Student Trainer and Retriever Teams — or S.T.A.R.T. — program, in place since 2005. Working with Horizon Academy, a private school for students with learning disabilities, Shearer and Ozkal get help training their pups.
Horizon students apply to be trainers in an after-school therapeutic/academic program. Once selected, the students stay after school every day to train the dogs.
“It doesn’t just help the dogs but it helps our students,” said Sharyl Kennedy, executive director of Horizon Academy. “I see their self-esteem just grow and they take on responsibility. … They get a community feeling. … The dogs can read the students. And the students really have to learn about their emotions and regulating them.”
Carlie’s dog Gracie was trained in part through the S.T.A.R.T. program.
Dallas Blaser is a 13-year-old with metal-framed glasses on his small face. Having just completed his sixth-grade year at Mill Creek Middle School in De Soto, Dallas is enjoying a little quiet time on the couch with his trusty service dog, Rocky, sitting on the floor at his feet. Rocky’s blue service cape is off right now, but it’s nearby and the minute it’s brought out, he snaps to attention waiting for the next command.
It’s been a little more than four years since Canine Companions for Independence, commonly called CCI, matched Rocky with Dallas, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker.
“He does things for me that help Dallas be independent,” Dallas’ mom, Nichole Hurt, said. “He shuts the toothpaste drawer and carries a book into the other room for Dallas when he’s using his walker.
“He’s the smartest thing in our home,” she said with a laugh.
Dallas and Rocky can often be found playing ball outside the family’s Kansas City, Kan., home or cruising the yard in a golf cart that a family member retrofitted for them. Hurt said Rocky has made Dallas feel more independent from her and his stepdad as he tries to do some tasks on his own.
Rocky doesn’t go to school yet with Dallas, but that day is coming soon as Dallas gets older and is able to be more assertive with his verbal control of the dog, Hurt said.
“He’ll have the cognitive ability to have control of himself and Rocky,” she said. “Dallas is going to start to mature and the bond between them will grow stronger.”
Rocky came to Dallas through CCI. Since its beginning in 1975, CCI has placed 4,251 teams (pups and recipients). Currently, there are 1,851 active CCI teams across the country, including Dallas and Rocky, and nine other teams in the greater Kansas City area.
Dallas got Rocky from a CCI program that uses volunteer puppy-raisers for the first 16 to 18 months, like Debbie Sloan of Kansas City, who is chapter president.
“When pups come to us at eight weeks we’re responsible for food, socialization, veterinary care and training with a professional,” Sloan said. “And we train them in 30 basic commands.”
Sloan is a puppy-raiser with another woman for Dariuss II; CCI names the dogs, which they obtain from select breeders of golden and Labrador retrievers.
The puppies live with these volunteers for that first year to year and a half, and they are financially responsible for all food, veterinary care and training needs of the animals they raise.
“It’s not cheap to do this,” Sloan said.
CCI does not charge recipients for their dogs; CCI estimates each of its dogs is a $45,000 investment made by the puppy-raising volunteers and the organization.
Sloan said among the most important roles puppy-raisers play is getting the dogs comfortable in public. For example, a group of Kansas City CCI puppy-raisers recently practiced their socialization skills and ability to respond to commands during an outing at Crown Center.
“Our job is the socialization of the dog and providing that loving home,” she said.
Sometimes these well-trained dogs don’t make it to the end due to medical or temperament issues; only 40 percent of the dogs make it to graduation, Sloan said.
That was the situation for Leawood resident Sally Rosine, a veteran who has raised five CCI pups, three of which have been placed.
When a dog doesn’t make the cut for placement, the volunteers can then adopt the dogs themselves or CCI puts them up for adoption. Rosine adopted her dog, Jane, 10 years ago, when she was released from the program.
“Jane is a ‘change of career dog,’” said Rosine explaining her dog’s role as a pet. “She helps train all the other pups.”
Rosine is awaiting the arrival of her sixth CCI pup any day now.
Recently, Rosine turned in Yegger, a 17-month old lab-golden mix, for his advanced training. He passed all of his medical and temperament tests and is on to “graduate” school. Once the initial training is completed with a volunteer, the dogs are turned over to regional CCI centers for an additional six to nine months of advanced training and placement.
Puppy-raisers are invited to attend graduation if and when their pup has been placed with a recipient.
“There are many tears and last minute kisses,” Rosine said. “But when you go to graduation and see them placed, you just think I have to this- how can I not do this?”
Thirty-two-year-old Callie Yeater of Shawnee is a veteran when it comes to service dogs. Yeater, who has cerebral palsy, is on her third service dog, Elf (he was born on Christmas Eve). All three of her canine companions were trained by KSDS in Washington, Kan. Yeater’s mother learned about KSDS when Yeater was 14 years old after reading a story in the newspaper and immediately contacted the organization.
“I was getting to the point that I didn’t want my mom and dad to do everything for me,” said Yeater, who uses crutches or a wheelchair for mobility.
After waiting six months, Yeater had her first pup, Topaz, a golden retriever. Due to health problems, Topaz retired early and Yeater welcomed her second service dog in January 1998, a male named Doc. The dog worked until he retired in 2005 and became a family pet. Yeater did not get Elf until 2009, and the four years reinforced what a help the service dog is to her.
Left to do everything on her own, “I was just exhausted,” she said.
Yeater works as a payroll and intake assistant at The Whole Person, an area nonprofit with offices in downtown Kansas City. She uses a power wheelchair and Elf is with her every day, with his service dog cape on.
Elf supports Yeater as she turns and transfers her weight out of her wheelchair to another seat, like her desk chair. The pivot transfer — changing directions and shifting her weight to another seat — would be very difficult on her own.
“I put one hand on his shoulder blades and push up and tell him to ‘brace’ and that allows me to do my own pivot transfer,” Yeater said.
Elf helps Yeater with her jacket and socks and even going to the bathroom.
“I don’t have depth perception or peripheral vision, so he’ll stop me at a curb cut so I know where to go,” she said.
Elf has even developed a routine at Yeater’s workplace.
“He’s in his harness, but he has his people. He goes around and says ‘good morning’ to the people he knows and greets them,” she said. “I’m lucky that Elf is good and can handle this.”
All of Yeater’s service dogs have been graduates of KSDS. Started in 1990 as Kansas Specialty Dog Service, KSDS also uses puppy-raisers in its program, with several living in the Johnson County area. The dogs are then returned to KSDS in Washington for advanced training and placement. Like CCI, KSDS does not charge the recipient for the service dog, but the organization requires them to come to its facility for final training.
While Gracie is still in the honeymoon phase of her life with the Kemptons, hopes are high for a meaningful, long-term relationship.
The Kemptons have a busy household, including three other children who don’t have disabilities — Kat, 9; Janie, 7, and Chase, 4. There are dance lessons, school activities and sporting events to go to for the kids.
Balancing the trio’s activities with Carlie’s needs has been a challenge.
“The hope is Gracie will be Carlie’s buddy while her siblings are so busy,” Natalie Kempton said.
Natalie also hopes the dog will help settle Carlie for outings that other families take for granted.
“We hope eventually we can take Carlie to the movies … and it’s something we can all do together.”
Yeater, the service dog veteran, says her three assistance dogs have made a tremendous difference in her quality of life.
“If I hadn’t had my dogs with me, there are a lot of things I wouldn’t have gotten the courage to do, like take public transportation,” she said. “He does a lot of physical things for me but he’s a big confidence builder.”
Indeed, Yeater wouldn’t be able to live independently and hold a job without Elf.
“I couldn’t do this on my own.”
Organizations for information on assistance/service dogs
Canine Companions For Independence: wwwcci.org; email for local chapter: firstname.lastname@example.org Puppy-raisers needed.
KSDS Assistance Dogs: www.ksds.org; 785-325-2256. Puppy-raisers needed.
Paws for Freedom: http://www.pawsforfreedom.org/; 913-208-6326
Canine Companions for Life: www.k94life.org
Bergin University of Canine Studies: http://www.berginu.edu/
Canines for Service: www.caninesforservice.org
Dogs for the Deaf: www.dogsforthedeaf.org
Freedom Service Dogs, Inc.: www.freedomservicedogs.org
Guide Dog Foundation: www.guidedog.org
Patriot Paws Service Dogs: www.patriotpaws.org
Paws with a Cause: www.pawswithacause.org
Service Dogs for America/Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation:
For additional resources visit: http://
What is a service dog?
The Americans with Disabilities Act states that service dogs are individually trained “to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Tasks may include helping to guide people who are legally blind, alerting a person who is deaf, pulling a wheelchair or helping someone to walk with assistance and alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure.
These dogs are highly skilled working canines.
There are service dogs that calm a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example. But currently, if a dog is used solely to provide comfort or emotional support, it does not qualify as a service animal under the ADA.
The law states that the service dog has to be either harnessed, leashed or tethered, unless the device interferes with “the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.”
Service dogs must be allowed to accompany their human partners in all areas of a building or facility where the general public can go whether they are federal, state or local governments, businesses or nonprofit organizations. This covers public areas in hospitals, but some legally excluded areas are operating rooms or burn units.
The only circumstances that permit a person with a disability to be asked to remove his or her service dog from a location are:
If the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it;
The dog is not housebroken.
(Source: Americans with Disabilities Act)