It’s a busy check-in afternoon at the hotel’s front desk, but several people in line don’t seem to mind at all.
They’re petting KC.
The 16-month-old black Labrador patiently succumbs to the coos and caresses and sneaks in a few hand licks in the lobby of the Kansas City Marriott Country Club Plaza.
KC, the dog, is just doing her job. She’s been “hired” as the first therapy dog known to be working at a Kansas City area hotel. As such, she’s available for guests or staff members who need a bit of stress relief or diversion.
She also spends one day a week at the Children’s Place, cozying up to children who have troubles with human contact. In that role, she’s part of the hotel’s community outreach program.
Hotel general manager Brett Ellison is KC’s primary handler when she’s on duty and her keeper when she’s not.
“About a year ago, I called the hotel owner up and said I’d like to do this,” Ellison recalled. “They checked with their insurance carrier, got the OK, and we put in an application at CARES Inc., a Concordia, Kansas, breeding and training place for canine assistance dogs.”
KC and her brother — who’s now a diabetes alert dog for a child in another state — graduated from their specific service dog courses, and the Plaza Marriott bought KC. The hotel budgets about $400 a month for KC’s food, grooming, veterinary care and supplies.
A key purchase is KC’s uniform, a vest that says it’s OK to pet her, contrary to many service dogs that assist individuals with disabilities.
“This kind of therapy dog is trained to work with multiple people,” Ellison explained. “Sometimes she’ll just be curled up with a staff member who’s having a bad day. Other times she’ll be on a leash greeting guests. She’s never allowed to just wander, partly to make sure she’s not mistreated and partly to make sure she doesn’t walk out the door.”
KC has been working at the hotel at 4445 Main St. for only a few weeks, but so far, Ellison said, there have been no complaints and no problems. Part of KC’s training discourages barking, so noise hasn’t been an issue.
“She’s motivated by praise,” the general manager said. “She knows 51 different commands, but some of them we still have to work on.”
Ellison, who grew up with dogs, said it’s been challenging to apply the discipline necessary to correctly manage a therapy service dog. “I wouldn’t call it strict, but we don’t feed her anything but dog food, no human food, and we have to maintain her training.”
The hotel is counting on KC being a goodwill ambassador for some time to come. It’s set up her own Twitter account at #KCthedog, and they’re working on Facebook and Instagram accounts.
“The reaction to KC has been terrific, even from brides on their wedding day,” Ellison said.
He acknowledges that some guests might be afraid of dogs, but he said KC is never pushed to interact with anyone. It’s solely the guest’s choice to engage.
“So far, I’ve seen nothing but enthusiasm,” he said. “It’s going well. I know of five other Marriotts that want to do the same thing.”