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​In northern Kansas, this organization readies dogs and owners for service

Typically providing assistance for eight to ten years, these dogs offer non-judgmental companionship, stimulation, and physical affection for people who cannot otherwise meet their needs.

As I toured not-for-profit Kansas Specialty Dog Services (KSDS) Assistance Dogs, Inc., a young pup scaled the gate of his very clean enclosure, seeking my attention. Operating in tiny Washington, Kansas, KSDS will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year (2020).

The organization is fully accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI), which provides workshops, training, and certification for trainers. KSDS is part of the North American Breeding Cooperative (NABC) too, sharing pups between similar facilities in order to maximize breed quality.

“NABC was founded seven years ago and it’s been a marvelous opportunity for us,” says Glenda Keller, recently retired CEO. “They set the standard for what a good breeding dog should be and select only the very best [genetics] for breeders.”

KSDS breeds and trains yellow and black Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers, to become service companions or for other individual and facility needs. Since its inception, the organization has placed 577 dogs at no charge to their owners, although each animal’s care and training is valued at approximately $25,000.

two labrador dogs Mario and Luigi pose during their playtime. (Photo: KSDS)

Typically providing assistance for eight to ten years, these dogs offer non-judgmental companionship, stimulation, and physical affection for people who cannot otherwise meet their needs. Individual dogs participate based on their temperaments, physical characteristics and health, and their apparent willingness to learn while serving humans.

Guide dogs help blind or visually impaired individuals who are at least 14 years old. They understand directions and can assist their owner in finding doors, elevators, counters and chairs, too.

Service dogs work with physically disabled owners who are at least 12. They retrieve items; assist with dressing or undressing; and pull wheelchairs. The dogs also learn how to ‘brace’ when their owners need balance or want to transfer themselves. They learn to turn lights on and off or open and close various door styles.

In addition, KSDS dogs support professionals who work in education and counseling as well as healthcare, retirement facilities, or the legal system.

woman walks dog in training Since its inception, the organization has placed 577 dogs at no charge to their owners. (Photo: KSDS)

As Keller retires after seven years in the CEO position, Kelly Matlack takes her place. A Washington native who helped to socialize KSDS puppies during her childhood, Matlack returned here specifically for this position.

“We just hired a new director of marketing and fundraising and we have a lot of room for physical growth too,” Matlack says. “We hope to raise more awareness and funds and find ways to celebrate our success and our trainers. But KSDS is [already] doing something right — we’ve had staff working here for 20 years.”

Helping KSDS pups acclimate to the world around them actually begins within days after birth. “We have TVs playing,” Matlack says. “We weigh them, touch their paws and tummies to see how they might react and introduce them to common scents such as lavender or vanilla.”

“It’s a sensory kind of training,” Keller says. “As you’re holding these dogs you’ll play with their ears or put a finger in their mouths.” New activities may include nail trimming and being around cats; dealing with somebody wearing a hat or mask; or taking car rides.

Members of the public may become involved from the moment that KSDS announces a new litter has been born on its web site. Individuals help to create a theme for naming each litter and each pup within that group — such as the litter called "Nuts," with each pup receiving the name of an individual nut.

dog helps person in wheelchair pick up shoe Service dogs work with physically disabled owners who are at least 12 years old. They retrieve items; assist with dressing or undressing; and pull wheelchairs. (Photo: KSDS)

Because exposure to multiple ages, voices ,and genders is important to help acclimate the puppies, the public may also assist with socialization, beginning at five weeks. Volunteers may interact with puppies around vacuum cleaners and walkers, canes and wheelchairs. They may teach pups to sit, lie down, and walk easily on a leash. In addition, the dogs walk on grass, concrete, gravel, or rocks — including near the highway.

At eight weeks puppy raisers take the dogs home to work with them. They avoid public spaces until these dogs are four months old, to alleviate the threat of rabies or other health issues. The public may also adopt Career Change Dogs at no charge (donations appreciated) after they retire or because they aren’t suited to "work for a living."

Since March 1996, KSDS has also worked with female inmates at Topeka Correctional Facility (TCF) through its Pooches and Pals program. “KSDS has worked there for 20 years,” Keller says. “Our trainers go in and teach the [inmate] trainers on methods to use.”

Typically about one year old, dogs in this program may not be progressing or maturing as well as anticipated, so inmates work one-on-one with each animal.

“These dogs change lives at the prison, too,” Keller says. One lady who worked with the dogs even asked for a KSDS recommendation upon her release.

Puppies who have received outside training return to KSDS at 18 to 20 months of age. After temperament assessments take place, the Veterinary Health Center at Kansas State University conducts complete physical evaluations for each pup. Each dog is then designated and trained for Guide, Service, or Facility Training duties.

By the end of training, each new owner must provide effective commands and exert adequate control of their dog. Owners must also pass the KSDS Assistance Dog skills and the ADI Public Access Test and demonstrate they can provide safe, loving homes, while addressing all their dog’s needs. Between 24 and 30 months of age, dogs go home with their prospective owners. KSDS also offers ongoing training support once dogs and owners return home.

Eighty-five percent of KSDS’s budget directly benefits the dogs. Remaining funds support administration costs that include seven full-time and five part-time employees; three are dedicated to training the dogs. Much of KSDS’s operational budget comes from individuals and family trusts.

guide dog opens door for disabled person Zelpha helps open a closet door for her partner. (Photo: KSDS)

Hill’s® Pet Nutrition provides food for the dogs, while Heartgard® and Frontline® donate medication. During joint training of dogs and new owners —which typically lasts for one to three weeks — owners also receive free housing and most meals, courtesy of Kansas Lions Clubs and other local organizations.

“If we didn’t have people financially helping us or volunteering to help us, quite literally we would not be able to keep the doors open,” Matlack says.

Keller agrees. “When you involve people in your project, they take ownership of it. We often refer to our puppy raisers and clients as our family; they’re a very caring, giving group.”

Keller relishes each graduation day at KSDS. “[It’s] when new graduates receive their dogs and you see the independence they’ve gained,” she says. “I have watched someone move from a wheelchair to balancing with a dog and the impact on their self-esteem is immeasurable. We change lives one dog at a time.”

headshot of writer Lisa Waterman Gray

Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer and photographer in Overland Park, Kan. and the Kansas City metropolitan area. Her byline has appeared in Chow Town/the Kansas City Star, Dreamscapes Travel and Lifestyle Magazine (Canadian), five AAA magazines, Midwest Living, Missouri Life, KANSAS!, Feast Magazine, and others. Lisa’s online stories have also posted at CivilEats.com, FoodTank.com, USAToday.com/10Best, OffbeatTravel.com, BusandMotorcoachNews.com, and WanderWithWonder.com. She is also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul, Messages from Heaven and Other Miracles (January 2019) and author of the 400-page statewide travel book, An Explorer’s Guide: Kansas (June 2011, The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton & Company).

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