The 4-month-old was calm through airport security, staying quiet even as TSA agents patted her down.
She held up the line for a second, though, when she stopped to gobble up a red Life Saver someone dropped on the floor.
She is, after all, a puppy.
“That’s just what they do,” chuckled her handler, Lynn Schense of Papillion.
But the dog, a black Labrador retriever named Key, is different from her canine counterparts. She’s training to become a certified assistance dog recognized by the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.
Two years from now Key will be living with someone who is blind or disabled, helping that person get from place to place and lead as normal a life as possible.
Service dogs learn basic obedience — sit, stay, come — but also skills specific to their job: how to pull a wheelchair, retrieve medication, open a door, turn on the light.
Service animals are allowed under federal law to accompany their owners in all public areas, including stores, restaurants and airplanes, and should be comfortable in those environments.
“As soon as they are born we get them used to being around all different kinds of people and places,” said Schense, a volunteer for KSDS Inc., a nonprofit organization out of Washington, Kansas, that trains Labradors to become service or guide dogs. “You take them shopping with you, to restaurants, to church. All the routine stuff, so they know how to behave.”
Key and another puppy-in-training, Milo, were taken to Eppley Airfield recently as part of their education. There are few busy public places with more distractions than an airport. There’s security, escalators, food court, luggage, other people milling about. Navigating the airport is a step above day-to-day service dog training, and helps their handlers determine if the animals are cut out to be assistance dogs. Plus, there is a chance the dogs will have to fly when taken to their permanent owner’s home state.
“The dogs have to be OK with everyone — including people in uniforms, people of different races, everyone. Because you never know who and what their owner will encounter,” said Milo’s handler, Debbie VanZee of Omaha. Milo will be a year old in September.
Donner, an 8-year-old KSDS-trained black Lab, is a guide dog for Daniel Kurtz of O’Neill, Nebraska. Kurtz, 25, has been completely blind for five years; his vision diminished as he was growing up, due to a birth defect.
Donner is now Kurtz’s eyes and safety net. The dog makes sure Kurtz stops at crosswalks and obeys traffic signals. He pauses before steps so Kurtz can take them without tripping and obeys commands: Left, right, forward, find, stop.
“He definitely keeps me safe,” Kurtz said. “He knows where I can and cannot go. We are a team.”
Kurtz can even say “Donner, toilet,” and his friend guides him there by putting his nose on the rim.
But when Donner is home, and his harness is off, “his mood completely changes and he’s, like, ‘Hey, I’m a dog.’
“I’m able to pet him and play with him and talk to him and stuff,” Kurtz said.
It was a busy day at the airport when Key and Milo arrived. The training was approved in advance by Transportation Security Administration officials. The puppies, wearing blue vests that identified them as assistance dogs in training, attracted a lot of stares and oohs and aahs as they walked past the United Airlines ticket counter.
A few people asked to pet the dogs. Key was a no-no. She was there to work, Schense said, and petting her might cause the pup to get so excited she’d urinate on the airport floor. But for Milo, who is older and has more training under his belt, petting is OK.
Milo is so well-trained that he seems older than 10 months. He doesn’t run, jump, bark or chew on things. Milo is so calm that he barely notices when people reach out to pet him. And after he is petted by a stranger, he looks immediately to VanZee to let her know that his focus is still on her.
But like Donner, once Milo is done working, he’s a playful puppy again.
Key went first through security, following cues from junior trainer Marie Brousek. The puppy had to sit still while the TSA agent patted down her chest, then torso and legs. She can’t pay attention to the people in line around her — there were at least 100 — she can’t stray and she can’t have an accident. Of course, she can’t turn to nip at the security officer, either. Key made it through.
“She got an A,” said Brousek, a local fourth-grader who started volunteering with Schense because she loves dogs. “I made a report card for her when she learns things, like sitting under a table, stay and shake. Today, she didn’t quite get an A-plus, but she did good.”
The training is treat-based and the dogs learn commands that any family pet might, but it gets more intense by the time the dogs are Key’s age; that’s when a dog starts to learn commands specific to the needs of his future owner.
There are about 200,000 assistance dogs nationwide, according to Service Dog Central, a national group that advocates for the rights of people with assistance animals.
They might guide the blind, pull a wheelchair and perform other duties someone might need help with. Most are Labs or golden retrievers because the breeds are devoted companions by nature.
Before they can graduate from training and become a service animal under the guidelines of the Americans With Disabilities Act, dogs need to perform three tasks their owners are unable to do on their own. For example, VanZee said, an assistance dog can carry a plastic wallet, remove a credit card and give it to a store clerk.
Neither VanZee nor Schense is paid to train the dogs, although they are educated in how to train them. Neither woman is disabled or has relatives who are. They say they’re just dog lovers who wanted to help others.
The dogs live and train with them until they are close to 2 years old. Then they are sent to KSDS headquarters in Kansas to go through testing and health screens that will help determine if they are a better guide dog, suited to lead, or service dog, who is heavily relied on to perform tasks. Then the dogs are placed in their forever homes.
“We call it going to college,” said Deb Tegethoff, director of canine development at KSDS. “It’s like they choose what they want to focus on.”
About 50 KSDS dogs trained in Nebraska and Iowa have been placed in homes across the country, Tegethoff said.
The dogs have to have the right demeanor for the job, and they cannot have any health issues or emotional limitations. Schense has a family pet named Avalon who started out as a training dog but stayed with her trainer permanently because she gets carsick.
“If they have a predisposition to cataracts, allergies or hip problems, they can’t do it,” Schense said, explaining that the dogs can’t care for people if they have their own health problems.
There’s a small part of the local trainers who wouldn’t mind too much if Key and Milo ended up staying. They are attached to the dogs, but have to let them go.
“It’s hard, but it’s so worthwhile,” VanZee said.
Added Schense: “You bawl like a baby.”
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