Archive for Thursday, March 22, 2007

County resident develops service dog program

March 22, 2007

Lea Ann Shearer runs a business dog lovers can appreciate. It's Paws for Freedom, in which she trains Labrador retrievers to assist the disabled.

Shearer operates her nonprofit business out of her rural Leavenworth County home, where she and her part-time assistant, Kim Downing, work with the dogs.

Children have a hand in the training as well. Shearer takes her dogs to Horizon Academy, a private school in Roeland Park, where, in an after-school club, students help train the dogs.

The kids say the training sessions are fun.

Alli Pitkin is a 10th-grader from Shawnee who works with Astro, a yellow lab.

Every day when Shearer drives up to the school - with about eight dogs in her truck - it's Alli who helps Astro out of the kennel.

He wags his tail, she said, and licks her face.

"We teach them all kinds of stuff," Alli said. "Like sit and stay."

The youths groom the dogs and they even take a couple of field trips with them each year. Alli said Astro was "pretty good" on a recent visit to a Price Chopper grocery store.

Each day after school, Brian Turissini, an eighth-grader at Horizon Academy, trains Bombay, a black lab. Brian was quick to say Bombay is a bit more energetic than the other dogs.

"I try and calm her down," Brian said.

He and the other students teach the dogs basic assistance commands, such as turning on a light switch, picking items up off the floor and opening doors.

Horizon's counselor, Brad Epsten, said it made sense to agree, when Shearer asked the school about bringing dogs. Horizon is a school geared to inspire children who have learning disabilities.

"We had seen our students really connect with animals," Epsten said.

This is the second year Horizon has participated with Paws for Freedom. The program provides the opportunity to work on social skills, to raise self esteem, provide responsibility and learn a potential job skill.

"I would say it's been excellent," Epsten said. "We have not had any negative experiences. All the students who worked in it the first year stayed throughout the year, committed every day after to school to give an hour of their time."

It's not just kids who are helping train the dogs.

About twice a year, Shearer offers volunteer certification classes. Adults, and youths under 18 accompanied by an adult, meet weekly for eight weeks. The upcoming classes are set to begin March 6.

Gaining confidence

When Shearer rattles off the names of her dogs, it sounds like she's reading a children's story book.

There's Allie, Astro and Andy, Bombay, Bella, Bruno, Baxter and Blazer. And then, after skipping a few letters of the alphabet, there's her older dogs -Freedom and Gus.

When Shearer, their owner and trainer, enters their room, all 10 dogs take note. They're instant company and a built-in alarm system at the same time.

Shearer has been training service dogs for nearly eight years, since completing a six-week seminar at the Assistance Dog Institute in northern California.

After taking the course, she worked for several other service dog agencies. In one of them she unexpectedly became interim director, a post she held for two years.

She was the only full-time person on site.

"It was trial by fire," Shearer said, smiling. "But it turned out to be a good experience because it gave me the confidence to start my own program here."

Good neighbors

In 2005, she was ready to start up Paws for Freedom. She found the perfect home - for herself and Paws for Freedom - on nine acres near Tonganoxie. Shearer obtained the required permits and settled in.

Her neighbors haven't complained, she said.

"This is not going to become a house that has a lot of barking dogs 24-7," Shearer said. "It's really important that these dogs have good manners : they're not kept outside without supervision. When they go outside I go with them."

Since moving to Leavenworth County she's been busy. Shearer works at a family real estate business, The Shearer Group, in Overland Park. And she operates Paws for Freedom.

She's devoted to working with her dogs.

Her compassion for them is evident. "There you go, luv," she said to Freedom, her 8-year-old demonstration dog, as she put him in his kennel.

"Labs have a great temperament for this line of work," Shearer said.

To find the temperament she needs, Shearer hand selects her puppies, administering a sort of puppy aptitude test.

"It's not a guaranteed test," Shearer said. "But it gives you a better idea about what the puppies think."

There's no shortcut to training service dogs. It takes at least two years. And not all dogs graduate. Those that don't graduate are sold as family pets.

The average waiting list for a service dog is three to five years.

"So demand exceeds supply," Shearer said.

If she were training the dogs by herself, Shearer said she could manage about four at a time. But because of the partnership with Horizon Academy she's able to have 10 dogs, eight of which she takes to the school every day.

And she follows the dogs through their first year, once they're adopted. Though adoption is part of the plan, saying goodbye is never easy.

Shearer equated it to sending a child off to college.

"In a sense they are like my kids," she added.

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