Paws for Freedom Pairs Up Students with Service Dogs for Training

Program teaches kids with learning disabilities how to train service dogs for the disabled.

   For eight students at Horizon Academy in Roeland Park, 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. is the best hour of their school day. After most other students have gone home, they stay that extra hour to help train young Labrador Retrievers for a life as a service or therapy dog for a disabled person.

   All students at the private Horizon Academy have learning disabilities, and the school, which now is on summer break, strives to equip them with the tools they need to be lifelong learners. The dog-training kids, who are seventh through 12th graders, are paying it forward, knowing their efforts will help someone else who has a disability. Most of the dogs go to people who are in wheelchairs. Other dogs go to various facilities, such as senior living centers, in the Kansas City area.

   “It’s therapy for me,” says London Shabbaz, a 16-year-old sophomore with dyslexia. He works with Kody, a 3-year-old black Lab that has come back into the program for additional training. Usually the dogs, which come into the program when they are 8 weeks old, leave when they are 2. “If I have a bad day, I just know I can come and hang out with him for a while. It distracts me away from my homework and stress. It makes me feel better.”


London Shabbaz and Kody from Paws for Freedom / START Program

London Shabbaz nd Kody


   London and the seven other students are members of a club called START, which stands for Student Trainer and Retriever Teams. The eight labs — one per student — come from Paws for Freedom, a nonprofit organization that places the dogs once they graduate from the program with people who have applied for them. The 12-year-old Paws for Freedom has placed 15 service dogs with people ranging in age from 11 to 55. It has also placed four facility therapy dogs and two companion dogs.

   “If you look at a map of the United States, most service dog programs are on the West and East coasts; there aren’t that many in the middle,” says Lea Ann Shearer, founder of Paws for Freedom, which is based in Tonganoxie, Kan. “I grew up in Prairie Village and really wanted to have a program in the Midwest to try to meet the need a little more.”

   Both the Paws program and the START club provide a win-win for both the dog recipients and the student trainers. The recipients gain greater independence because their dogs have been trained to help them with basic life skills, such as opening and closing doors, picking things up and operating light switches. The dogs also learn basic commands such as sit, stay and heel, and the service dogs learn how to be polite citizens out in public. Equally vital is the companionship they provide. Service dogs, which cost $6,000, are certified for public access and go into places like restaurants, schools, movie theaters and stores. Companion dogs, which cost $5,000, know all the commands but don’t have public access and are not certified. Similarly, facility therapy dogs also cost $5,000. In addition, the program has placed 15 dogs as pets. Those dogs, which did not make it through the program but make excellent pets, cost $1,000. The program is not equipped to train guide dogs for the blind.


Student Trainer and Retriever Teams Horizon Academy

Members of Horizon Academy's club called Student Trainer and Retriever teams


   In 2016, Heidi Albin received a Paws for Freedom facility therapy dog named Kinsey. Albin, a science teacher and character education program coordinator at Complete High School Maize in Maize, Kan., brings Kinsey to the school.

   “Kinsey's first year at CHSM has been fabulous,” she says. “I have seen her reach out to students that nobody else knew were hurting. She has made students feel loved and welcomed, when sometimes they don't get that at home. She has made bad days into good days. She has brought laughter and a sense of fun. She has hugged away depression and licked away tears. The unconditional love that she shows to all of our students inspires everyone around her to show the same kind of acceptance.” 

   Students, in turn, gain equally from the START club in terms of increased self-confidence, and communication, social and work skills. Paws for Freedom trainer Jessica McMaster, who helps Shearer teach the students the commands, is constantly amazed not only how the dogs improve but how the students do, too. They literally blossom before her eyes, making new friends and learning job skills along the way. Some have even expressed that they would like to work with animals as a possible future career.

   “Some of the students are young and intimidated to talk with adults, so it’s really good experience for them to do that process,” McMaster says.

    One of the most common questions people ask her is if it’s hard to hand over the dog once it’s ready to move on. “A really good way to describe it is that it’s bittersweet,” she says. “It’s hard to see a dog go because we’ve been with them for two years, but it’s also really amazing to see when they go to do their job that they’ve been working toward this whole time. And then at the end, if it’s possible logistically, we like to have the student trainers who have been working with the dog actually hand the leash over in a kind of ceremony to the person who got the dog. That’s really amazing to see how proud the kids are of the work they’ve done with the dog and then see the dog that they’ve worked so hard with go off and do their job.”

   Landon says he’s happy knowing Kody will soon be going to a new home where he will be needed.

   “It feels good knowing that he’s going to go somewhere nice and have fun hanging out with somebody and making sure they’re safe and doing what he’s trained to do and making their life better by having a companion,” he says.

   Pints for Paws

   Training, feeding, veterinary services and neutering for a service dog usually costs between $10,000 and $15,000 throughout the two-year training period. Because the many hours of training and the cost of raising the dogs far exceed the placement fees, donations are always welcome. Paws for Freedom will have a fundraiser called Pints for Paws from 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday, July 15 at Boulevard Brewing Co., 2501 Southwest Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. The $100 ticket entitles you to unlimited beer and wine and an all-you-can-eat hor d’oeuvres buffet by PB&J Catering. The fundraiser includes a silent and live auction by Kansas City auctioneer Tanna Guthrie. For more information, visit