By Crystal Burns
A service dog named Jackson has opened a new world for a Trenton teenager.
Kaitlyn Keller, 16, and her Labrador retriever formed an instant bond when they met two years ago in Brentwood.
Kaitlyn was suffering from mental illness that, at the age of 13, transformed her from the class clown to an introvert who couldn’t be alone in her own home. When Kaitlyn was first introduced to service dogs, she and her mother, Brittney Keller, noticed the animals’ positive impact.
“I did a lot of research,” Brittney said.
She found Retrieving Independence in Brentwood, a non-profit organization that breeds, trains and places top quality service dogs with children and adults living with physical and mental disabilities.
Dogs go through a five-phase training program that begins in breeder homes. Through a partnership with the Franklin-based organization, The Farm at Natchez Trace, the mother and her litter transition from the breeder home to The Farm as the puppies start five weeks of age. Over the next four weeks, the puppies are socialized and exposed to various textures, sights, sounds, outdoor spaces and organized playtime.
Phase 3 is an eight-week program. A team of puppy raisers takes over the care management of the pups as they leave The Farm at eight weeks old. Volunteers provide a safe and encouraging home for the puppies and are responsible for the puppies’ continued socialization and proper exercise. By 16 weeks old, each puppy has learned as many as 30 commands and gone through extensive temperament testing and health checks.
Then in Phase 4, the puppies are paired with two trainers at the Turney Center Industrial Complex in Middle Tennessee where the puppies begin their intensive training to become service dogs. Inmates at the Turney Center are responsible for teaching standard obedience skills as well as specialized advanced assistance skills. By the end of the program, the dogs know at least 110 cues and have more than 600 hours of dedicated training sessions.
Between 12 and 16 months, the dogs are matched with a client. Once a match has been made, trainers concentrate subsequent training activities on perfecting the specific skills needed by their human partner. It can be another three to six months before the dog is ready for placement with his/her new partner.
After 12 to 18 months of intense training, service dogs are graduated and ready to assist their new owners. Retrieving Independence organizes and manages a 10-day team training camp for the new owner, family members, and the service dogs.
Brittney said Jackson made an immediate difference in Kaitlyn’s life. On the night they brought Jackson to their hotel after training camp, Kaitlyn took her new friend downstairs and walked a few laps around the hotel without adult supervision.
“Before she had him, she couldn’t go anywhere by herself,” Brittney said. “We tried all different things. Once she got Jackson, that’s what changed her life.”
Kaitlyn and Jackson have been together for two years, and he continues to open possibilities for her. She recently visited the Star Center in Jackson where she completed an assessment for the school-to-work transition program that helps students with disabilities find jobs.
“I never dreamed of being able to do this,” Kaitlyn said. “I want to work. I want to do something with my life.”
Kaitlyn is homeschooled through the Gateway program. She has two younger sisters, Sophie and Adalenna, who enjoy helping her take care of Jackson. Kaitlyn says sometimes they have trouble getting Jackson out of bed. She laughed describing the way he sleeps – on his back with his paws in the air – and giggles when he licks her feet and legs.
If Kaitlyn gets anxious, Jackson helps her calm down by nudging her or cuddling with her. He also alerts her family so they can help Kaitlyn.
“He’ll do anything in the world to make you happy,” Kaitlyn said.
While Brittney is more open about her daughter’s mental illness, Kaitlyn is reluctant to share, but she does want to educate people about service dogs. Kaitlyn recently had a bad experience at a local business when the owner questioned her about Jackson.
“It just makes me so upset,” Kaitlyn said. “Sometimes I feel like people look at me differently, but Jackson helps me feel confident. He’s my best friend.”
Brittney says people aren’t knowledgeable about the law, and sometimes even well-meaning folks can ask questions that draw more attention to Kaitlyn’s disability.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically addresses the use of service animals. It says that state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.
The law also says that when it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask if the service animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the dog has been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation or a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.
Religious institutions are specifically exempt, but Brittney and Kaitlyn said their church, The Rock in Trenton, has been welcoming of Jackson.
“They’ve been very supportive,” Kaitlyn said. “They don’t say anything negative about Jackson.”
She credits her faith, her family, and Jackson for helping her overcome her fears and challenges.
“I’ve started to accept things,” Kaitlyn said. “God made me like this for a reason. My mom has never given up on me – not even close. I have a great family that wants the best for me. And I couldn’t ask for a better dog.”