The Dallas Morning News Features New Graduates – A New Leash on Life

A woman sitting on a bench outdoors kissing her black Labrador/Golden retriever cross service dog wearing a blue vestBy: Megan Farrer, The Dallas Morning News

Kathy Schneider was afraid to be alone. She struggled to go into bathrooms and could not get out of the car at the store with her husband.

Schneider is a U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force veteran who spent 30 years on and off active duty as an embedded combat nurse. She retired from the military with the rank of captain and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, an invisible but debilitating disability.

Her triggers are everywhere. Something as simple as someone walking up behind her can send her into a fugue state, Schneider said.

“I’m not here anymore — I’m back somewhere I don’t want to be,” said Schneider, who lives in the small town of Goliad in South Texas.

Lauren Anderson is about to leave graduate school in Dallas with a child life specialist degree. She plans to help children and families navigate challenges in hospital settings.

Anderson is also partially paralyzed in both arms due to an injury at birth. She struggles to carry heavy objects, open doors with her hands full and pick things up off the floor.

Her family, friends and roommates have always been happy to help, Anderson said, but she has never been able to live with full independence.

Schneider and Anderson were two of four women to graduate from the Canine Companions for Independence service dog training program on Friday. Following a week of one-on-one dog/human lessons at the Baylor Scott & White Kinkeade Campus in Irving, Texas, and a tearful graduation ceremony, they officially reentered the world with renewed hope and independence.

A unique collaboration

The partnership between Baylor Scott & White Health and Canine Companions for Independence is a unique collaboration between a hospital system and a service dog training program.

U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade, a trustee of the Baylor Medical center in Irving, dreamed up the partnership when he met a service dog while visiting a Baylor hospital with his therapy dog Bo in 2011.

“That dog had 160 commands, so I apologized to Bo for not training him very well,” Kinkeade said. “It was really amazing to see … the man was paraplegic, I believe in an automobile accident … and the way that dog was trained was really impressive.”

Service dogs, unlike therapy dogs, are highly trained to meet specific needs. They can help with seeing, hearing, mobility issues and, more recently, PTSD.

“I thought, well, we can do more than just a therapy dog program,” Kinkeade said, and approached the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Canine Companions for Independence to open a service dog training center in North Texas.

What he thought would take a few years to raise the money to build a new facility only took minutes. At an afternoon fundraising luncheon, Air Force Veteran and author Jason Morgan spoke to donors about how a Canine Companions service dog helped him raise three sons alone after a military operation left him paraplegic. Donors gave almost $10 million in the 10 or so minutes he spoke.

The facility opened in 2015, and with support from Baylor Scott & White, Canine Companions and donors have been providing North Texans with service dogs free of cost ever since.

“No health care system in the world has ever done anything like this,” Kinkeade said. “Here we are taking the people that Baylor treats in their hospitals … some of the wounds can’t be healed, but we can help them by giving them service dogs.”

Partnerships conceived

After years of managing her symptoms alone and with her husband Ray, Schneider began researching service dogs. She knew they help veterans with physical disabilities and were beginning to help those with PTSD.

The government began to cover a service dog insurance benefit for veterans with PTSD and other mental diagnoses after a 2021 Veterans Affairs study showed that service dogs provide a significant therapeutic benefit to veterans with PTSD.

Schneider found Canine Companions and researched them thoroughly. She reviewed social media accounts, watched videos and signed up for emails. She watched YouTube videos of people with service dogs from different organizations.

Canine Companions came up over and over again.

“I kept finding this … layer upon layer of legitimacy,” Schneider said.

Then, in 2021, Schneider made a call and started the service dog application process with Canine Companions.

Anderson also began an application with Canine Companions in 2021 after Melissa Kinkeade, Judge Kinkeade’s wife, told her about the program while they served in a preschool ministry together.

Around the same time in 2021, but unbeknownst to them, their future companions, Dakota and Thornton, were born in litters of labrador/golden retriever puppies in Santa Rosa.

Growing up and going to ‘college’

Canine Companions puppies spend their first 16-18 months in the homes of “puppy raisers,” or in prisons where volunteers socialize, potty train and teach them basic obedience skills and house manners.

When they are ready, the dogs enter one of six regional training centers where they work with professional trainers for another six to nine months. Flora Baird, senior director of national training at Canine Companions, likes to call this “going to college.” The dogs live on campus, have roommates and go to training.

This is where Dakota and Thornton began to show their unique aptitudes and skills.

Dakota was smart, driven and good in public, trainer Aimee Schildt said. Dakota wanted to be on-the-go and alert all the time. Her jet-black fur and serious face signal that she is in control when she is scanning the environment, but that sternness breaks when she checks in on her human, looking up with soft, caring eyes.

These traits make her a perfect fit for a veteran.

Thornton was food-motivated, responsive, easy to engage and not easily distracted, trainer Sean Brim said. With floppy ears and a laid-back demeanor, he engages with any energy level — all perfect service dog qualities.

While Dakota and Thornton went through this extensive training, Schneider and Anderson went through an equally extensive application process.

Two years of checks into health histories, personality traits and daily activities, a phone call and an in-person interview later, Schneider and Anderson finally got the call that they had found canine matches.

‘The special sauce’

The extensive application process has a purpose.

“One of the things we really pride ourselves in is making really good matches between dogs and people,” Baird said. “We’re kind of a matchmaking service in that way.”

When Schneider first met Dakota, she compared the moment to meeting a child for the first time.

“That moment of wow, what is this amazing … wonder, joy, love,” Schneider said. “But there isn’t that instant bond because you’ve still got to figure each other out.”

Over the past week, Dakota and Schneider have worked on skills that will help her with PTSD symptoms. Dakota learned how to cue in to Schneider’s anxiety tells, primarily wringing her hands, and settle her down. Dakota also learned how to apply deep pressure to Schneider after a nightmare, stand behind her to make sure people do not startle her in public and retrieve her medication.

“I don’t know how they found a dog that’s so right for me,” Schneider said. “She’s a little type A, focused, an amazingly smart dog, and yet so chill, which is exactly what I needed.”

Anderson also feels like Thornton is her perfect match, she said. He is sweet and playful but likes to have downtime too. He already knows most of the skills Anderson will need.

“A lot of his commands are like pulling open doors, opening the fridge, or using push plates to open doors … pulling the laundry basket to help me get around the house more easily, turning on and off light switches, helping pull off clothes and tugging jackets off,” Anderson said.

What Schneider and Anderson have with Dakota and Thornton is what Baird calls “the special sauce.”

“Sometimes it just clicks, and we’re like yup, that’s it!” Baird said.


At the Friday graduation ceremony, the puppy raisers for each of the four dogs handed their leashes off to their new companions in front of family, friends and staff, not a dry eye in the room.

Anderson is thrilled to experience a new sense of independence with Thornton. Their first test will be a celebration party Friday night — with dog-themed treats, of course.

Schneider said Dakota will allow her to experience a world she has not been able to access since early adulthood.

“She’s going to give me back my pride,” Schneider said. “That’s something you don’t expect and wasn’t on the list of things I thought I would get from her, but a sense of self-worth that you’re able to do these things on your own.”

©2023 The Dallas Morning News.

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