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2010 Best Nonprofit/Charitable Organization: Canine Companions for Independence

Author: Alexandra Russell
May, 2010 Issue

Awwww…look at the cute doggies! OK, now remember that each of these lovable canines has a greater purpose—as if being downright adorable weren’t enough.

Founded in Santa Rosa in 1975, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) is an international leader in the service dog field. “CCI has grown from a very small organization on Sebastopol Road to a multimillion dollar, nationwide organization,” says Executive Director Kathy Pierson. “We now have five regional campuses and two satellite offices across the United States. We’re affiliated with an international umbrella organization called Assistance Dog International, and people come here from other assistance dog organizations around the world to observe our training model. We’re considered a leader in the industry.”

CCI provides four types of trained assistance dogs to people with disabilities. Service dogs can push buttons for elevators and automatic doors, turn light switches on and off, carry parcels, pull a wheelchair, pick up dropped items and assist with other everyday necessities. A skilled companion dog performs many of the same duties, but under the care of a third person (often a parent, guardian or spouse of the dog’s partner).

Hearing dogs are trained to alert their human partners to key sounds (fire alarms, doorbells and alarm clocks, for example) by making specific physical contact such as nudging a leg or arm. Finally, facility dogs can be found in health care, educational or visitation settings (such as an assisted living center). Working with trained facilitators, they can provide motivation, aid in rehabilitation and enlist calm.

They’re all jobs that require specialized training, and ensuring success entails much more than learning extra commands. CCI has developed an advanced breeding program, with databases that track dogs back several generations, to better guarantee their health and temperament. What’s more, says Pierson, “[We’ve] almost bred out hip dysplasia and we’re working on cancer.

“Many people ask why we don’t use rescue or pound dogs. If you’re going to invest this much into a dog, you have to know more about it. And our real focus is on the person with the disability. Creating the best assistance dog is our goal. To do that, we need to know the dog’s background: its health, history and temperament. This is the best way we can do that.”

Each dog CCI places represents an investment of about three years and more than $45,000, but those who receive the dogs don’t pay for them. What’s more, “Less than 1 percent [of our budget] comes from grants and government funding,” says Pierson. “The bulk of our support comes from private donations from businesses, corporations, individuals, foundations, bequests and the like.”

Fund-raisers also play an important role. On September 12, the Jean and Charles Schulz CCI campus in Santa Rosa will host its biggest event of the year, Bone Appétit. “We transform the campus and have wine-and-food pairings from amazing local restaurants, live and silent auctions, dog training demonstrations, live music and lots of other fun activities,’ says Bonnie McMellon, development associate.

And then there are the volunteers. “We simply couldn’t do this without them,” says Pierson of the multitude who house, whelp, socialize and train the pups before they’re taken into advanced training and ultimately placed with a person in need. Luckily, they’re not too hard to recruit.

“We have these cute little hairy billboards,” Pierson laughs. “If someone sees one of our dogs and starts to ask questions, that’s our biggest way of getting new donations and volunteers. Whether they’re seeing someone raising a dog or someone who’s been matched with a dog, it’s a conversation started.”

And while you’re talking, a scratch between the ears is always appreciated. Awwww



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