Expanding Veteran Program with New Training Center Building for Canine Companions

January 23, 2020

Canine Companions for Independence has come a long way since its founding in 1975. Originally operating out a small building in Santa Rosa, the organization maintains its’ original charter to provide freedom and independence to children, adults, and veterans with disabilities through the placement of highly skilled assistance dogs. Thanks to the support of so many that have donated time and money, Canine Companions has grown tremendously over the past 40 years to expand its mission nationwide with centers in California, Florida, New York, Ohio and Texas. In its history, Canine Companions has matched just over 6,022 dogs, and made a significant impact on the day-to-day experiences of thousands of people.   In this Nordby Effect post, we interview executive director, Margaret Sluyk, on expanding the veteran program with the new training center building project.

Canine Companion dogs are much more than the eyes and ears of their human partners; they become their best friends.  Free of charge, the organization pairs people with dogs through a powerful program that creates a greater level of independence and confidence. As executive director of Canine Companions, Margaret Sluyk oversees development functions in 8 states. She directs the organization’s volunteers, facilities, and administration of the region. As a newly appointed executive director and facilities under Margaret’s purview, the addition of the new training center building ultimately became her responsibility and her first construction project experience.

Designed by JMA, the new training center project was originally conceived prior to Margaret’s arrival.  Working with veterans for a number of years, Canine Companions and the architect captured all the project requirements. From conceptual design through permitting, Nordby Construction Services was able to work with JMA to design a building that fit the owner’s operational needs as well as meet their budget. On the day construction commenced, Margaret says, “..the first site of seeing the metal beams going up created a buzz and a realization that it’s finally happening.”

Situated away from the hustle and bustle, a 2,300sf steel beam training building is built for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The structure has limited windows that look out to green space and provide a clear line of sight.  The intention is to help those with sensory disorders focus on training. The interior walls and cabinets are painted with soothing gray and beige tones, intending to provide a calm space. The building’s skylights fill the space with natural light. “When you walk into the building and you start visualizing what will be happening and how their lives will change.  It’s all worth all the time and the effort. Something special will happen here that will change lives,” Margaret says.

“Nordby was there every step of the way. Jason Brown, Nordby’s project manager, was on hand to answer the questions. He went over and above. I was able to able to ask questions and be pointed in the right direction. There was always someone to help.”

Funded by foundations and private donations, the 54,000sf campus is situated on 20 acres of land.  Veterans who participate in the program train for two weeks.  They live in the campus dorms for the duration, which allows for a more focused program experience. Students learn how to give commands, train with their dog, study from a manual, and take exams. Veterans experience the latest innovation in training.  One example of innovation in training, is outfitting a canine with a heart rate monitor, which is calibrated to their human partner’s heart rate. When a veteran has anxiety and their heart rate goes up, the monitor will vibrate a Whistle device that a dog wears on his/her collar. This is the cue for the canine to check in and interrupt the behavior.

Summarizing her construction project experience, Margaret says, “If I had the opportunity, I’d do it again. I grew professionally from the experience and Nordby was a huge help and made it easier. Nothing is too big to accomplish and, if you have vision, you can bring together so many people together to make something happen.”

If you want to learn more about Canine Companions for Independence, please visit their website at https://www.cci.org .