Canine Companions for Independence CEO Reveals Path Toward Meeting Huge Demand for Assistance Dogs

After years in leadership positions at for-profit companies, Healdsburg native Paige Mazzoni sought an opportunity to enter the world of nonprofits.

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa-based Canine Companions for Independence was looking far and wide for a new CEO.

“We did a national search and hired somebody who lives 10 miles up the road,” said board Chairman John McKinney. “One of the things that we all recognized on the search committee was that she brought a set of marketing skills that I certainly felt would translate very effectively into fundraising.”

Canine Companions, which next year marks 45 years in business, breeds and provides medical care for dogs to become service animals, a process that involves raising, training and matching the dogs with recipients based on a number of factors, including the personality of the dog and the person, the home environment, and the particular disability of the recipient. The organization provides service dogs for 65 types of disabilities.

The dogs help their companions live more independently by assisting with physical tasks, such as picking up dropped items like a phone or keys that are out of reach, pulling open a door, switching on the light or pulling a wheelchair.

There is no charge to the person receiving a service dog.

Mazzoni celebrated her first year at the organization on Sept. 4. She came to Canine Companions for Independence from VIP Petcare, a mobile veterinary clinic, where she was the chief marketing officer. Her background also includes management roles at Sybase, Fair Isaac and the Nelson Family of Companies.

But her first break came in 1988, when she joined Oracle after graduating from Stanford University. It was at the high-tech company that she gained experience in recruiting and marketing, and learned how to write a business plan.

“Oracle is a company people love to hate, but I learned so much there,” Mazzoni said. “It was an amazing gift for me to start my career there.”

The nonprofit she leads is funded in a number of ways, largely through donors and bequests. The organization receives $300,000 annually in government funding because it provides assistance dogs to veterans.

Canine Companions has an annual budget of $29 million; operating costs each year add up to about $27 million, Mazzoni said, noting operating expenses will continue to grow.

“Just to handle operating expenses, it would be great if we could be more in the $40 million a year range,” Mazzoni said.

When the organization receives a bequest — money left to the organization from a will or estate — the amount can be significant, but it’s not a predictable source of income. She would like to get to a point where those donations can go into an interest-bearing reserve.

“In addition, I would love to raise $15 million a year through strategic partners.”

In fact, working on finding such partners is a big part of the organization’s strategic plan, which Mazzoni helped develop and led during her first year there.

“When we need to build a new early canine development center, which is a combination of breeding and vet care and a variety of things that are really critical to our program, could we have a strategic partner who would fund that whole operation, put their name on the building, and, moving forward, be a strategic partner to help in that area?” Mazzoni said. “I think those people definitely exist …. There’s a lot of people we have (in our entire circle of donors) who are willing to help a lot more than we’ve asked them to.”

Teejay Lowe, managing partner at West College Management Co. in Santa Rosa, has known Mazzoni for more than 20 years.

“She’s an exceptional executive. She’s determined, strategic and always committed to the mission of her organization,” Lowe said. “And in particular to CCI, it’s a wonderful mission and I think this is a great fit for Paige because she’s passionate about helping people and making a difference.”

Canine Companions currently breeds 800 puppies a year at its 12-acre national headquarters campus in Santa Rosa. The dogs serve all six of the organization’s campuses across the nation, and sometimes there is a waiting list that can range from two months to two years.

“I would love it if we could have a shorter waitlist for everyone all the time, but we’re a long way from that,” Mazzoni said, noting that the organization needs to build a new breeding center and find a way to breed more puppies, which also would require more trainers.

Mazzoni said the organization isn’t able to build more campuses, so she is developing other solutions.

Another reason supply can’t always keep up with demand is because not all of the dogs end up qualifying, or graduating, to become a service animal. The success rate is about 55%, Mazzoni said. All of the dogs must be highly proficient in the trained skills and tasks. They also undergo medical and temperamental screening to ensure they will be healthy, happy and appropriate in their role.

Canine Companions breeds Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and a cross of the two to be assistance dogs. Volunteers care for the newborn puppies for eight weeks before they’re turned over to a volunteer puppy raiser, who will raise the dog, providing basic obedience training and socialization skills until it’s about 1 and a half years old.

At that point, the dog is returned to one of Canine Companions’ regional campuses for six to eight months of professional training. After that, the dogs are matched with a potential recipient and undergo group training.

When the entire two-year process is complete, the magic of the match is realized at a graduation ceremony.

“You don’t think it’s going to be that emotional,” Mazzoni said. “Then you watch, and you watch these puppy raisers, who have spent a year and a half with this dog and are very bonded to this dog, hand the leash over to the person getting it. It’s just this beautiful thing.”

One of those volunteer puppy raisers is Megan McWilliams, who also has been an employee at Canine Companions for four years, serving as executive assistant to the CEO.

“I think the thing that impacted me the most about Paige is that she listened,” McWilliams said. “It’s just really nice to have somebody be caring and want to sit down with you and say, ‘How are things? How are you? What can we do different?’ She really took that to heart and has made some pretty impactful waves so far.”