Canine Companions New dog Health Center Will Speed Expansion

There were just a couple of barks and a few squeals.

It was the ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday for Canine Companions’ new building, which is devoted to training service dogs that are given free to people with disabilities, and even the puppies were well-behaved.

Canine Companions is the nation’s largest trainer and provider of service dogs. The new 32,000-square-foot facility — which includes a veterinary hospital — marks a significant expansion for the nonprofit, founded in Santa Rosa.

“We need to grow. We have way too many people on our wait list. We have way too many people that we know need our dogs. We have new communities we need to get to,” said Canine Companions CEO Paige Mazzoni, welcoming a crowd of more than 200 people at the ceremony.

“This building is really the beginning of the next 50 years. It’s the beginning of more puppies that can be turned into more service dogs that can go out and change more lives,” Mazzoni said.

She added: “We started this with the vision of a center that would show not only innovation and excellence and expertise, but also joy and fun and love.”

Ground was broken on the $23 million Nelson Schulz Canine Health and Wellness Center in 2022.

On Thursday, just a few details remained to be taken care of: some painting and signs, a glass wall around the puppy park, the installation of some kennels for breeder dogs. The organization will move in completely on May 1.

The building about doubles the size of the $45 million nonprofit’s current, leased space across the street, on Dutton Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa. It sits on a 12-acre campus donated to the organization in 1994 by the late Charles Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, and his wife, Jean Schulz.

Elsewhere on the campus are dormitories for visiting trainers, administration offices, and kennels for dogs in training.

In an interview Thursday, Jean Schulz said the new facility is critical in an era that has seen a rise in the number of dogs being falsely presented as genuine service animals.

“It’s important for Canine Companions to stand head and shoulders above,” she said. “To have us be a strong organization with a good breeding program and good training is so important.”

Schulz is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, parent company of The Press Democrat.

The new Canine Health and Wellness Center consists of two buildings.

The larger is the Nelson Canine Early Development Center, at 25,000 square feet, named for the late Nancy Nelson, a Canine Companions’ benefactor from Orange County.

It houses Canine Companion’s research program, which studies dog health and nutrition, how food can help their role, even potentially boosting their immune systems, and canine cognition and behavioral issues.

There also are four wings in the building: one for breeder dogs and dogs in heat; one for whelping, or when the dogs give birth; a neonatal wing, where puppies stay until they are weaned; and the biggest wing, where puppies live until they are placed with their volunteer puppy raisers.

“It’s really going to be transformative for us,” said Brenda Kennedy, Canine Companions’ vice president of canine health and research. “It allows us to really do the work that we do in a state of the art facility.”

The second building is the 7,000-square-foot Schulz Vet Hospital. It includes an operating room; a dental suite; an ultrasound room; two exam rooms, two treatment rooms; and a room for endoscopy (not endogscopy) — or internal examinations.

That all those procedures will now be able to be taken care of in-house, in conjunction with the breeding, whelping and raising of dogs, helps ensures that dogs are cared for and puppies are initially raised in an environment protected from infectious diseases, said Kennedy.

On Thursday, an advanced service dog pulled a rope to open the door for guests to the Early Development Center. As he led a tour group inside, James Dern, national director of puppy programs, nodded to the organization’s reliance on volunteers who work as breeder/caretakers and as puppy raisers.

“This space is also all about bringing our community together,” he said. “We really want this to be a space for volunteers to engage with our mission, for staff to collaborate and bring new ideas and innovate.”

The gray and white walls were accented in blue and yellow and shiny with newness. One wall held the words that make up Canine Companions’ core operating principles: “Compassionate Service, Community, Teamwork, Excellence, Innovation, Integrity.“

From 800 to 900 dogs a year now pass through the Santa Rosa training facility. About 55% go on to be service or facility dogs, which are paired with professionals working in health care, rehabilitation or education and criminal justice settings. There are five other training centers around the country.

The number of dogs trained in Santa Rosa is expected to grow to 1,200 to 1,300 annually, said Sarah Yoslor, the nonprofit’s breeder/caretaker program coordinator. She noted that most whelps will still take place in volunteers’ homes.

“The backbone of our program is still going to be this amazing breeder/caretaker who will be at home. So nobody panic,” Yoslor said. “This is just more support for the amazing mission that you guys are helping us achieve.”

The courtyard between the two buildings features dog-bone benches and a long fountain with statues of 10 dogs, including four nursing puppies.

Waiting there for her tour to start, one breeder/caretaker said the new facility is a sign of how much Canine Companions values and supports its volunteers.

“The breeder dogs are the foundation of the whole organization, and it means that they’re there to help us as the volunteers every step of the way,” said Debbie Segal of Santa Rosa. “It’s just amazing.”