Opening doors: Nonprofit trains service dogs at Irving center

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Jason Morgan beamed as his assistance dog, Rue, held the ceremonial yellow and blue ribbon in her mouth.

Morgan, a U.S. Air Force veteran, and his 3-year-old black Labrador, along with representatives from Baylor Scott & White Health and Canine Companions for Independence, helped officially open on Nov. 9 the first service dog training center in the nation that is partnered with a health care provider.

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Nationally recognized as a leader in training highly skilled assistance dogs, the nonprofit organization provides the dogs, free of charge, to children, veterans and other people with a range of disabilities. The dogs enhance their lives, improve their quality of life and give them the long-term help they need.

Canine Companions’ new 9-acre flagship Kinkeade Campus adjacent to the Baylor Surgical Hospital at Las Colinas is its first facility in Texas. Canine Companions has training centers in California, Florida, Ohio and New York and 1,900 active graduate human/canine teams nationwide. Since its inception in 1975, the organization has placed 5,000 such teams. The Kinkeade Campus expects to graduate up to 60 teams per year.

Rue was trained at a California center run by Canine Companions. She’s Morgan’s second Canine Companions dog.

“My life changed when I got my dog,” said Morgan, a resident of McKinney. “It got me out in society again.”

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Morgan, who served in the Special Operations Command, could do almost anything before an accident shattered his life. In 1999, while on a drug interdiction mission in South America, he and his colleagues were ambushed. Their vehicle rolled over Morgan, crushing his back and paralyzing him from the waist down. He spent the next seven years in and out of hospitals.

“You can’t imagine what it was like going from jumping out of airplanes to being bedridden and confined to a wheelchair,” he said.

Divorced and with three young sons to rear, Morgan struggled with physical and emotional challenges for 10 years, until he received his first service dog. The dogs trained by Canine Companions learn 50 different commands and can perform everyday tasks for their human companions. Rue, like Morgan’s previous service dog, can open doors, flip a light switch, pull his wheelchair, pick up dropped items – even fetch clothes out of the dryer. Morgan says he’s amazed at how much confidence and independence Rue has given him, and he is thankful to have a training center in Texas, eliminating trips to California.

“The biggest thing is independence, but the mental thing is what means the most. She’s the reason I get out of bed in the morning,” Morgan said. “These dogs are indispensable. The $50,000 it takes to train them is worth so much more.”

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Nancy Sawhney agrees. Sawhney was living in San Diego in 1988 when she found Canine Companions and realized an assistance dog could help her with her disabilities. It took four years for her to receive her first service dog but she says the wait was worth it. She will soon receive her fourth dog. A national board member for the organization, Sawhney traveled from California to Irving for the opening of the local facility.

“When you’re in a wheelchair, some people will look right past you. They won’t look down and speak to you,” said Sawhney. “Having a dog gives you independence just like Jason said. These dogs make such a huge difference. And when you have a dog with you beside your wheelchair, people notice. They’ll stop to speak to the dog and then will start up a conversation with you. With a dog, you’re not invisible anymore.”

Baylor trustee the catalyst

The idea for the Irving facility came from U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade. He is the jurist in residence at Baylor University School of Law, where he teaches professional responsibility. He also is a trustee for Baylor Scott & White Health. Kinkeade and his late yellow Lab, Bo, visited disabled patients in Baylor hospitals and the judge saw how his dog cheered people up.

Baylor Scott & White and Canine Companions for Independence collaborated to raise the funds to build the $10 million training center. Canine Companions will be responsible for the daily management while Baylor will continue to work with the nonprofit on fundraising.

“It’s been about four years in the making,” Kinkeade said of the training center. “It’s a great partnership. CCI can keep focused on training the dogs and Baylor can find the money. We’re used to doing that in the health care business. Dogs and people in need are right down our alley.”

Construction on the training center began in November 2014. The Kinkeade Campus was designed by t. howard + associates architects of Dallas. Project management was led by CBRE and MEDCO Construction served as the construction general contractor. Outside consultation was provided by Animal Arts Design.

The Kinkeade Campus will train three types of assistance dogs: service dogs that perform daily tasks for adults with physical disabilities; skilled companions that enhance independence for children and adults with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities; and facility dogs that work with a professional in a visitation, education, criminal justice or health care setting.

Canine Companions uses golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and crosses of these two breeds. Most of the dogs come from the nonprofit’s selective breeding program. After the puppies are raised and socialized in volunteers’ homes, the training takes about six to nine months and costs an average of $50,000 per dog.

The new Kinkeade Campus includes indoor and outdoor training areas, dormitory rooms, kennels, a veterinary clinic and a grooming area.

“One of our locals said it’s one of the best things ever built in Irving,” Kinkeade said. “It’s a great place where people are going to be served and get opportunities to change their lives in a positive way. Where doors are closed now they’ll be opened thanks to these dogs – who will physically open the doors for them. Are we going to teach these dogs to do surgery at Baylor? Let’s don’t put anything past them.”