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Come for the Puppies, Stay for the Mission



Traditional mobility service dog organizations help a myriad of people each year, with each dog greatly improving the life of the owner.

At Warrior Canine Connection (WCC), however, the dogs aid more than their intended owner – they help up to 60 veterans throughout the two years of training they receive before placement with their permanent owners. The group’s unique mission-based dog training program has veterans receiving treatment for hidden wounds such as post-traumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injuries helping to train the dogs as part of their therapy. Many studies have found that training dogs provides invaluable therapeutic benefits that are far preferable to the traditional drug-based treatment programs.

WCC has the opportunity to help even more veterans. The group was recently granted access to a new facility – a historic dairy barn and related grounds – from the state of Maryland. While an existing house with a three-car garage on the site provides some space for offices, volunteer meeting areas and the organization’s puppy-breeding program, the jewel of the 80-acre property is a historic barn that will greatly expand the space needed for all of these operations, as well as overnight boarding rooms for the dogs’ permanent owners when they come for their two-week introduction and training session.

The scope of the project, the reputation and recognition of WCC’s work and the impact the organization has on the lives of veterans and their families are the reasons that AGC of America selected renovation of the barn as its Centennial project for the AGC Charities’ Autodesk Operation Opening Doors program.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring our Heroes campaign first brought WCC to our attention,” explains Mike Anderson, chair of AGC Charities and senior vice president of American Global, a member of multiple AGC chapters. “The Chamber had honored

WCC for their support of veterans and, in the process, learned about a new facility WCC acquired from the state of Maryland. The site included an old barn.”

The Chamber asked if AGC could help WCC renovate the barn to create a new National Healing Quarters facility. “It seemed like a great fit for AGC Charities’ Autodesk Operation Opening Doors program, particularly in conjunction with the pending 2018 centennial celebration,” says Anderson.

AGC representatives visited the site with a construction company executive, met with the WCC group and some of the veterans they serve, and toured the facility. “It was particularly jarring when they heard a number of veterans talk about how the program had kept them from committing suicide,” says Anderson. “After running some initial assessments of the barn and reviewing Warrior Canine Connection’s finances to make sure everything was in order, AGC Charities decided to adopt the project as our Centennial Operation Opening Doors effort.”

The veterans work alongside professional dog trainers to train the animal to serve the veteran who will receive the dog on a permanent basis, explains Jennifer Wilder, director of development for WCC. “The veterans must take the dogs to places where there are lots of people – malls, outdoor spaces, sidewalks on busy streets – to prepare them to handle everyday life with their owner,” she says. The mission – to properly train the dog – gets the veterans out of their own heads and focused on training the dog. The energy, positive outlook and interaction with a variety of people and situations help veterans with PTS and other hidden injuries re-learn socialization skills and become more confident as they are training the dogs, she explains. “We cycle the dogs through clinical centers so by the time they complete their two-year training, they may have impacted 50 or 60 different veterans,” she adds.

The extra space the renovated barn will provide is important, says Wilder. “We have 60 dogs in training, which means that we also have 60 volunteer puppy parents who come to our site once each week to meet with the trainers,” she explains. Even with weekly classes limited to 10 dogs, space is tight when you put 10 dogs, 10 adults and a trainer in one room of a small facility, she adds.

Plans for the barn renovation also include temporary quarters for veterans who are helping to train the dogs, service dog recipients who must attend a two-week introduction and training session as they receive the dog, and space to increase the organization’s breeding program to better meet demand for service dogs.

“We have a one- to three-year waiting list for service dogs,” explains Wilder. “As the demand to use the dogs for therapy in the rehabilitation centers grows, we also need more dogs.” In addition to having a strong breeding program of its own, WCC is part of a service dog breeding collective that breeds Golden and Labrador Retrievers. “These dogs are ideal service dogs because of their temperament and their stature,” she explains.

Matt Weirich, vice president of the educational market segment for James G. Davis Construction Corp. (DAVIS), an AGC of Metropolitan Washington D.C. member, is the point person for the construction team. “DAVIS Construction team members have provided the estimating and pre-construction services, and about 50 percent of the design is complete – with bids out for a design/build mechanical package,” he says. “We hope to complete the design in early 2018 so that we can request bid proposals from the remaining trades in the first quarter.”

Although the barn is about 80 years old, the “bones” of the building are good, says Weirich. “We will replace the existing roof with a new metal roof and will replace some of the roof structure that was damaged as a result of leaks,” he says. Windows will be added throughout the building and a second floor will replace the existing hay loft to house the temporary living quarters for visitors. “Overall, we will retain the same roof shape but we will include some structural upgrades to make the barn fit the organization’s needs.”

“It is a challenge to fit a modern space into a historic structure,” admits Weirich. Because of the barn’s age, several subcontractors who specialize in renovation of old structures were asked for advice on how to approach the changes. “They were able to tell us how to selectively remove existing parts of the interior without affecting the overall structure.”

The barn’s history is special, says Wilder. “It was a dairy barn built in the 1930s and provided milk to soldiers stationed in the Washington D.C. area during World War II. Now, it will once again serve the military.”

The “coming full circle” message also resonates for one employee at DAVIS Construction, says Weirich. “When we began working on this project, we learned that one of our estimators who grew up in the area used to play in the dairy barn as a child.”

As the process moves forward, AGC and DAVIS Construction will be looking for subcontractors willing to perform the work at cost, says Weirich. “It is best to wait until design is finished and respond to bid requests,” he says.

The goal is to substantially complete the project by AGC’s 100th anniversary celebration on Oct. 1, 2018, says Weirich.

When asked what is needed most – money or labor – Anderson says, “It may not surprise you to hear me say: both.” He adds, “Through the generosity of DAVIS Construction and its subcontractors, a significant amount of in-kind work and labor will be provided to renovate the barn and create the new Healing Quarters.”

Of course, AGC has also committed to cover a large portion of the construction costs and to provide some starter funds for the ramping up of the Healing Quarters operations, says Anderson. “That fundraising effort is starting with the commitments of support from members of the AGC Charities Board.” AGC members can easily donate by going to http://agccharities.org/operation-opening-doors/current-efforts/.

Monetary donations are an excellent way that AGC members can participate, points out Weirich. “DAVIS Construction holds a charity golf tournament every year, and we’ve designated the Opening Doors Project as the beneficiary of our 2018 tournament,” he says. Previous tournaments have raised in excess of $60,000, he adds.

Wilder and the small staff of WCC appreciate the generosity of AGC members who are donating or volunteering to help create their new headquarters. “Volunteers make it possible for us to succeed,” she says. For example, when a new litter of puppies is born, a schedule for “petting” volunteers is publicized. “This is an important early stage of socialization for the puppies aged three to eight weeks,” she says. There is no lack of volunteers for the spots on the schedule – the 400 to 500 hour-long spots are quickly filled for each litter. “Almost 50 percent of the puppy petting volunteers have no military connection but they believe in what we are doing.”

WCC’s volunteer and support base has grown through a number of efforts, including an accidental social media marketing success. “Five years ago, we were asked by explore.org if they could post a 24-hour puppy cam in our whelping area for the puppy cam section of their website,” says Wilder. “Who will watch a 24-hour puppy cam?” may have been the initial reaction, but WCC’s puppy cam had 2 million views the first year, and viewership has remained strong.

About 500 of the most dedicated supporters recently met at the new site to celebrate as 19 dogs went to their permanent owners. This group that is fondly called “extreme puppy watchers” generated Wilder’s favorite definition of how a casual volunteer becomes a strong advocate for the organization: “We came for the puppies. We stayed for the mission.”