By W.B. King
During a spot on WUSA, the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., PenFed Credit Union’s CEO James Schenck first learned about Andrea McCarren’s passion for raising service dogs.
“I was invited to give a presentation to his executive team in 2018 and two employees came forward with an interest in raising a service puppy,” said McCarren, who long served as a journalist, winning 25 Emmy awards. She was also named to the HillVets 100, an honor designated for the country’s most influential and impactful veterans, service members and supporters.
The following year, McCarren became vice president and chief content officer at PenFed Digital and in 2022 was named the chief communications officer for The PenFed Foundation.
Affiliated with $35 billion Alexandria, Va.-based PenFed Credit Union, which supports 2.8 million members and over 3,000 employees, the PenFed Foundation is a national nonprofit organization committed to empowering military service members, veterans and their communities with the skills and resources to realize financial stability and opportunity.
“Studies have shown that having a dog in the office improves employee morale overall, increases the happiness and lowers the blood pressure of those who interact directly with them,” McCarren told Finopotamus.
The Service Dog Journey
To date, McCarren has raised four puppies (and is in the process of raising her fifth), three of which she raised while at PenFed Credit Union. In total, there have been eight puppy trainees, four of which went on to become service dogs.
“When a company like PenFed is a sponsor, an employee is assigned a puppy that is generally just eight weeks old. The puppy accompanies the employee to the office during the day and home at night,” she explained. “It is generally an 18-month commitment.”
A typical service dog costs $50,000 to raise and train, she noted. After that time period expires, the puppy is returned to the regional headquarters of the lead organization, where it goes into formal, more advanced training – what is often referred to as “puppy college.” Here they learn how to turn on and off light switches, open doors, fetch a water bottle from a refrigerator, pull laundry from a dryer as well as a critical PTSD task known as "nightmare interruption," she noted.
“There’s a wide range of sponsorship opportunities for credit unions and other companies, depending on the partner organizations,” McCarren said. “PenFed donated $100,000 to America’s VetDogs last year, but that level of funding is certainly not a requirement.”
PenFed Credit Union also works with Canine Companions for Independence. Founded in 1975, the organization is the nation’s oldest and largest service dog organization.
Each organization breeds its own dogs, based on genetics and temperament.
“The bar is very high, as it should be. Primarily, Labrador Retrievers are used, some Golden Retrievers and crosses between the two. Labs have a higher success rate as they love to work, always aim to please and are extremely food-motivated,” she noted. “Goldens, I’m told, are incredibly sweet but perhaps less focused.”
Service dogs learn more than 40 commands and in order to be placed with a veteran, the dog must behave “perfectly in public, on airplanes, in hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, at public events like ball games, and anywhere their future veteran or first responder may want to go,” she explained.
Only 40% of the puppies that enter a training program will make it to graduation. The ultimate goal, she noted, is placement with a veteran, first responder or someone else with a disability.
For those PenFed Credit Union puppies who didn’t complete “college,” McCarren said they were placed with employees.
Since few employees are comfortable nurturing and training a puppy for 18 months, and then saying goodbye, McCarren said there is not a strict selection process.
“That being said, everyone loves it when a colleague brings a puppy to the workplace. But employees are educated on proper service dog protocol,” she noted. “For instance, when the puppy is wearing their vest, they usually cannot be petted or distracted. They are ‘working.’ But with or without the vest on, you must ask if you can pet or approach a service dog.”
And while there are many service dog organizations across the country, McCarren said not all are reputable and therefore require thorough vetting.
“A person with a disability should never pay for a service dog. Like any industry, there are scam artists preying on the most vulnerable. Look for organizations like the ones we partner with that provide service dogs and lifetime follow up at no cost to the recipients,” she noted. “I’m a recovering journalist, so I’d also recommend checking an organization’s financial records.”
Social Media Gold
When McCarren’s first recruit was introduced to the PenFed Credit Union community in 2019, it was via a live puppy cam from Canine Companions’ headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif. that livestreamed on Facebook twice a day.
“The audience loved it. Watching puppies with a purpose snoozing and playing was deemed both relaxing and uplifting. This ran while they were five to eight weeks of age,” she said. “Based on their birth order, they get different collar colors, so our growing social media audience truly enjoyed participating in the speculation about which puppy would be ours.”
Since then, she said a PenFed Credit Union pup’s progress is shared on all the credit union’s social media platforms. These posts, she added, continually perform better than anything others shared. “Service dogs are social media gold,” she offered.
As an example, CEO Schenck recently shared a pup-related post on LinkedIn that received 2,000-plus likes and more than one hundred comments.
“After seeing my executive vice president Ricardo Chamorro and our current service dog in training, Alfie, in the hallway today, I wish every employer and employee across America could experience the positive value in raising a service dog,” he noted in his post. “It’s a journey that gives in so many ways.”
In McCarren’s view, dogs are the ultimate workplace ice breaker.
“It’s been a pleasure bringing my pups to PenFed events and traveling with them to our financial centers across the country. When I arrive, employees we’ve never met often have gifts for the puppies,” she continued. “Each service dog also has its own business card, and we’ve created laptop/cell phone stickers as well featuring their image. It’s hard to put in words how much our colleagues love being photographed with our puppies with a purpose.”
Puppy Raisers Desperately Needed
While PenFed Credit Union’s service dog program doesn’t have an official name, McCarren said that raising a service dog in a corporate setting is a “wonderful way to educate the public” about their "incredible healing power and their lifesaving skills."
Noting that “It truly takes a village to raise a service dog," McCarren told Finopotamus that exposure to varied environments and people is critical to a dog’s success.
"A diverse workplace like PenFed has been an ideal training ground,” she said. “I’ve also had many colleagues who were having a bad day tell me playing with one of our pups completely turned around their outlook.”
On a more sobering note, McCarren pointed to the fact that veteran and first responder suicide rates are skyrocketing, which, she said, has been exacerbated by the isolation of the pandemic.
“Helping to raise a service dog that will change and potentially save lives is something concrete that PenFed has done and corporate America can easily replicate,” she said. “The demand for a highly trained service dog is stronger than ever,” she said, noting that the wait list can be as long as two years. “Puppy raisers like me and CEOs like James Schenck are desperately needed nationwide.”
For a credit union interested in raising a service dog, it’s important to set expectations before the puppy arrives, she noted. And with many organizations allowing for co-sponsors, it often makes sense for two colleagues to partner in the puppy raising process.
“It eases the burden and keep in mind that occasionally a puppy raiser cannot bring their puppy to a location, like a vacation overseas,” she said. “It’s helpful to have a backup plan.”
Since not all people are comfortable with dogs, including those with allergies or fears of canines, appropriate workplace accommodations have to be instituted. There are also “well-intentioned co-workers” who often ask if they can take the puppy for a walk or to play, which can be challenging as it detracts from the mission.
“I’ve learned to set ‘visiting hours’ for the puppy because I have a demanding job and need to accomplish my work. The point of being a puppy raiser is for the dog to bond directly with you. The training protocol is also very specific so it’s really important to have consistency,” she continued. “I’m always happy to speak with any credit union folks who may be interested in raising a future service dog.”