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Engineering News Fall 2015

When Going to the Dogs Is a Good Thing

How can you reap gigantic benefits from a teeny house?

For a group of SCU students competing in the Sacramento Municipal Utility District 2016 Tiny House Competition, the solution was easy: When the contest is over, pass along the 238-square-foot solar-powered home to a very worthy organization—Operation Freedom Paws (OFP), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization empowering military veterans and others with disabilities to restore their independence by teaming them up with a service dog.

"We've already done a lot of research and bought the trailer that our Tiny House will be built on, but construction hasn’t started yet. Knowing who we are designing for and how the home will be used informs our design choices and gives us even more passion for the project," said J.J. Galvin '17, a mechanical engineering major working on the thermal analysis and HVAC systems for the house.

Recently, the students spent a morning at OFP's facility in San Martin, California, seeing the operation in action and getting to know founder Mary Cortani. A Certified Army Master of Canine Education, Cortani prepared dogs for work in sentry and explosive detection during the Vietnam era. In a way, she does much the same thing through OFP, training dog-and-veteran teams to deal with the daily minefields encountered by those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and/or any number of other physical, neurological, or psychological challenges.

Using a 30-step process, Cortani and her team of experts identify suitable dogs to match with veterans. "Eighty percent of our dogs come from shelters, rescue programs, or were bred to be guide dogs but didn't make the cut," said Cortani. "We assess the client's needs and match them with a dog. Together, they train here two to four times a week for 48 weeks—about 350 hours—receiving lessons, guidance, and exercises to practice at home. For people with PTSD or TBI, life can seem hopeless; just going to the grocery store or talking with strangers can be overwhelming; sleep is nearly impossible because of nightmares or night terrors. But as they train together, the dog learns to help the client stay calm and focused and alerts the client to events or danger. The veteran learns to trust the dog and is then able to venture out into the world. The team is healing together and providing each other with a new lease on life," she said. Veterans' accounts posted on operationfreedompaws.org attest to the miracles taking place through this organization.

While the cost of a service dog ranges from $10,000 to $60,000, all of OFP's services are provided to veterans and others with disabilities at no cost.

During their visit to OFP, the SCU students helped teams learn to deal with strangers wanting to pet the dogs (nearly every breed imaginable: Chihuahua, Rottweiler, Great Dane, Poodle, Greyhound, Labrador Retriever, and plenty of mutts); they witnessed the healing powers of "puppy yoga" as veterans practiced calming exercises; and they knew this was where they wanted their Tiny House to find its "forever home." Following the competition, their Tiny House will serve as temporary accommodations for a variety of visitors—out-of-town veterans being paired with a dog, shelter workers receiving training to identify potential service dogs, or trainers coming in to help lead classes. Installed between the Victory Garden and meditation memorial garden, and adjacent to the children's play area, rEvolve House will provide a serene and soothing environment for its guests.

"Before we ever met the people at OFP, we'd named our house 'rEvolve,' in the tradition established with SCU's entries in the 2007, '09, and '13 Solar Decathlon competitions—Ripple House, Refract House, and Radiant House," said Nick Jensen '15. "It's almost like it was meant to be, that SCU and OFP would come together. Being a part of Operation Freedom Paws' evolution and of the veterans' growth and healing is a gift far greater than anything we are giving."

Learn more:

operationfreedompaws.org; smud.org

Engineering
When Going to the Dogs Is a Good Thing, Tiny House, J.J. Galvin, Nick Jensen