Kathleen McGregor cracks a smile at the excited puppies outside Brigadoon. // Photo by Molly Todd
By Molly Todd
“You gave me my life back when you gave me this dog,” a client told Denise Costanten after receiving a service dog from the Brigadoon Service Dogs program.
Brigadoon Service Dogs provides trained service dogs to veterans, adults and children with disabilities, behavioral, as well as physical and developmental, Costanten said. She is the founder and executive director of Brigadoon Service Dogs in Bellingham.
On average, Brigadoon places 10 dogs per year with clients and has a diverse group of breeds including great danes, poodles, labs and collies, Costanten said. The nonprofit receives clients from Oregon up to British Columbia, but people have come from as far as Southern California, she said.
The nonprofit received the Boeing Employees’ Credit Union Employee’s Choice award and was also awarded $30,000 at the People Helping People Awards in December, according to an article from The Bellingham Business Journal.
The award from Boeing Employees’ Credit Union is the second-largest grant Brigadoon has received so far and can help toward hiring new trainers, feeding the dogs, putting them through training and much more, Costanten said. In 2012, Brigadoon also received a $50,000 grant award from the Annenberg Foundation, a global nonprofit organization.
The focus of the grant is to give back to the community in general, Costanten said. “We’re making a change in people’s lives,” she said. “We train dogs to help people, so we’re helping people through our dogs.”
The organization works to give its clients new hope and create new possibilities in life for those who need a service dog, Costanten said. “It gives them a new lease on life, it gives them confidence and it gives them independence,” she said.
Since Brigadoon’s opening in 2004, they have received five other awards as well, one of which was the Golden Tennis Shoe award given to Costanten in 2014 from Washington Senator Patty Murray. Murray gives out three awards a year and Costanten received one of them.
Before Costanten founded her nonprofit, she was running a for-profit business training dogs for pet owners, she said. At one point she had eight dogs in her house and realized that she could train collies, which are known as working dogs, to work for somebody with a disability. Knowing it would take a lot of time to do so and unsure if she could do it all, Costanten decided to take the chance, she said. “So off I went, closed my business, and opened my nonprofit business,” she said.
When Brigadoon first started, Costanten wasn’t aware of the need for service dogs in the area. “I thought I might put out one or two dogs a year, but when my website went live, I had no idea how many people were out there looking for service dogs,” she said. “I had no clue [how high] the demand was.”
She said she started receiving calls from people with anxiety and diabetes as well as parents of children with autism. They said they were having issues getting service dogs from other places because they weren’t considered priority cases for service dogs, Costanten said.
“That struck a funny chord because I thought, ‘To me, if it affects your life, being able to work or being in the community and your normal life functioning, it’s a disability no matter what the label is,’” she said. “If [the client] can tell me what they need the dog to do, then I can train the dog to do it, it didn’t matter to me what the disability was.”
Fifteen years after it first opened, Brigadoon currently has a waitlist for people wanting a service dog. “It’s very hard for me to know that there are a lot of people on a waitlist, and I don’t have the dogs [for everyone],” Costanten said. “It takes a while, it’s not just the training that takes awhile, it also takes awhile to match them with the right partner.”
Training for service dogs at Brigadoon typically begins when they are puppies and it takes two years for them to graduate from the service dog program, she said. The service time of the dog for the client is around eight to 10 years, after which the dog can retire and become a regular pet for the client and family, according to Costanten.
Cheri Mulligan, co-founder of Misunderstood Mutts Rescue, has been in contact with Costanten about puppies the organization recently rescued from Yakima.
Three 7-week-old puppies named Stella, Dixie and Pebbles that were brought to Brigadoon can be considered in entering the service dogs program there, she said.
Misunderstood Mutts Rescue began in 2016 and provides service to the greater Yakima Valley, Puget Sound region and greater Portland area, according to their website.
It’s important for the puppies to be brought to Brigadoon at a young age to start training, Mulligan said. “It all starts here,” she said. “For me, it’s really important that when we get puppies we do it right.”
Misunderstood Mutts Rescue takes in dogs that range in ages, and currently the organization has six adult dogs and six puppies, Mulligan said.
“We’ll take anything, we don’t cherry-pick. There’s a lot of rescues that cherry-pick, but we’re here to rescue whatever needs to be rescued,” Mulligan said.
Kathleen McGregor, who fosters puppies and pregnant dogs, helped Mulligan bring the rescue puppies to Brigadoon.
McGregor said she tries to foster only one litter at a time, six puppies on average, but it ranges and there are sometimes more. One of the most recent pregnant dogs she fostered gave birth to 12 puppies, she said with a laugh.
Costanten said she will never forget the impact that Brigadoon’s service dogs have left on children and young teens especially. One story in particular that has stuck with her through the years involved a client with cerebral palsy looking for a service dog, she said. The client had to use a walker to be able to get around but when she received a service dog from Brigadoon in middle school, it changed her life, Costanten said. “She was no longer the kid with a metal thing walking around, now she’s the cool kid with the dog,” Costanten said. “Now, fast forward, she’s in college and onto her second dog.” The client now lives on her own and Costanten said that would not have happened if it weren’t for her dog. “Her confidence just blossomed, completely blossomed when she got that dog,” Costanten said.
Costanten plans to continue with Brigadoon Service Dogs for as long as she can and eventually pass on her position to someone qualified so she can retire. Despite the hard work that comes with running a nonprofit, making a difference in people’s lives is what makes it all worth it, Costanten said.
“I don’t think dogs are utilized enough. In so many different areas, they are so smart,” Costanten said. “There isn’t anybody that loves dogs that say their lives haven’t changed because of their dogs, even if it’s a pet dog. Just having a dog around, it changes your life.”