Guide Dogs of America (GDA), based in Sylmar, is seeking volunteer families in the San Fernando Valley to temporarily house and train puppy Labrador Retrievers into becoming service dogs.
The organization currently has five litters of puppies it is urgently trying to find homes for this holiday season.
“These puppies will grow up to lead the blind, provide a sense of safety and security to our nation’s military veterans, open doors of possibility for children on the Autism spectrum, and serve a variety of vulnerable populations. But that only happens when we have enough volunteers to raise the dogs and give them a great start in life,” said Stephanie Colman, GDA’s puppy program coordinator.
“If you ever dreamt of a puppy for Christmas, this is your chance to realize that dream while helping transform the life of someone with a disability,” Colman said. “A puppy adds even more joy to holiday festivities and giving one’s time in raising a puppy to change the life of someone with a disability is perfect for this season of giving.”
It costs the GDA more than $60,000 to breed, raise and train each successful working guide dog or service dog team, Colman said, and dogs are provided to clients throughout the United States and Canada free-of-cost. The organization covers all veterinary care. Puppy raisers pay for food, toys and flea/tick preventatives purchased at-cost through the organization.
Out-of-pocket expenses are tax deductible.
Colman said the GDA graduates approximately 60 working teams per year. As the demand for service dogs surges, the organization is trying to increase that figure to 80 working teams annually in the coming years.
The Thomas Family and Justice
Jenny Thomas and her son Treyson are at the facility, closely but benevolently watching a year-old female Labrador named Justice burn up some youthful energy by frolicking and racing around a gated portion of the GDA training grounds.
Justice currently resides with the Thomas family, and is the second Labrador they have volunteered to raise and train. The first one, Hailey, stayed with them from November 2018 until February 2020. Hailey is now a working guide dog.
“It’s about [teaching the dogs] house manners — how to keep them off of furniture, not to go into trash. And how to greet people properly,” Jenny said. “That’s a long one; [Labradors] are very friendly animals. They want to meet people and see people, and ‘talk’ with people.”
In raising and training Hailey, “We really didn’t know anything because we had never done it before,” Jenny said. “We learned a tremendous amount. So when we got Justice, we were able to implement some things sooner with her.”
Thomas says Justice seems to be absorbing the training a little faster than Hailey did.
“Hailey was just so friendly all the time,” Jenny said. “But Justice gets it…she’s really smart, and understands what we are teaching her very well.
“The one thing we’re still working on is how to greet people without jumping on them. In that way, she’s still a puppy.”
Thomas warns prospective puppy raisers not to “fall in love” with the dogs, although it’s impossible not to feel connected to them even after they leave.
“You know the dog is not yours. It’s not like ‘they took my pet,’” she said. “I knew I would be giving the dog to the next person. You do get attached to them, you love them — but you also know it’s for a greater good. Your hope is the dog is going to help someone.”
Raising Two Dogs
A few yards away sits another volunteer, Natalie Hooper of Sun Valley, who is cuddling with Riddley, a female puppy she has just started raising. Very young dogs demand constant attention and lots of love even before training starts, she said.
“It’s a full-time responsibility,” Hooper said. “You have to be able to care for the puppy and be around the puppy. You have to be watching them; they can get into anything, be mischievous. But in the end, it’s worth all the hard work and hard days you may have because you know the dog is going to help someone who really needs it.”
A student at Moorpark College who also works two days a week as a restaurant hostess, Hooper said she’s “loved animals” all her life, and dogs in particular. She took on the challenge of adding Riddley to her family home even though the first dog they took in, Espen, has not finished being trained.
So Hooper has yet to experience any separation anxiety about Espen being returned to GDA.
“It will be difficult because she is my first,” Hooper said. “My whole family has become attached to her, and we love her so much. But we also know that whoever gets matched with her will love her as much as we do. And their whole life is gonna change, and be better than it was without a dog.
“So that will make it easier, knowing she will benefit somebody else’s life more than we can. We have them because we love them. [Other people will] have them because they need them.”
She said she spends every moment possible with both dogs. When she’s at school or the restaurant, her parents keep watch and provide training.
“Having family support is [very important] because there are days when you may have to do something else and you can’t have the puppy with you,” Hooper said, adding that if need be, the dogs are housed at the GDA kennels until she can pick them back up.
It’s important, however, not to have the dog hearing too many voices in the early stages of their development.
“You’re training the dog every day. So you have to make sure to have enough time to help the dog grow and get all the training they need to be a service or guide dog,” Hooper said.
Prospective applicants can learn more about the program via an online info session at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11. You can also visit the GDA website at www.guidedogsofamerica.org; or contact the organization directly by calling (818) 833-6447.