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Guide Dogs of America seeks volunteers to train puppies

LOS ANGELES — Sitting in a pile of puppies is tough work but someone’s got to do it and Stephanie Colman is happy to be that someone.

“Are you guys gonna transform lives?” she asked the litter of black and yellow lab pups as they climbed all over her lap de ella and each other. “I think you’re gonna. I think you’re gonna!”

Colman works at Guide Dogs of America. One day the puppies in her lap de ella will work with the visually impaired, veterans, even children with autism, but getting to graduation is a long journey that starts at the headquarters in Sylmar.

The pups are bred here and spend a few weeks just being puppies before they graduate to the first stage of their training, where they’ll live with volunteer puppy raisers.


What You Need To Know

  • Guide Dogs of America breeds and trains service dogs at the campus in Sylmar
  • Volunteer puppy raisers take a puppy into their home for a little more than a year and help with initial training and socialization
  • Once trained, the service dogs can be placed with a client who is visually impaired, veterans who suffer from PTSD or mobility issues, even children with autism
  • Guide Dogs of America will hold an open house from 10 am to 3 pm Saturday at its Sylmar headquarters

“Our program would not exist without our wonderful puppy raisers,” Colman said. “Being a puppy raiser is a volunteer opportunity where you take a cute little puppy, like one of these guys, into your home and heart for a little more than a year.”

Mike Steinmetz has done it a few times.

“Put on your jacket,” he tells his current puppy in training, Betts, to signal that it’s time to get to work.

It’s fitting that Betts wears a little uniform of sorts since he’s named after Mookie Betts — his Dodgers blue collar bearing the number 50 the right fielder wears on his jersey.

Steinmetz was able to choose the moniker, as long as it started with the letter B, which was assigned to all the puppies in this litter. Naming the puppy after the player seemed like a home run.

“Not only is he one of my favorite Dodgers, he’s also great for the community and gives back,” Steinmetz explained. “And we hope that Betts will give back to the community as well.”

For the next year and a bit, Betts and Mike will be inseparable, not only at home but going on errands to the store, to the coffee shop, to work. The idea is to teach the puppy-in-training manners and behavior at home but also to get out as much as possible to help him or her get acclimated to the world they will one day help their human companion navigate.

“I love being out in public with Betts,” Steinmetz said. “I love getting questions from people who ask me what are we doing and why are you doing this.”

For Steinmetz, this is personal. He has two younger brothers who have a genetic condition that caused them to become visually impaired. He’s witnessed how their lives were changed by their service dogs. But after all the time they’ll spend together, working but also playing and bonding, isn’t it hard to give the puppy-in-training back?

“It certainly is tough,” Steinmetz admitted. “I try to be honest with people when they ask me that question, but I know what wonderful things this dog is going to do, so I don’t give her up. I give her forward.”

He hopes Betts will change someone’s life, he said, adding, “he’s certainly changed mine.”

Once the dogs return to Sylmar, they undergo more training, learning to guide, assist, even comfort. Jamie Hunt is the assistant director of programs and a volunteer puppy raiser herself.

“To see the independence and the mobility that our clients get and even just the companionship that they get from our dogs,” she explained, “it gives me the goose bumps. I just got them right now. It gives me the goosebumps every time.”

During the pandemic, when people had time on their hands, Colman said there was a waitlist to be a volunteer puppy raiser, but now that people can travel again, she said some of those who signed up are looking to postpone for a bit. But slowing down isn’t an option for Guide Dogs of America. To keep up with demand, they need about 225 puppy raiser volunteers a year.

“Our need is constant,” Colman explained. “If we did not put the puppies out now, then we would have a shortage of service dogs in two years.”

She also points out that raising a service dog is an investment. The program costs about $60,000 per dog from breeding, to training, to being matched with a human companion. In the end, each graduating service dog is given to clients at no cost. The service dogs may be matched with people who need them all over the US and in Canada, but the volunteer puppy raisers are local to SoCal, with groups spread out from San Diego to Ventura to the Antelope Valley.

On Saturday, for the first time in two years, Guide Dogs of America will hold an open house from 10 am to 3 pm at its campus in Sylmar. For the public, it’s a chance to see the work the organizations have been doing since 1948, work they can only continue doing, Colman said, if people are willing to sign up for a little volunteer puppy love. For information, visit guidedogsofamerica.org.

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