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As the holidays fast approach, Guide Dogs of America | Tender Loving Canines are in search of Santa Clarita Valley residents to open their hearts — and homes — to a puppy-in-training.

The local guide dog and service dog program has been facing an extreme shortage of volunteers this winter to help raise five litters of Labrador retrievers and Labrador/golden crosses who are scheduled to move into their puppy raisers’ homes through December and into January.

“Maintaining an adequate supply of puppy raisers is always a challenge,” said Stephanie Colman, GDA | TLC’s puppy program coordinator. “It’s not your garden variety volunteer gig… but really, it’s an opportunity to give your time in a way it’s going to transform the lives of somebody living with a disability.”

Guide Dogs of America | Tender Loving Canines puppies. Courtesy

These puppies grow up to lead the blind, provide a sense of safety and security to veterans, open doors of possibility for children on the autism spectrum or serve a variety of vulnerable populations, Colman said.

When the pandemic left many at home, GDA | TLC saw a boost in puppy-raiser applicants. However, as many began to return to work, the shortage began and has since become more pronounced as the holidays approach.

As the demand for service dogs surges, GDA | TLC is on track to graduate 80 working teams annually in the coming years, which is around 20 more than its annual average.

“If you ever dreamt about a puppy for Christmas, well, here’s your chance,” 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.”

Guide Dogs of America | Tender Loving Canines puppies. Courtesy

Becoming a puppy raiser

For a little over a year, volunteers not only provide puppies with a loving, stable home but also teach basic obedience and house manners, with training assistance from GDA | TLC.

No experience is necessary, as puppy raisers receive full support from the organization through regional puppy classes and meetings, cohorts of fellow raisers, meet-ups with GDA | TLC’s professional training staff and more.

Puppy raisers are also tasked with incorporating the dogs into the activities of daily life to socialize them.

“We want them to be exposed to much of what the world has to offer so that it’s somewhat familiar and also so that they have opportunities to practice their obedience and being calm and confident in this wide variety of different circumstances,” Colman said.

Guide Dogs of America | Tender Loving Canines puppies. Courtesy

“The biggest need for us is someone who has the time and the willingness to be consistent in their training,” Colman added.

GDA | TLC welcomes puppy raisers from all lifestyles: families, single people, homeowners, apartment dwellers and homes with resident pets, among other situations.

“People often say they’d love to raise a puppy but can’t imagine having to ‘give it back,’” Colman added. “You aren’t giving the dog back, you’re giving it forward, as a gift of confidence, independence and mobility. It’s life-changing — for both the clients and the puppy raisers, especially when they meet the recipient of the dog they raised.”

Guide Dogs of America | Tender Loving Canines puppies. Courtesy

Colman compared the dogs’ return to sending a child off to college, as it’s just as rewarding to see the dogs be assigned to either the guide dog or service dog program.

The organization covers all veterinary care, and puppy raisers pay for food, toys and flea/tick preventatives purchased at cost through the organization, while out-of-pocket expenses are tax-deductible.

Prospective applicants can learn more about the program via an online info session at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 20, or at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11, by visiting bit.ly/3cqGBDU or by calling 818-833-6447.