By Tammy Murga
Signal Staff Writer
Zion, a 5-month-old golden retriever puppy, boarded an empty bus for the first time on Saturday. Quietly, yet attentively, she made her way to the back seats after exploring the textured floors and loud, buzzing motor sounds.
“She’s doing great,” said Carol Ann Heinis, canine development lead at Guide Dogs of America, as she observed Zion board the bus. “Allowing her to investigate the different surfaces, smells and sounds on her own time will make it easier for what’s to come.”
What may come for Zion are numerous more bus rides if she graduates to become a highly skilled working guide dog for someone who is blind or visually impaired.
In fact, about 20 other puppies, most of Labrador and golden retriever breeds, shared Zion’s experience on learning how to properly board buses, stationed at Santa Clarita Central Park.
Saturday’s event was only one of many activities scheduled throughout 15 months for both the puppies and their temporary owners, also known as puppy raisers.
The training was offered by Sylmar-based nonprofit Guide Dogs of America’s guide dog school and partnered, for the first time, with the city of Santa Clarita, which provided transit and access transit buses.
“We do similar things like this with children but never with dogs,” said Alex Porlier, an administrative analyst with the city. “Our main job is to provide mobility, and it’s a lot easier to train in a controlled area like this.”
Throughout the morning training, dogs had the chance to wait patiently to board a bus, sit or lie calmly while the bus drove through the park, and learn how to properly exit the large vehicle.
Some jumped with curiosity, rushing to enter through the automatic doors that had just opened, while others appeared nervous as the bus began its route.
“It took a couple of tries, but he finally got it,” said puppy raiser Angie Hughes of her 9-month-old dog Odie, who rushed out of the bus at first and later learned to exit alongside Hughes.
But there’s something more profound behind the trial and errors that come with training the animals.
Zion’s raiser, Pam English said, “We work with dogs, but it’s really about the people. When we see that dog graduate and working, we see how we are changing lives.”
Zion is English’s 31st puppy. She leads the Sylmar volunteer group, which has about 30 active families from the Santa Clarita Valley raising puppies. She and other volunteers said that while every goodbye is heartbreaking, the real reward is knowing the dog will be ready to help guide someone’s life.
After raising dozens, English is now encouraging more local residents to sign up and volunteer as the nonprofit faces an “unexpected dry spell,” GDA said in a news release last week.
GDA spokeswoman Stephanie Colman said that after an unprecedented “puppy drought,” the Sylmar nursery has five litters on the ground and several more expected.
“We’re thrilled to be finally hearing the pitter patter of puppy paws once again,” she added.
Puppy raisers, like English and Hughes, teach their four-legged friends basic obedience and proper house manners, and also urban socialization. Volunteers also partake in one-on-one sessions with professional trainers, monthly meetings and other training opportunities like traveling to the beach via a commercial bus.
Prospective applicants can learn more online at www.guidedogsofamerica.org and by attending an upcoming information session at 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 18 or Sept. 22 at the Sylmar campus, located at 13445 Glenoaks Blvd. For more information, call (818) 833-6447.