Millions of Los Angeles residents love their pets, but for one group of people the connection is even stronger. Guide dogs not only faithfully perform their duty of helping blind and visually-impaired people navigate around the city but there’s a special bond that is formed between pets and the owners.

All the guide dogs are raised and trained for this vitally important work. Local volunteers like Val Goldstein play an important role. A member of the Westside L.A. group that includes Santa Monica, Goldstein helps raise and train puppies to get them ready for service.

“They need volunteers to help foster the puppies for the first year-and-a-half until they are ready to go on to graduate school,” Goldstein explained. “We teach the dogs the normal commands of sit, come, stay, etc. The most important thing we do is to expose them to as much of life as possible.”

Guide dogs are required to wear special uniforms so they are easily recognizable by the public at large. The majority of the dogs are Labrador Retrievers but Golden Retrievers and Golden Lab mixes are also used.

“We take them out to restaurants and malls — anyplace where a blind person might go,” Goldstein said. “The guide dog jackets serve a few purposes. First, the dogs understand from a very young age when they put the jackets on they’re going to work. Secondly, it gives the dog permission to go into public places where they usually aren’t allowed. And the third thing is it lets people know that they should ask before they approach the dog. Because the dog is in training we want the dog not to be distracted by other people.”

Many volunteers are available to help with the raising of these special puppies.

“We have a lot of backup help,” Goldstein pointed out. ‘For example there are classes and outings related to Guide Dogs of America. We fill out regular reports and our club holds meetings to socialize with each other.”

The person in charge of the Westside Los Angeles chapter is Glyn Judson.

“He interviews new puppy raisers in the West L.A. area,” Goldstein noted. “He’s the one we call if we have a question or need help with something.”

Judson doesn’t get paid for his volunteer role. But like so many others, he’s happy to be part of such a worthy organization. “The reward is just amazing,” he said.

Currently there is a total of seven Santa Monica residents who also volunteer with the group. Monthly meetings are led by Judson and held at the local Ken Edwards Center.

For Goldstein, meanwhile, puppy raising and training has several benefits.

“My husband and I have always grown up around dogs,” she said. “I wanted to take it to the next level. I’ve worked with rescue groups before but I wanted to do even more. We talked to a number of service organizations but Guide Dogs of America gave us the most direction which is why we chose them.”

It turned out to be a great decision for the local couple.

“Every puppy raiser supports and helps out every other puppy raiser,” Goldstein stated. “I’ve met the nicest people. When we see a dog graduate we take total pride in each one of them.”

The guide dogs often receive a lot of attention due to their colorful outfits.

“Every time the dogs go out they are an advertisement for Guide Dogs of America,” Goldstein added. “People see that jacket on the dog and stop and ask questions.”

Socialization is one of the added benefits of someone owning a guide dog.

“People with disabilities sometimes might be shunned by the public, but this gives the public a reason to stop and talk. Guide dogs can help start conversations.”

The specialized dogs work with their blind owners for a few weeks during training and then are ready to go out and about. Goldstein added that guide dogs are much more effective and faster than it would be for someone using a cane.

Guide Dogs of America is dedicated to its mission to provide guide dogs and instruction to blind people and visually-impaired men and women from the United States and Canada. Perhaps most importantly these guide dogs help their owners achieve increased mobility and independence.

For more information about becoming a volunteer call 818-833-638; or check out guidedogsofamerica.org.

editor@www.smdp.com