'A puppy on a plane’

Canine Companion service dogs take next step of training with a flight to Washington|

Aspen is a two-month-old Lab-Golden mix. She reportedly enjoys playing with other puppies and falling asleep in people’s arms, she wears a bright yellow cape whenever out in public, and on this warm, sunny morning — a bright Thursday in late June — she is about to take her very first flight on an airplane.

“She’ll be a puppy on a plane!” observes a smiling Michelle Williams, the public relations specialist with Santa Rosa’s Canine Companions, happily absorbing a volley of dog-kisses from Aspen as she holds the exuberant animal just a few yards from the airfield at the Petaluma Municipal Airport. In about 30 minutes, when Aspen boards pilot David Tuckerman’s pressurized, single-engine Piper M-350 — along with two more puppies named Kallie and Kallen — it will mark the first leg of all three dogs’ journeys to becoming trained Canine Companion service dogs.

When the plane lands in Arlington, Washington in about three-and-a-half hours, each dog will go to a different volunteer puppy-raiser for approximately a year-and-a-half. Kallie and Kallen will be handed over to experienced caretaker/trainers in the Seattle area, while Aspen will go home with Tuckerman, who will train the dog along with his husband Kenny, alternating with another caretaker/trainer in Lake Stevens, Washington. If all goes well, in 18 months or so, all three dogs will return to Sonoma County for an additional six-months of training before being placed in their permanent homes.

“This is just the beginning for them,“ says Williams. “But it’s a very big step.”

For Canine Companions — the national organization founded in 1975 to provide trained canine assistants for disabled people around the world — Aspen’s big airborne adventure represents a step forward for the the nonprofit as well, marking the organization’s pandemic-born transition from depending on expensive commercial airlines to using private volunteer pilots, and small regional facilities like the Petaluma Airport.

“When the pandemic hit, airlines stopped flying, and since then cargo rates have dramatically increased,” explains Williams. “A few private pilots stepped in to help deliver dogs to their caretaker-trainers, and the idea has caught on. So now we are trying to move as many puppies as we can with these private pilots, which is a huge cost savings for us, because of course we’re a nonprofit. And honestly, the puppies have never flown better. They arrive so relaxed and happy. They have better flying experiences than most of us humans do now.”

According to Williams, Canine Companions sends puppies all over the country.

“We had a puppy flight go out earlier this morning from Hayward,” she notes. “We have a few going commercial from SFO today, and this one from Petaluma. It’s pretty constant, because we place about 400 service dog teams annually. We’ve sent puppies all the way to New York, Florida, all over, so we really depend on these volunteer pilots. Most of ours go from the Jet Center, but we are definitely looking for more pilots. If anyone with a plane who flies in and out of Petaluma would like to join our team of pilots, we’d love to hear from them.”

Generally, the puppies’ lives begin in the homes of volunteer breeder/caretakers, such as Michelle Ferretti, who has been taking care of Aspen, Kallie and Kallen, and who escorted the frisky animals from Santa Rosa to to Petaluma this morning.

“I have two daughters who are all big and grown, and I live alone, so it’s been an amazing experience being a caretaker for puppies,” she says. “And I’m a teacher too, so between my students and the puppies, I get a lot of love.”

After two months, the puppies move on to the homes of caretaker/trainers like Tuckerman, where they will learn around 30 distinct commands, and become accustomed to being around people and noise. Of course, for puppies like Aspen, though only eight-weeks old, that training has already begun.

“From the moment they are born, the caretakers will touch all of their paws regularly, and even start doing their nails as early as week one, because that’s really important to be able to do easily,” Williams explains. “There is a recording that our volunteer breeder-caretakers will play around the puppies, with sounds like sirens and crowds, vacuums, crying babies and even gunshots, so the dogs become desensitized to noises.”

"I had them in the bathroom with the hairdryer on today and they were totally fine,“ reports Ferretti, whose final task with each puppy is delivering them to the airport from which they will depart for the next part of their training. In the past, she’s delivered puppies to other airports for similar flights. Since the private pilot program began, she’s mainly delivered to the Sonoma Jet Center at the Charles M. Schulz Airport in Santa Rosa, and here to Petaluma. “The first time I left a puppy at the cargo counter at SFO, I couldn’t stop crying,” she says, “even though the people there were so nice. It just feels very transactional and business-like.. This is so much nicer.”

Following protocol, Ferretti arrived here with the puppies about an hour before the planned flight, setting up a pen on the grass so the dogs can romp for about an hour before being loaded onto the plane.

“This way, they can run around and play and get their jollies out,” says Williams.

As the puppies play, Tuckerman arrives in his plane, taxiing up on the other side of the fence. A few moments later, Ferretti places Aspen in his arms, and the bonding begins with another splashy baptism of canine kisses.

“Hello Aspen!” says Tuckerman. “What a sweet girl!”

Tuckerman says he learned to fly airplanes about 40 years ago. He did it for 20 years, then took 20 years off. Already a caretaker/trainer with Canine Companions, he ;earned of the need for private pilots and began volunteering his services. Since buying the plane about two years ago, Tuckerman estimates that he’s transported about 20 puppies, flying as far as Helena, Montana and Phoenix, Arizona.

“I bought the airplane during the pandemic, right when the need was become pretty clear,” he says, acknowledging that while the motivation for the purchase was not necessarily to become a puppy delivery service, it’s beginning to work out that way. “Flying puppies is now the majority of the flying I do.”

Tuckerman suggests that it’s time to load the puppies onto the plane, and after Ferretti has removed their yellow capes - used to accustom the dogs to wearing vests as well as to identify then as service dogs in training - the dogs are carried to the plane, given a final hug and a pat, and placed inside the crates they will soon be sound asleep in.

“The puppies usually whine a bit during takeoff, then the sound of the engine lulls them right to sleep,” says Tuckerman.

When the dogs return to Sonoma County, they will spend six-months at the training facility in Santa Rosa, where they will learn more advanced commands and skills, such as picking up dropped items, turning on and off lights, opening and closing doors. Though not all dogs meet the high standards Canine Companions sets for service dogs, Williams says that should Aspen and her friends pass muster, they will eventually be paired with a human, who visit the Santa Rosa campus for two weeks to meet and become familiar with their new service dog, and to learn the commands they will communicate by from then on.

“And then, when she graduates,” says Williams, “Aspen will get her service dog vest, which is blue.”

As Tuckerman, waves goodbye and closes the hatch, preparing for the flight to Washington, Williams and Ferretti shout out one last farewell.

“Bye Aspen! By Kallie and Kallen! Have fun learning new things!” says Ferretti.

“Have a nice nap and a good flight!” adds Williams.

Turning around, she smiles again.

“That was fun,” she says. “What a great way to start a day.”

David Templeton is the Community editor of the Argus-Courier. You can reach him as david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

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