Needed: people to hug and play with puppies

- Dog lovers, buckle in. One Bay Area nonprofit is offering a wonderland of roly poly playmates.

They're Southeastern Guide Dogs' newest students: 9-week-old labrador puppies. After two years of training, they'll be the eyes for the visually impaired.

"From the moment they're born, we start tickling them and touching the pads of their feet," Southeastern Guide Dogs' Ruth Lando said Tuesday.

Turns out, the puppy wranglers could use a hand. That's where their "Hug a Puppy" program comes in. The nonprofit invites the public to help in socializing the dogs. Shifts of 20 people play and prepare their pint-sized playmates for social situations of all kinds.

"The more that they're exposed to when their younger helps build a reference library for them. So that way when they're working, they don't feel as uncomfortable in a situation as if it's their first time being exposed to it," Southeastern Guide Dogs' James Welch explained.

Canine care experts are keeping a close eye on every encounter.

"We keep track daily. We call it our 'puppy report cards' on them. We want to see with every single puppy, what's their behaviors? How do they react?" Welch said.

The end result? Pros say the little pups will grow into highly-trained, expert companions prepared to guide their partners through life, with love.

"It's an amazing transformation that's really heartwarming," Lando smiled.

All that playtime comes at a small cost. The nonprofit charges $10 per person which goes to help pay for the pups' food.

The "Hug a Puppy" program is offered every day except Thursdays and Sundays. Reservations are required. For more information, visit www.guidedogs.org.

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