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Young volunteer pilot flies soon-to-be service puppies in training from Santa Rosa to Carlsbad

A 22-year-old pilot took to the skies on Wednesday, making a very special delivery from Santa Rosa to Southern California on behalf of local nonprofit organization Canine Companions.

Pilot Owen Leipelt flew 8-week-old goldador mix puppies Kelly and Limerick to new homes with volunteer trainers in Carlsbad from the Sonoma Jet Center.

It was the second time Leipelt piloted a flight for the Santa Rosa-based group, which trains and places assistance dogs with children, adults and veterans with disabilities.

“My family has been involved with Canine Companions for years as puppy raisers, and when I heard they were looking for pilots to transport these puppies, as a licensed pilot with an airplane I thought it was perfectly appropriate for me to accept the mission,” he said.

His mom began volunteering as a puppy raiser in 1994, and the Leipelts have been raising puppies as a family since 2010.

Leipelt, who got his pilot’s license when he was 17, is the youngest of about a dozen volunteer pilots whom the organization rely on to transport puppies to trainers across the United States.

“(I) just always loved aviation, and then just signed up for a flight lesson one day, and, well, you know a lot of money and time later here we are,” he said of his desire to be a pilot.

The group’s private flight program started in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic severely limited commercial air travel.

In 2021, more than 230 puppies were united with caretakers through private flights, according to the organization.

On Thursday, pilot Joshua Hochberg flew 15 puppies to Ohio and an airport just outside of Washington, D.C.

Hochberg, the owner of Sonoma Jet Center, was one of the first pilots to volunteer to transport animals along with fellow pilot Martyn Lewis. He estimated that he’s flown around 250 puppies and dogs on 30 flights.

“When we started, it was right when everything was locked down for COVID,” Hochberg said. “I was just spending time at my house, afraid and frustrated, and so when Martyn called (for help transporting the puppies), it was a nice opportunity to go do something to help.”

“It’s really cool that our volunteers are stepping up in this super unique way,” Michelle Williams, public relations and marketing director for Canine Companions, said.

The organization, founded in 1975, has volunteer puppy raisers and six training centers across the U.S.

For more information or to volunteer with the organization, visit canine.org.

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