Volunteer pilots and private plane owners stepped up to help puppies from Canine Companions for Independence who were unable to continue their service dog training because of the coronavirus pandemic

Even amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, work doesn't stop for service dogs and the puppies training for the same title. So when the pandemic affected Canine Companions for Independence's (CCI) ability to fly puppies training to be service dogs to their puppy raisers for socialization and basic training, the non-profit got creative.

CCI is dedicated to providing professionally-trained, highly-skilled assistance dogs at no charge to people with disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries and other mobility issues. The nonprofit usually matches 400 service dogs — Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and mixes of the two bred by CCI — to people in need of assistance each year.

Part of the reason that CCI is able to provide these talented pooches, who go through months of training, free of charge is thanks to their group of volunteer puppy raisers. These animal-loving individuals take in CCI puppies for several months and teach the dogs basic obedience and socialization skills, introducing the canine to as many new experiences as possible, before returning the dogs to the California-based CCI for more specialized training. Usually, these puppies are transported to their puppy raisers via commercial flights, but when the pandemic led to thousands of commercial flights being canceled, CCI found themselves with a backlog of puppies in need of training, and no way to get them to their puppy raisers.

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Pilots and private plane owners across Santa Rosa, Calif., where CCI is headquartered, heard about this pup predicament and stepped up to help transport the puppies.

"We're glad to do it," says Craig Ramsey, 74, a tech industry retiree who loaned his Bombardier Challenger to the effort so a volunteer pilot could fly out CCI puppies to their new temporary homes.

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Credit: Chris Kittredge Photography

Since these generous volunteer flights started, 189 CCI puppies, over the course of 43 trips, have reached their next destination, and are now learning the skills they need to one day become service dogs.

"We had offers from a few pilots to assist; then the owner of a private-jet center joined in. Now we hope to continue this into the future," Paige Mazzoni, CEO of CCI, tells PEOPLE of the nonprofit's plans.

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Credit: John Bentzinger

The pilots seem eager to help, with one volunteer, Rich Hansen, calling the pups he flew some of the most "well-behaved" passengers he has ever had.

To learn more about CCI and the volunteers helping them train and transport puppies with purpose, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, Oct. 23.

  • Reporting by BOB MORRIS