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Pets Pose with Santa Claus for Paws for the Holidays

Local pets and volunteers raise money for Canine Companions for Independence.

Dogs, cats, and sometimes a goat or two, flock to Murray Hill Veterinary Associates every holiday season to pose with Santa Claus for "Paws for the Holidays." Here, pets can be photographed with Santa for $25 per sitting, sporting elf hats and reindeer antlers.

Animals are photographed by a professional photographer, Jennifer Pottheiser, who has photographed sports stars such as Kobe Bryant and Roger Federer. But unlike most models, these pets preen and pose to help their fellow animals. All proceeds from "Paws for Pets" are donated to Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a national non-profit organization that provides service dogs for individuals with disabilities.

Typically, it costs $40,000 to breed, raise, train, and maintain one service dog. Lucky for recipients, CCI provides dogs to qualified individuals free of charge.

"It is one of the few organizations that does that, and it does that because of the level of fundraising we engage in," said Jean Earle, CCI Chapter President.

Since 1996, "Paws for the Holidays" has helped raise money with the assistance of about 40 local volunteers, including Earle. Paws for the Holidays usually raises $1,000 for CCI every year.

At the end of the day, Pottheiser edits the photos and sends the best shot to the participant via e-mail. From there, participants can take their photo and make calendars, coffee mugs, and more. All images taken during the day are also posted online so that people can buy holiday cards and ornaments with their favorite pet's photo.

"It's fun for me to take pictures of all the creatures that come in. They all have their own personalities and it's a fun afternoon," said Pottheiser, who has been involved with CCI for about five years. "It's such a nice team effort. Maybe one volunteer is setting up lights, Santa is in his costume all day, and volunteers are signing people up. Everyone really has a role."

And, lucky for Santa, he has never been bit by any of the animals. "We're going to try to keep that going, and treats flowing to try to keep the dogs happy," Pottheiser said.

Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers or a cross between the two breeds undergo CCI training instruction at 15 to 18 months old, where they are trained for six to nine months. CCI trains four types of assistance dogs: service, hearing, facility, and skilled companions.

Service dogs assist adults with physical disabilities, hearing dogs help those who are deaf and hard of hearing, facility dogs are trained to work with a professional in an education or healthcare organization, and skilled companions help children and adults with disabilities under the guidance of a facilitator.

Earle said she first became interested in CCI when her daughter, who is physically disabled, expressed an interest in getting a service dog. Her daughter is now the proud owner of Tomba.

"(Tomba) has changed her life dramatically," Earle said. "He opens and closes doors like a refrigerator door, he opens drawers, picks up things, turns lights on and off…he is the most talented member of the family."

In addition to "Paws for the Holidays," fundraisers such as "Wine and Noses," a wine and chocolate event held in October, and gift wrapping at Borders, help to raise money for CCI.

"Of all things, if someone enjoys animals, dogs can really change your life every single day. You may want to wait for a cure… but every day is a better day with a puppy. So many say it is one of the reasons our volunteers are so committed. (Dogs) have so much fun with life," Earle said.

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