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UCF will allow a few four-legged residents to live on campus this fall. They’ll be joined by their trainers, students who will turn these canine companions into full-fledged service dogs.

The pups are trained through an organization called Canine Companions for Independence, also known as CCI. Founded in 1975, CCI is a nonprofit organization aimed at helping those with disabilities by providing trained assistance dogs, according to its website.

CCI came to campus once President John C. Hitt received a release dog from the program. A release dog is a dog that did not make it to “graduation” due to various factors, such as medical problems or an inability to pass the obedience test.

Judy Alberston, a CCI member and a close friend of the Hitt family, convinced Hitt to adopt a release dog, and from there suggested the idea of bringing the program to campus.

Morgan Bell, a junior statistics and finance major, is the only student currently raising a service dog on campus. She hopes to be joined by four more puppy raisers in fall 2016, who will live on campus in the Lake Claire Living Learn Community.

But Morgan Bell never liked the idea of volunteering; she didn’t understand why people would waste their time that way. Then she met Robin.

Bell first met Robin, a 10-month-old labrador and golden retriever mix, through CCI on July 17, 2015. Bell received the email that she was getting Robin a month and a half before she was able to pick her up. She drove two hours to the Canine Companions for Independence center in Ocoee and, after a long tour upon entering the facility, the wait was finally over.

Bell describes her first impression of Robin as a “chunky, little lumpy ball of fur” that slipped around and fell while Bell was learning handling techniques, such as cradling, which gets the puppy accustomed to being touched and held.

Robin is set to graduate in November, and Bell has applied to raise another puppy in October. Bell plans to move to off campus housing that will allow two dogs, in case Robin does not meet the graduation requirements.

Bell got involved with the organization through a meeting on campus in February 2015. The informational meeting was through housing and advertised how to raise a puppy on campus. Since the initial meeting, Bell became president of the Service-Dog Training and Education Program (STEP) and works to expand the club and find more members willing to raise and train dogs for the CCI program.

“It’s a market,” Bell said. “We’re all looking for some kind of volunteer opportunity and something to give back, because college is that time when you want to volunteer or need to volunteer.”

Puppy raisers have the option to live on campus in LLC or are able to raise the puppy in off-campus housing. Puppy raisers are expected to train the puppy for 16 to 18 months, preparing the dog for the first graduation that will lead to advanced training. Two STEP executive board members, Kayla McCauley and Jennifer Markowitz, will join the first round of new on-campus trainers next semester.

Rachel Waag, secretary for STEP and McCauley and Markowitz’s roommate for fall, is an example of how a member can be involved but not have to take on the commitment of a puppy raiser.

“It’s all about the organization Canine for Companions,” Waag said. “What we do is not all about puppy raising, it’s about fundraising for other puppy raisers and getting awareness out there for the organizations.”

The club informs members that they are able to either become a puppy raiser, a puppy sitter or just an active member involved with CCI. All puppy raisers and sitters are expected to attend obedience classes and are required to take a handling test. STEP also requires puppy raisers to be a rising sophomore before applying to be a raiser.

“It’s easy to get involved with us,” Markowitz said. “And for non-puppy raisers you can still be involved with the dog even if you don’t physically care for the dog, it’s really easy to get involved with the dogs.”

STEP plans to expand puppy raising to all housing areas on campus.

“Just having the puppy raising on campus is a huge step. And I recognize that that is way out of everyone’s comfort zone,” Bell said.

McCauley explains the benefits to living on campus while being a puppy raiser. The convenience of being able to walk the dog to class instead of worrying about transporting, the ability to attend meetings, and the opportunities on campus presented to a puppy raiser.

For now, STEP is focused on fundraising and raising awareness for the future of the club and how to distinguish between licensed service animals and emotional support animals.

“I think it’s just mainly getting awareness out there,” McCauley said. “Telling them about us and what we do, then try to differentiate between us and them. Like providing examples such as seeing a dog running off-leash, that shouldn’t be happening.”

Learn about STEP:

Facebook is STEP @ UCF

Instagram: step_ucf.

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Samantha Bequer is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.

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