The puppies of STEP at UCF. Photo by Rahma Hassan.

Students have a fun and rewarding experience raising puppies through a UCF student organization that helps train future assistance dogs.

The club — Service-Dog Training and Education Program (STEP) — was founded in 2016 by a student who had firsthand experience raising a puppy. STEP works with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a non-profit organization, that brings them puppies to be raised and trained by student volunteers, STEP President Kayla McCauley said.

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“Our role is advocating for the organization, kind of telling people what we do, what service animals are and then bringing people in to puppy raise… and share our mission and what we do,” McCauley said.

Student puppy raisers raise their puppy for 16-18 months and are responsible for providing all necessary care for it, McCauley said. Puppy raisers provide basic command training, teaching the puppies 30 commands. When students are done with their training, the dogs are returned to the organization for professional training and preparation for their careers as assistance dogs, McCauley said.

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“We’re like kindergarten through high school, then [ the puppies] go to college, pick their major and hopefully graduate, some of them drop out — like this isn’t for them,” said Melisa Paul, STEP treasurer and an integrated business major.

CCI trains 5 different types of assistance dogs: hearing dogs, facility dogs, regular service or disability assistance dogs and a new category for PTSD veterans, McCauley said.

McCauley is raising her second puppy, Hesston, who is eight-months-old.

“Everyone who is a puppy raiser, we have like our own little specific trainings where we socialize and just kind of hangout, we’re working on doing our training together,” McCauley said.

Any student can join the club by attending their meetings and events. They have three levels of membership, according to their website. To become a puppy raiser, you’ll need to have completed one year at UCF, attend puppy sitter training through the club and gain approval from CCI to puppy raise.

Paul started raising her first puppy, Tosh, this June.

“I love it — he’s’ my first, so everything is new to me. It’s great seeing how much they grow each month; how much they learn. I feel like I just got him a few days ago and it’s been a month and suddenly he knows a couple of commands. It’s really good it’s rewarding like really fun,” Paul said.

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