Robin is only 4-months-old, but she’s already in college.
The puppy is the first assistance dog-in-training allowed to live in student housing on the campus of the University of Central Florida as part of a new partnership with Canine Companions for Independence. UCF is the first public university in Florida to have this agreement.
Robin rooms with UCF sophomore Morgan Bell, a volunteer puppy raiser who takes the yellow Labrador-golden retriever mix with her to classes, study sessions and around campus. The cute ball of fur arrived at Bell’s Lake Claire dormitory room with lots of potential, but in need of help to shape her into a trustworthy assistance dog.
By the time Bell turns Robin back in to the Southeast Region of Canine Companions for Independence for professional training after about 16 months, she will have helped the puppy master 30 commands, and provided basic obedience instruction and socialization opportunities. Those are essential skills for dogs that are meant to be matched with people with disabilities.
“UCF recognized the learning opportunities that the Canine Companions for Independence program could bring to a residence hall community,” said Christi Hartzler, executive director of Housing and Residence Life at the university. Morgan underwent a rigorous selection process and has made a huge personal commitment to work with Robin over the next year.”
Prior to committing to the program, students must seek approval from UCF’s student housing department, their resident assistant and all of their roommates to be allowed to house the puppy in their dorm room.
Bell, who is majoring in statistics and finance, knows that being a volunteer puppy raiser is a big commitment and comes with a lot of responsibility.
“Having a puppy live with me in university housing is an awesome experience. It will increase my capacity for responsibility, will help me structure my days and will give me a feeling of purposefulness. In addition, UCF students, faculty and staff will learn more about assistance dogs and about the impact they have for people with disabilities,” Bell said.
Robin can be seen around the UCF campus as she becomes socialized. As a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions, Bell must take Robin many places, allowing her to socialize with strangers, attend classes, walk amid crowds and traffic and otherwise become familiar with the world around them.
“College students are some of the best people to train our puppies because they are always putting them in social situations,” said LeAnn Siefferman, Canine Companions’ puppy program manager.
Canine Companions has also committed to bring information and educational programs to the Lake Claire community.
“We are excited that other residents will have the opportunity to learn more about the training of assistance dogs and maybe even have a chance to help with the socialization of Robin,” Hartzler said. “The structure and resources that Canine Companions provides is a good fit for UCF as we develop this special living-learning community.”
Canine Companions has its own breeding program in Santa Rosa, California, and the volunteer puppy raising program offers a unique opportunity for college students to assist Canine Companions with its mission.
Aside from learning about puppy care and training, students gain knowledge and experience with learning theory, recordkeeping and reporting, public speaking and communication skills. Disability awareness is also gained along with the knowledge of issues regarding the legal aspects of public access for assistance dog users. In addition, puppy raising grows a culture of personal and social responsibility.
Canine Companions assistance dogs are provided free of charge, though costs to Canine Companions exceed $50,000 to breed, raise, train and provide ongoing support. Charitable contributions, grants, special events and corporate support fund the substantial costs involved with this process.