STEP raises puppies with a purpose



From left to right: Matrix, Keane, Remi, Harlyn, Griffon, and Jeff wait like good boys.

Hannah Santos , Contributing Writer

Service dog Training Education Program 

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— With passion, anyone can raise exceptional dogs for exceptional people.

In 2014, a group of University of North Florida students teamed up with Canine Companions for Independence to kick off their own puppy raising club. They called the club STEP, or the Service dog Training Education Program.

STEP has worked to educate and spread awareness about service dogs and disabilities.

Representatives of Canine Companions for Independence are now interested in starting a similar puppy raising club in Jacksonville University to offer the same benefits and opportunities for students.

It doesn’t take a training professional to raise puppies. It starts with time and dedication, maintained with passion and a strong sense of purpose.

Canine Companion for Independence is a non-profit organization that provides assistance dogs to enhance the lives of people with disabilities. These specialized canines are trained to help perform daily tasks for those who cannot and to provide social support.

“It changes the entire circle of their lives because having a disability is not easy, and so they have lots of support,” said Mark Stuart, who has raised puppies for CCI for three years. “When this person is granted independence, it not only changes their lives but the lives of everyone around them.”

CJ Smith, the First Coast chapter president, has been raising puppies for nine years with his wife Vickie Smith, the DogFest Chairman.

“The whole process of puppy raising is a whole fostering, socializing, loving, and caring home, and along the way, we follow classes of our mandatory set of commands,” said CJ Smith. “But when we give the dog back to matriculation processing, they go under professional training, and the professionals use the information that we’ve given them over the course of having the dog, and then they analyze to pick the route that the dog may go.”

When a CCI puppy-raiser receives an eight-week-old puppy, they have a list of commands to teach the puppy at different stages. With basic commands, the young adult dogs advance their training from there.

“We have thirty commands to teach them,” said Vickie Smith. “We teach a dog to shake so that they get used to raising their paw. When they go to professional training, they will take that use of raising their paw to turn on a light switch, so they advance the command, is what they do.”

These trained dogs eventually transfer to training professionals to transform into specific assistance dogs. They are taught advanced skills to help their owners in activities of daily living, such as nudging their partner awake at the sound of an alarm clock, picking up a dropped item, or even getting toilet paper.

In the end, it’s not only the puppies who are given a strong sense of purpose for something special but the people who raised them as well.

“For me, it’s hard having to turn the dog in,” said Vickie Smith. “It’s hard to give them away, but we know it’s for a purpose. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do it. We come into the organization because we love dogs, but we stay in the organization because we love the people that we serve, and so when these dogs change somebody’s life, it just takes it to a whole new level and then you’re able to do it. It’s worth it.”