ORLANDO, Fla. — Through a volunteer program at the University of Central Florida, students are raising puppies to go on to work as service animals. The program, called Service Dog Training and Education Program (STEP), partners with the national nonprofit Canine Companions to raise the dogs.
What You Need To Know
- The Service Dog Training and Education Program at UCF has trained more than 40 service dogs since 2016
- Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses are required to grant entry to a service animal, and no documentation is required
- Service dogs trained by the STEP program serve individuals in the South
Meredith Rome, a sophomore at UCF, picked her puppy up from St. Pete–Clearwater International Airport on Sept. 7. Pegasus, named after the UCF mascot, is a mix between a lab and a golden retriever.
On a walk, Rome practiced commands with Pegasus, whose attention wandered constantly.
“They are so curious about literally everything,” said Rome. “But it is so rewarding, when they actually do get it, they’ll be so proud of themselves that they’ll do it every time."
For the next year, Rome will take care of Pegasus, raising the puppy to have the focus and discipline required of a service animal — then, she will pass the puppy off to professional trainers, who will help Pegasus learn specific skills for her job as a service dog.
What Rights do Service Animals Have?
According to the U.S. Dept. of State, more than 500,000 service dogs were helping people around the country as of 2016. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects disabled peoples’ right to the assistance of service animals and requires that businesses and other public accommodations allow entry to service dogs.
Although some individuals have formal certification of their service animal, the law does not require people to produce documentation for the animal. According to the ADA website, employees and business owners may inquire about service animals, but only to ask whether or not it is a service animal and what task the animal is trained to perform.
Unlike emotional support animals, to qualify as a service animal, a dog must be trained specifically to perform a task for its owner. Although guide dogs for the blind are widely recognized by the public, experts say the tasks that service dogs perform vary greatly.
For example, service dogs may pull a wheelchair, assist an individual in getting in and out of the shower, and carry grocery bags. Many service dogs are trained to perform blood sugar alerts or warn their handler of an oncoming seizure.
Rome said the knowledge that Pegasus will go on to improve someone’s life materially will help when it comes time for her to part ways with the puppy. In the meantime, she said she is happy with how quickly Pegasus is learning.
Her mom came for a visit and saw "the hard work that I’ve put into it," Rome said. "Her being surprised at how good she is really made me feel good about what I’ve done.”