A new club on campus wants to give students the opportunity to work with and train service dogs.
Service Dog Training and Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania, or STEP UP, formed this semester by Nursing sophomores Malia Szyman and Ally Sterner, and College sophomore Matt Kolansky. The club aims to help and train students to build a dog-raising community for the nonprofit organization Canine Companion for Independence.
Canine Companion for Independence trains dogs that would help people with disabilities. The dogs can be taught how to turn on lights or pick up dropped items. After training, the dogs are worth $500,000 and given for free to people who need them.
Kolansky said that STEP UP can provide a unique hands-on experience to Penn students.
“I didn’t join a lot of clubs at Penn because I feel like they just sit and talk about what they want to do, but they never get around actually doing it," Szyman said. "Our club is very unique in that when you come to your first GBM, you already get to work with Maui and learn how to train dogs.”
STEP UP allows members to get hands-on interaction by practicing basic dog commands with dogs like Maui, a mixed breed of labrador and golden retriever, which Szyman is raising for service.
The club also lets members volunteer as puppy sitters or puppy raisers. Puppy raisers are volunteers who train puppies for free and give the puppies back to the organization. Puppy sitters can support puppy raisers who may need help caring for the puppy.
Sterner said that while raising a dog may seem challenging, students in this club will have an advantage because the puppies are purposefully bred to be trained.
"It is rewarding because you do something good for someone else,” Sterner said.
College junior Arlene Garcia was interested in the club because she feels nostalgia for dogs that she grew with. She said the club would allow her to care for a dog with a lower time commitment while still getting emotional support from the puppy.
Garcia wanted to get involved with puppy sitting but also showed further interest in being a raiser in the future. “It would be amazing to learn how to raise [Maui]," Garcia said. "Training in general is valuable to any dog I own.”
Sterner said the club hopes to acquire more dogs next semester and have more puppy raisers.
The club leaders emphasize that no prior experience is needed to join.
“Anyone can join, we’re super new," Szyman said. "You don’t need training; we’re here to do that. Maui will be at all the meetings."
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