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USF St. Petersburg welcomes first on-campus comfort dog

Ashley Morales

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The University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus is getting ready to welcome a new addition: The school’s first-ever “comfort dog.”

Snowbird, a golden retriever and Labrador retriever mix, will officially be sworn in as the newest member of USF St. Petersburg’s University Police Department during a public ceremony Thursday at 2 p.m. in the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library Atrium. Snowbird comes to USF St. Petersburg from Dogs Inc., previously known as Southeastern Guide Dogs.

Unlike service dogs, who are trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities, Snowbird is a “facility therapy dog.” Snowbird is trained to work in a facility such as a school, hospital or nursing home to provide comfort, support and therapeutic benefits.

Since our earliest interactions, humans have noted a unique, valuable relationship with canines. The benefits of having dogs around are supported by science; studies cited by the National Institutes of Health have found that short-term, unstructured interactions with a therapy dog can significantly reduce self-reported anxiety and distress.

David Hendry, chief of the USF St. Petersburg University Police Department, said members of his team have been requesting a comfort dog for many years to serve as a resource for students who may be experiencing some type of mental health issue, whether it’s the transition to college, the stress of exams or some other form of distress. 

“In terms of mental health, the presence of a dog can be unbelievably calming,” Hendry said in a prepared statement. “It can mean all the difference in our ability to communicate with that person.” 

Image: University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

According to USF, comfort dogs are becoming more prevalent at institutions of higher education and police departments. The USF Tampa campus has a comfort dog named Bailey. Other university campuses with four-legged officers include Princeton University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

“I’m thrilled to welcome Snowbird to our campus,” said Christian E. Hardigree, regional chancellor at USF St. Petersburg. “As a dog lover, I know the joy and stress relief a furry family member can bring. As college campuses across the U.S. report a growing number of students suffering from mental health challenges, having a dog available to provide unconditional love and support will be so beneficial.” 

Henry said therapy dogs on college campuses are typically embedded within the police department because officers are on call 24/7 and can respond quickly if a student would benefit from an interaction with the dog. Outside of “working hours,” Snowbird lives with his handler, USF St. Petersburg University Police Department (UPD) Officer Mark Lickenfelt. The pair will attend campus events, participate in student training sessions and respond to requests from students, faculty or staff who need a few snuggles. 

Lickenfelt, who has been with the UPD since 2006, said he has wanted to be a K-9 handler since he was a young child. He reports Snowbird is settling in at home and even getting along with his two cats.

“He’s a great dog,” Lickenfelt said. “He’s responding really well to his training. I think Snowbird is going to be a great fit for the campus.”

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