University of South Florida St. Petersburg



Snowbird, a Golden and Labrador mix

Comfort dog Snowbird sworn in as newest member of USF St. Petersburg's University Police Department

Several police officers from the Tampa Bay area, their K-9s and representatives from Dogs Inc gathered on the USF St. Petersburg campus for a special swearing-in ceremony for the University Police Department's (UPD) new comfort dog, Snowbird. 

The two-year-old Goldador, a mix between a Golden Retriever and a Labrador Retriever, will work alongside his handler, Ofc. Mark Lickenfelt and assist the UPD with calls related to mental health and emotional support in the campus community.

“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.” 

Snowbird comes to USF St. Petersburg from Dogs Inc, previously known as Southeastern Guide Dogs. He is a facility therapy dog, which means he was trained to work in a facility such as a school, hospital or nursing home to provide comfort, support and therapeutic benefits. Unlike service dogs, who are trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities, facility therapy dogs focus on providing emotional support and enhancing well-being. 

Snowbird swearing-in ceremony

Police officers and K-9s from Pinellas County Schools, USF Tampa and Dogs Inc joined the swearing-in ceremony for Snowbird held at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library on June 20.

“Snowbird’s greatest strength is his sweet, calm and loving personality,” said Kate Schmidt, an instructor with the Service Dog Program at Dogs Inc, who served as Snowbird’s primary instructor during training. “When he’s sitting in front of you—ears back, eyes closed and a paw on your arm leaning into your affection—the world slows down, and you remember to be here now. I’m so grateful he has found his dream job bringing peace, healing and unconditional love to others.”  
Dogs Inc and USF St. Petersburg have a longstanding relationship. The campus is home to the Puppy Raisers Club, where puppies from Dogs Inc live with students in the residence hall as they work toward careers as guide and service dogs.  

David Hendry, chief of the USF St. Petersburg University Police Department, said comfort dogs are becoming more prevalent, both at institutions of higher education as well as other police departments. The USF Tampa campus has a comfort dog named Bailey. Other four-legged university officers include Coach at Princeton University; Lexi at the University of Maryland, Baltimore; and Gary at Endicott College.  

Hendry 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 other forms of distress. 

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

The dogs are typically embedded within the police department because officers are on call 24-hours a day, seven days a week and can respond quickly if a student would benefit from an interaction with the pup, Hendry added. 

Snowbird lives with Lickenfelt, his handler, and 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 in elementary school. He reports Snowbird is settling in at home, even getting along with his two cats, Nico and Ziggy. 

“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.” 

The website Dogster reports there are more than 500,000 service dogs in the United States. About 50,000 of those are therapy and comfort dogs. 

Anita Saghal-Patel, a psychologist and director of the Wellness Center at USF St. Petersburg, said she sees opportunities for the companionship provided by a comfort dog to elevate students’ moods, particularly during a stressful time, such as final exams. That’s particularly true among those who grew up with dogs and associate them with pleasant memories. 

There’s also a secondary effect, where the dog serves as a catalyst for other benefits such as exercise and social interaction, Saghal-Patel said. 

“It gives them a reason to take a break from their studies,” she added. “Why not get out in the sunshine because Snowbird is out on the lawn, and then the students get some fresh air, too.” 

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