It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, but University Police (UP) is hoping to change that with its new addition to the force — Bailey, the first therapy K-9 dog in Hillsborough County.
Bailey is a 1-year-old boxer who came at no cost to USF. As the only therapy K-9 dog in Hillsborough County, she will assist in comforting victims of crimes, according to Bailey’s handler, officer Nicole Marchesano, as she is trained to sit and let people in distress pet her to calm down while communicating with police.
Marchesano said Bailey will be on call at all times. She will be on campus or in the area surrounding USF during the day, and at night she can make it to USF in less than 30 minutes from Marchesano’s house if someone is in emotional distress.
“She is 100% here for the USF community,” Marchesano said. “She’s an anxiety reducer and as I like to call her, a mental health crusader.”
Bailey will mainly respond to calls that consist of welfare checks or situations in which a student, staff, faculty member or visitor is in distress, and officers are deployed to make sure they are fine. During the 2019-20 school year, 184 welfare checks were made by the UP. Ultimately, a therapy K-9’s ability to respond to welfare checks led to Bailey’s arrival on the force.
“She would have completely diffused anxiety and began building rapport and providing that stress relief for all of those individuals,” Marchesano said.
The number of welfare-related calls in which a person’s mental health is in question, like those experiencing suicidal thoughts or extreme anxiety, has been steadily rising at UP for the last five years. In 2015, only 92 calls were made. The number rapidly jumped to 130 in 2016 and 169 in 2017, according to Marchesano.
In the fall semester, when classes were online and campus activity was lessened compared to a traditional in-person semester, UP received 146 calls requiring welfare checks on campus. The spike in calls convinced the officers to pursue a therapy K-9 dog, Marchesano said.
“If those numbers aren’t a cry for help, I don’t know what is,” she said.
Marchesano said Bailey also provides support for the rest of UP by comforting officers when the job gets stressful.
“We go through stress every day from the community, within our own agency and … in our personal lives,” she said. “People have been so welcoming to this little girl [Bailey] and they just love having her around.”
Bailey is a rescue dog who was surrendered to the Brevard County Jail Complex when her owner was brought in while intoxicated. The jail works in conjunction with the nonprofit American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to run a program called Paws and Stripes, which rehabilitates surrendered pets like Bailey and teaches them to be therapy dogs.
Marchesano compared it to the Animal Planet show “Pitbulls and Parolees,” wherein both dogs and inmates are rehabilitated after abuse from owners and prison time, respectively. The dogs interact with trainers and inmates throughout their six-week training.
“There was kind of a sparkle in her so they took her in, and she passed all of [Paws and Stripes’] training,” she said. “[The dogs who pass training] are chosen as therapy dogs based on good temperament and successful interaction … not only with the staff and the parolees that are in there, but also the canine units and bomb dogs that are at the jail right beside the facility.”
After six weeks of training and learning basic behavioral skills, Marchesano went to meet Bailey and spent a week doing partner training with her. Most of the training consisted of making sure Bailey could stay calm and attentive in a room with lots of distractions.
Once her training was complete, Bailey arrived at the UP office and went to live with Marchesano. UP sent a survey to students so they could choose the dog’s name. The survey received over 1,300 votes, 545 of which were for Bailey.
“I wanted her name chosen by students because I really want them to know that she’s their dog,” Marchesano said.
Bailey joins three other K-9 units, Alma, Emma and Zora, who are trained to sniff for drugs and bombs instead of serving as emotional support animals. As Bailey is currently a lone wolf in her field, Marchesano hopes she will be able to add to her pack soon enough.
“I am so beyond thrilled and so excited to see where this goes,” Marchesano said. “I think this is going to be such an amazing success that people are going to be coming to us asking us, ‘What do you do?’ ‘How do you do this?’ and I can’t wait.”