OPINION: UP, Hillsborough County need to invest in more therapy K-9s

Hillsborough County and UP should train more therapy K-9s to combat worsening mental health issues among students and Tampa residents. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

University Police (UP) trained and enlisted the first and only therapy K-9 on campus and in Hillsborough County on Feb. 15. Bailey, a 1-year-old boxer, is on call for students who need comfort after being the victim of a crime or during welfare checks.

USF and Hillsborough County should invest in more therapy K-9 training to expand this program and improve access to specially trained K-9s across the Tampa Bay area. By training more animals to be therapy aides, local officials can provide individualized care for students with specific needs and assist those who experience mental illness and trauma. 

Bailey is trained in anxiety relief by remaining calm in crisis situations and allowing victims to pet her while in distress, and will be available at all times of the day for students in need of immediate support.

Stress levels have been proven to decrease when petting therapy animals, according to a 2018 study published by Critical Care, a peer-reviewed medical journal. Therapy animals can also provide comfort, reduce loneliness and have been shown to help dementia patients recall memories.

College students need more assistance improving their mental health, as UP has clearly noticed and acted on. USF has experienced an increase in welfare calls within the past five years, from 92 in 2015 to 146 in just the fall 2020 semester.

Universities around the country are dealing with similar trends. A 2020 survey of 200 college students by The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit mental health organization, found that 63% of students at U.S. universities feel their mental health has worsened since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. University police at other schools and other USF campuses should bring on more K-9s with this special training to work to decrease mental health issues among their populations.

Relief and support is needed in more places around the county besides the local universities. Tampa has more violent crime victims than all of Florida, according to a 2020 FBI analysis, with four violent crimes committed per 1,000 residents. Therapy K-9s can provide immediate, much-needed support to these victims or witnesses.

Hillsborough County can benefit from bringing on regular therapy animals as well, as it has a large population of citizens suffering from mental illnesses, according to the 2019 Community Health Assessment by the Florida Department of Health. The assessment also found that for every 100,000 Hillsborough citizens, 685 have been hospitalized for a mental disorder. 

Therapy animals can give long-term support to patients in hospitals, schools, hospice facilities and retirement homes. In schools, therapy dogs can help students focus and have been known to increase attendance, according to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and in hospitals and nursing homes, therapy animals have created optimistic outlooks and boosted morale for patients. 

If Hillsborough County adopted and trained more animals, each of these institutions could have access to the type of emotional support only a furry friend can give. 

Some may argue that further investing in K-9 therapy dogs would cost too much money. However, the 2020-21 public safety budget for UP is over $700,000 and Hillsborough County’s public safety budget was over $1 billion. Each K-9 would cost a minimum of $600 to adopt, train and certify, according to a 2020 therapy implementation guide by Bowling Green State University. There is certainly room in the UP and county budgets for more therapy K-9s.

Other police departments have implemented programs with multiple therapy K-9s, like the Columbus Police Department in Ohio which established its program in 2017. The department has reported a 50% increase in disclosure of events during a crime when interviewing victims who are in the presence of the K-9 since the program began.

UP’s newest edition is sure to benefit the mental health of USF students. Hillsborough County should adopt and train more therapy K-9s for local and university police as well as therapy animals to provide assistance to the many citizens who are in need of mental health support and comfort.