JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the first time, the University of North Florida hosted a Blessing of the Companion Animals.
On Friday morning, a campus minister blessed several therapy dogs on the Jacksonville campus that students use. The university said it has 48 approved assistance animals and one service animal in campus housing.
"Today is the Feast of Saint Francis (of Assisi) and it's largely recognized by many churches. We thought it would be a great reason to bring out the service animals," said Jacksonville Campus Ministry Pastor Sarah Locke. "We wanted to thank those service animals who work hard to serve our community and give the students the help they need during this stressful time in their life."
There were also several other therapy animals -- including mini ponies, cats and a snake -- for students to pet at the event, which began at 10:30 a.m.
"It was a tremendous success," said Dr. Carlene Taylor, a UNF Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program faculty member. "There have been students all across campus coming to pet the therapy dogs."
Taylor said the event was part of an implementation research project for Osprey PERCH, or Prevention, Early Intervention and Resiliency through Counseling and Holistic Health.
"This is one of our campus events where my students, counseling interns, instead of sitting in an office, are doing their internships by getting out into the community and helping address mental health," Taylor said. "College is much more stressful now than it was 20 years ago. Having things students can connect with that can help them emotionally, psychologically, philosophically grow and connect with people and the natural world -- we know that decreases stress. We know that animals lower our stress hormones and increase our bonding hormones. We know that connections with animals decrease blood pressure and let them have a better outlook on life. Those are all things that are intrinsic to health and wellness."
Danielle Free, research coordinator for Osprey PERCH, talked about the program.
"We noticed we had a great counseling center, but it was only open 9 to 5. With so many students on campus, you can't just be open business hours," Free said. "So we extended our hours and also do weekend events, so we can really not only facilitate the mental wellness of the campus, but to really be available when people need us."
UNF is among a handful of universities with a certificate program in animal therapy.