“Unhook your dogs now!”
And with that, rescue dogs Bear and Brookie spring toward their four-legged friends in a whir of energy. Nearby, Washington University in St. Louis Police Officers Greg Casem and Jesse Siefert pin themselves against a fence in an effort to avoid being knocked down by the mob of panting pets.
Almost every Saturday, eight-month-old puppies Bear (handled by Siefert) and Brookie (handled by Casem) attend Stray Rescue’s Teenager Class or, as Siefert calls it, “the big puppy play party.” Casem and Siefert are having a blast, too.
“Yeah, all your adult professional behavior goes out the window when you’re back here,” Siefert said.
Since arriving at WashU in February, comfort dogs Bear and Brookie have made hundreds of human friends, too. Students cuddle the puppies after a tough exam, faculty rub their bellies on the way to class and department chairs invite them to staff meetings. Everyone wants to meet Bear and Brookie, which means everyone also meets Casem and Siefert.
“Greg and I love to engage in the community, and these dogs just make it 10 times easier,” Siefert said.
Casem first proposed therapy dogs in 2021 as a way to “bridge the gap” between students and police. Two years later, with support from newly appointed Police Chief Angela Coonce, Brookie and Bear reported for duty. The puppies had been found hungry and cold in a trash dump by Stray Rescue, but they quickly bonded with Casem and Siefert, who have welcomed Brookie and Bear, respectively, into their homes.
Siefert said that Brookie and Bear are a different type of police dog, trained not to catch criminals, but to bring comfort and joy, relieve stress and offer support to those experiencing trauma or a crisis.
“You have apprehension dogs, drug dogs and bomb dogs, which have been around for years. These dogs represent a different era of dogs,” Siefert said. “We literally just have shelter rescue puppies that make people happy — what better way is there to build trust in the community than that?”
For Casem, these months with Brookie and Bear have been among the most rewarding in his three-decade career.
“I don’t know how many times students have said meeting the dogs has made their day,” Casem said. “Isn’t that the best thing to hear? I love it.”
Tim Mellman, a sophomore in Arts & Sciences, is among the many students who have gotten to know Casem and Siefert in the past year. He loves following the puppies on campus and on Instagram and is excited to see them at campus events this fall. The dogs already have greeted students at move-in and will make other appearances. Check the wupddogs Instagram account to learn where to meet the dogs or to request a visit.
“Officers Greg and Jesse are two fantastic people who are very easy to talk with, with or without the puppies,” Mellman said. “That being said, the puppies are the reason I got to know them to begin with, so they did give me a reason to get to know the WUPD officers better.”
This summer, the dogs have been training hard at the Canine Good Citizen program run by the American Kennel Club.
Every Tuesday morning, trainer Shari Baney meets with the pups and their officers to teach obedience skills such as heeling and loose-leash walking. The weekly training demands plenty of patience as Baney introduces new concepts and distractions.
While Brookie is more easily distracted, she is faster and more attentive than Bear, Casem boasted. She is also an instigator, Siefert teased. Bear, he insisted, is more affectionate.
Sherry Haines, multimedia project coordinator for University Marketing & Communications and a freelance dog photographer, has been documenting the pups’ journey to adulthood. Crouched behind her camera, Haines clicked her tongue and squealed to get the puppies to look at her for a picture.
“The pups show a softer side to these two officers, which I think really helps them connect with students who might be a little bit more reserved when interacting with police on campus,” Haines said. “It’s a conversation starter that transitions into more important topics, if they’ll allow the officers to keep going.”
WUPD is the only university police department in Missouri to rescue and train comfort dogs … for now. Several other universities, including the University of Missouri-Columbia and Lindenwood University, have expressed interest in starting their own programs. Siefert hopes the use of comfort dogs will spread across the country to better help students get the support they need.
“If it was my choice and I had the money, every officer would have a dog,” Siefert said.