Grace is a yellow Labrador Retriever training to be a therapy K9.

Grace is a yellow Labrador Retriever training to be a therapy K9.

Therapy Dogs Join Lehigh University Police Department

LUPD is adding a yellow Labrador Retriever and chocolate Labrador Retriever to offer comfort to students and connect with the community.

Photography by

Christa Neu

The Lehigh University Police Department has welcomed a new four-legged friend, a yellow Labrador Retriever named Grace. She is one of two police therapy dogs joining Lehigh’s force.

In just three weeks, Grace has begun to garner a following online and around campus, receiving a lot of attention from the student body. She even had a line form to pet her at the Club Fair in August.

“Watching the interaction between our students and Grace is heartwarming,” Police Chief Jason Schiffer said. “The ultimate outcome is putting a smile on people's faces, alleviating some stress and making students’ Lehigh experience better.”

K9 Therapy Dog in Training, Grace.

K9 Therapy Dog in Training, Grace.

Students like Zoe Wilkinsonn ’26, have stopped into the police station to see Grace. Wilkinsonn said Grace was the remedy she needed after a hard day of classes and when she was missing her dog at home. 

“There can be a stressful atmosphere at the university and therapy dogs like Grace put a smile on students’ faces,” she said.

In October 2021, The Peer Health Advisors and The Coffee Club brought therapy dogs to campus for a de-stressing event. Schiffer said he remembers seeing a student comment online about how interacting with the therapy dogs was the best thing they had experienced since being at Lehigh. From there, the idea to add therapy dogs to the LUPD team was planted.

Shortly after, Schiffer came across an article about Princeton University’s therapy dog, Coach. He sent the article to Assistant Chief Chris Houtz with the prospect of getting a therapy dog of their own. Houtz responded with excitement, telling Schiffer, “We need to do this.”

Houtz kickstarted the process by reaching out to Princeton to learn more about their program and conducting research to get a sense for how to implement the program at Lehigh.

Schiffer said the department liked the idea of bringing Grace to campus as a puppy, instead of getting an older certified dog, because it wanted to socialize her as she grew. This way she could become accustomed to the environment she would be working in as she went through her training. The department sought out a reputable breeder who guided it toward what breed would be well suited for therapy work.

When choosing Grace’s handler, Schiffer and Houtz asked interested applicants in the department to write a detailed request explaining why they wished to be Grace’s partner.

Ultimately, they chose Lt. David Kokinda, who is in charge of criminal investigations.

Lt. David Kokinda holds Grace.

Lt. David Kokinda holds Grace.

“I have a passion for dogs,” Kokinda said. “I've always wanted a canine partner at work, and everything fell into place at the right time.”

Kokinda said one of the reasons he wanted Grace was to help calm those who come in to speak with him. 

“A lot of times that's a very traumatic experience, and it might be their first time talking with the police,” Kokinda said. “We’d be able to offer the victim the choice to have a dog present so they can have somebody there for support.”

It’s just one example of how a therapy animal could be used in policing, he said.

Kokinda already sees a bond growing between him and Grace. He said it’s evident in how she lays beside his chair when he works or rests her head in his lap when he drives. He said he is excited to see Grace continue to connect with both him and the community

Grace will begin training with Off Leash Lehigh Valley when she is 5 months old. The training begins with an intensive two-week program, during which Grace will stay with the Off Leash trainer. At the end of the two-week training, Kokinda will spend time with the trainers to learn the commands and control that Grace has learned.

After the initial training period, Grace will continue to train with Kokinda and return to Off Leash for follow-up sessions and refresher training until she is 1 year old. She will then be assessed by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs for her therapy dog certification.

Watching the interaction between our students and Grace is heartwarming. The ultimate outcome is putting a smile on people's faces, alleviating some stress and making students’ Lehigh experience better.

Police Chief Jason Schiffer

There will also be a second dog, a chocolate lab that has yet to be named. The Lehigh community is being surveyed for suggestions to help LUPD decide on its name. It is expected to be born in mid-October, will go home with its handler, Stephen Romanic, in December and be on campus for the start of the 2023 spring semester.

Schiffer said LUPD wanted to get two dogs so that the department could meet the high demand for time with the canines they anticipate, as the amount of time the dog will be on campus is limited to when their partner is working.

“I'd like students to come up and say ‘hi’ to Grace and me and, if they have any questions, to ask them,” Kokinda said. “I'd imagine most students wouldn't walk up to a police officer because they see us as an adversary, but we're a resource. I think these dogs are going to break down those barriers.”

Story by Christina Perrier ’23

Photography by

Christa Neu

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