ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — At The Fountain at Boca Ciega Bay near Tampa, it's all about man's best friend. The dogs bark, yawn and wag their tails, but these furry friends aren't like other dogs; they're robotic.
What started as a way to combat COVID-19 isolation during the early days of the pandemic has brought newfound joy and exploration to the senior living community.
"It took a little bit to understand that he's robotic," Jack Rickert said. "But by the same token after a little while, he became my buddy."
Rickert said he takes his dog, Buddy, everywhere he goes, just like previous pets he owned. While Buddy may not be a real dog, he gives Jack the same sense of happiness.
"It's like you walking around with someone close to you," he continued. "It's a companion and he's my companion. He's with me."
Rickert's not the only one with a robotic pup.
The Florida Department of Elder Affairs launched a campaign to give seniors like Rickert and Sue Quigley a friend during the COVID-19 quarantine.
"It was really kind of nice because I honestly thought about getting a little dog," Quigley said. "But then I found out about these dogs. I don't have to walk them or feed them or take them to the vet. So they are the perfect things."
Although COVID-19 restrictions have lifted, the dogs are still at the center of a good time at The Fountains.
You'll regularly see a group of about 20 seniors walking, enjoying happy hour, playing games, and even singing (Rickert was in a quartet band in his youth). The seniors always have their pals in tow.
"I think that the dogs have been a real social phenomenon around here," Community Life Director Delena Waters said. "We have seen it grow almost exponentially over the past year."
She said those dogs have given the residents more than she could have ever imagined.
"I think that one of our biggest purposes in the community life department, in general, is fostering a sense of connection," Waters continued. "Not only with individuals but just among the whole community. And quite honestly, I think that these dogs have been able to do that for us."
The newly formed connections are so deep, Rickert and Quigley are even planning a wedding for their dogs.
This story was originally published by WFTS in Tampa Bay, Florida.