Therapy dog barks up excitement at Seneca High School

A four-legged happy being receives her ID to become an official employee of Seneca High School, and the school's community is thrilled.

Penny, the Goldendoodle, receives her official Seneca High School ID, making her an ‘employee’ of the district. She offers unconditional love, support and decompression for students and staff alike (Krystal Nurse/The Sun).

Seneca High School gained a scruffy, four-legged employee after her handler brought her in to help students and staff alike.

News and buzz about Penny’s recent formal introduction and her availability spread throughout the Seneca community.

We figured to have something more permanent if I got her trained as a therapy dog; we could have more stability and have more kids have more access to it,” Student Assistance Coordinator Alexis Cuneo said.

The Goldendoodle helps alleviate confidentiality concerns students may have when they are seeking crisis help from Cuneo. The coordinator also said students grow weary of outside volunteers who offer assistance, not knowing if something will stay “in the room” or be shared with people they may or may not know.

Cuneo and Penny underwent therapy dog training over the summer with Tri-State K-9 and Alliance of Therapy Dogs to make sure they “have a good relationship and understanding with each other.” Some of the training included bumping objects into Penny, grabbing her tail and paws to make sure she would not react negatively and calling out commands.

The hardest part for her was walking over food and not touching it,” Cuneo said with a laugh. “We practiced with turkey, and she was fine with that! Then we got to dog treats and made her walk over it three times and she knew that was for her and it was difficult, but she passed.

Further training with Penny included interactions with other dogs in the area and visits to nursing homes to see if she would be intimidated by medical equipment and beds.

To date, Cuneo said she has not had a run-in with a student who is afraid of dogs. Penny, she added, usually comes in on Thursdays. While walking, Cuneo makes sure to keep the dog close.

The formal introduction of Penny has caused students to line up by Cuneo’s room to pet and spend time with the Goldendoodle throughout the school day. Staff, she added, have also made pit stops at her office before and after school to bond with the yellow-furred dog.

It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience, but she’s very interested in seeing whoever’s in the hallways because she just wants to be noticed,” Cuneo noted. 

Having Penny in her office on certain days also helps shatter the stigmas surrounding her job as a Student Assistance Coordinator. With Penny being at the school, Cuneo is able to meet and develop a rapport with students she wouldn’t normally see.

Generally, Cuneo has students referred to her who are in need of assistance or who seek her out because of her expertise.

It gives them another person in the school to have a connection with, and for me, to get to know the different students in the school,” she explained.

As the year goes on, Cuneo hopes to bring Penny in more days during the  week, and in the future, to have other staff members become her handlers. Doing so would allow Penny to be available throughout the week to be used in other ways than just counseling or decompression.

“[Using her in] language classes where they’re learning how to speak different languages, reading to her, or in different settings to show responsibility would be beneficial for other people,” Cuneo stated.

“That’s my end goal. I know some people are interested to take art classes or for walks, but right now, I have to be with her.