When students are struggling, therapy dog Penny is there

Seneca’s therapy goldendoodle comforts in person and remote students

Cherokee High School student Brianna Glenning unwinds with Seneca’s own Penny the Therapy Dog (Lenape Regional/ Special to The Sun).

High school students around the country are struggling during the pandemic.

“Anxiety is the fear of the unknown. And that’s exactly what COVID is,” said Alexis Cuneo, a guidance counselor at Seneca High School.

With so many students tuning into class through a laptop screen and others in-person through a mask, a little comfort goes a long way. 

That’s where Penny comes in.

The goldendoodle, Cuneo’s pet and certified therapy dog, first came to Seneca at the end of 2019. This school year, she goes to work two days each week, helping to relax students struggling with the weight of the pandemic.

Cuneo said many of her students are struggling to keep up with a seemingly ever-changing hybrid schedule. 

“Students, kids and adults, we all thrive on a schedule and knowing what’s coming,” she explained. “There’s just been so many changes that it’s hard to prepare.”

Having Penny at Seneca brings a semblance of consistency to the students who meet her, Cuneo said. Usually, Cuneo would take her for walks through the halls and stop in to classes. Now, Penny mostly works out of Seneca’s guidance office, but is still a regular figure at the school.

“She just brings that lightness,” Cuneo added. “When she walks in in the morning and passes kids and staff, everyone just gets a smile on their face that you can see through the mask.”

Soon, Penny will be supporting Seneca’s basketball team. She’s preparing a cardboard cutout that will sit in the audience.

“I think it’s a sense of normality, and a breath of fresh air to have her here,” Cuneo noted.

Penny is also there to help remote students. She attends social events and dance parties on Google Meets and will have photoshoots for students who request pictures.

“She goes where she feels like she’s needed,” Cuneo said.

Remote learners can visit a virtual version of the WellNest, a cartoon room Cuneo put together that allows students to relax when they need to. Students can click on items in the room that bring them to a video of cute animals, a guided breathing exercise and resources for how to deal with anxiety, stress and more.

For parents looking for ways to support their remote students, Cuneo said structure and a listening ear goes a long way.

“Encourage your student to wake up every morning, get out of their bedroom, put on a different pair of clothes in your pajamas, still go through the normal morning routine as if you were going to school,” she added.

“Just try to understand where the student is coming from and give yourself and your child grace in this time. You know, it’s really a tough time for everyone.”

Remote students are invited to set up virtual counseling appointments, either with a member of guidance staff or Penny specifically, or visit the school after-hours.

“Even if you’re fully remote, I can still set up a Google Meet and Penny will be there,” Cuneo said.