Mercer Island students needing a little extra help or support in school can get it from speech and language therapists, mental health counselors, occupational therapists, teachers, administrators and as of this year, a new “employee” at Mercer Island High School: Finley the therapy dog.
Finley belongs to MIHS teacher Andrea Confalone, who chairs the special education department. As opposed to a service or emotional support animal, which aids just one person, Finley is there to help everyone in the school.
Having a five-month-old puppy in the classroom may seem like a distraction, but Finley, a calm and social golden retriever, was bred and chosen for his job: to lift moods, calm anxieties and give students a reason to come to school.
“I used to have some students who wouldn’t come to class without their pets,” Confalone said. “If I can get the kids in the building, we can make progress.”
Confalone asks every student who visits with Finley to fill out a survey about why they wanted to see him, and how they felt after. Responses have come from students who needed “a quick life improvement” or “snuggles.” They said that they felt “less mentally tired” and “10 times happier” after seeing him.
Confalone said that she can see the benefits of having Finley in the school, but that it would be interesting to have numbers to back it up, especially in an area of education as data-driven as special education.
“I wanted to make sure it was doing what I said it would,” she said.
Confalone has worked in special education for 30 years and at MIHS for 21, and said she had thought about bringing a therapy dog into her classroom since she saw them work in other schools, including colleges.
Finley has an MIHS staff badge, and attends faculty meetings, but he spends most of the day snoozing in Confalone’s classroom. Sometimes, he is “rented” to the Youth and Family Services counselors who need him to comfort students, or help them open up.
According to a website about therapy dogs, animals can do everything from teaching empathy and helping children struggling to read out loud to making students with autism “feel more at ease and open to social behavior.”
Finley is especially helpful for kids with specific learning disabilities and health impairments, but he is available to everyone at MIHS.
Many students come in to pet Finley before they take a test, or if they’re having a bad day, Confalone said. Finley is a “therapy dog in training” and can be officially certified when he is one year old. Finley loves interacting with kids and they love him, another reason Confalone wanted a therapy dog instead of a service or emotional support animal. Service dogs are trained to do work that eases their handlers’ disabilities, such as blindness or seizure disorders, and most have a “no petting” policy.
Finley spends a lot of time in class with students, but he goes to school too. He has already passed “puppy kindergarten” and is on level one out of three for continued obedience training. Confalone said it was really important to her to have a well-behaved dog, so he wouldn’t be a distraction to her students while they’re studying.
During school breaks is somewhat of a different story. Students, and teachers, love to cuddle, play and take pictures with Finley, who has his own Instagram page @finleythetherapydog.
For more on Mercer Island schools, teachers and programs, see www.mercerislandschools.org.