High school therapy dogs provide stress relief and snuggles

March 19, 2022 | by Sarah Anne Lloyd

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Finley (left) and Guiness (right) – MIHS therapy dogs | Photo courtesy Andrea Confalone / Instagram

In the halls and classrooms of Mercer Island High School, students flock to their favorite fluffy and judgment-free therapists. Finley, a four-year-old Golden Retriever with a big smile and soft, scrunchable cream fur, works hard, and he really, really loves his job. In addition to holding office hours, he and his nine-month-old brother Guinness (also known as Little G.) bring a calm, pettable demeanor to tests, dances, and sports events.

Finley is certified with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and trained to keep his cool in any situation, but has also learned heartwarming tricks like hugging on demand. His Instagram and TikTok show the bond he’s developed with students and staff: Finley lying next to a student – about the same size as him – on the floor to quietly comfort them, an a capella group serenading both dogs, Finley dressed up for prom.

“The first time I met Finley and Guinness I was shocked to see dogs on the campus,” writes Lucinda Dempster, a freshman at MIHS. Once she realized that they were therapy dogs, she thought, “Wow, how great! This is needed at a lot of schools, not just ours.”

Finley and Guiness with owner and MIHS teacher Andrea Confalone | Photo by Brooke Fitts

Finley’s human, Andrea Confalone, long wanted to add animals to her work with kids as the Special Education Department Chair at MIHS, having seen how students’ own pets quelled their anxiety. After being stymied by the no-animal policies of previous superintendents, Confalone appealed to a new administration in 2017, which agreed to welcome furry friends onto school grounds. Finley started work in 2018 at ten months old, and his little brother, Guinness, joined as his co-worker this school year.

“There are times the kids are just having a bad day and he will get up and go sit on the floor next to them,” says Confalone. One time, she says, a group of students who all flunked their AP Chemistry test came in as a group to visit Finley.

“Many students loved coming by to pet the dogs after taking stressful semester finals,” says Charlotte Sullivan, a junior at Mercer Island High – herself included. She says they enjoy seeing the dogs and can feel the significant reduction in stress.

@finleythetherapydog Best friends living the dream #OutlanderChallenge #goldenretriever #dogsofttiktok #fypシ #retrieversoftiktok #lovemyjob ♬ Best Friends – UNITY & Junior Songfestival

Sometimes the staff need a little love, too, especially during the pandemic. “We went and saw our school nurse [and] we go in and see the counselors,” says Confalone. “Everybody’s exhausted and they just take a few minutes and get a little attention.”

While Finley is always ready and waiting for kids that need him, Guinness gently seeks people out. “He goes to them and just puts his head in their lap,” Confalone says. During one final exam, Guinness just walked the room, from kid to kid, offering encouragement and snuggles.

“Finley makes me feel calm and loved. Guinness makes me feel like a kid again, playful,” says Dempster, who appreciates each of the dogs’ divergent energies. When she has a rough day or feels anxious, she goes to see Finley. “Petting him is comforting and his slow breathing brings me back to the present. Even if [I] just pop in for a few minutes, for me, it can change my whole mood for the rest of the day.”

The dogs spend much of their time in Confalone’s classroom, where they have kennels for downtime. But they always perk up when students walk in. For two happy Goldens, there’s nothing better than getting petted all day, and for Islanders, the feeling is mutual.