Lucy the therapy dog lifts students spirits at Lowellville school

By Graig Graziosi


For Lowellville school counselor Dena O’Neill, getting ready for a day at school includes packing a leash and a water bowl.

In addition to her education and training, O’Neill’s most useful tool for building bridges with her students happens to be one of her best friends – her 5-year-old Goldendoodle named Lucy.

O’Neill doesn’t have to work hard to get people to come to her; walking down the hallways of the elementary wing of Lowellville K-12 school behind Lucy makes the job easy. Students are immediately drawn to the dog, saying “Hi Lucy” and offering sheepish looks to O’Neill to see if they’re allowed to pet her.

O’Neill almost always says yes.

“When I was in graduate school, my first counseling instructor had a Goldendoodle that she used in her work, and that really inspired me to do it myself,” O’Neill said.

Once a week, O’Neill and Lucy visit classrooms and teach lessons about topics such as good character and being a good friend.

Spencer Simione, 11, was one of the fifth-grade students O’Neill and Lucy visited during their weekly rounds. “I definitely like it when Lucy is here,” he said. “Whenever you see her or you’re having a bad day, she always cheers you up.” When O’Neill isn’t in the classroom, she works individually with students.

“There can be a stigma sometimes when you pull a student out of a classroom for a counseling session,” O’Neill said.

“But now that a visit to the counselor means getting to hang out with Lucy, students are excited to come visit. That makes it a lot easier for me to make connections with them.”

O’Neill trained Lucy, a cross-breed dog obtained by breeding a Golden Retriever with a poodle, for certification as a therapy animal when she was a puppy. She began pitching the idea that she could implement Lucy into her counseling toolset before she was hired as a counselor.

“I had to get people to understand the purpose of her at first,” O’Neill said. “Lucy isn’t a service animal. She doesn’t do things like turn on lights or detect sirens. But she’s very well-trained, and she lifts people’s spirits when they see and interact with her. It’s not something you can necessarily quantify, but it’s something that’s obvious to anyone who watches what happens when she walks into a room.”

When Lucy enters a classroom, the students are drawn immediately to her and perk up in their seats.

Realizing that having a dog in school could be distracting to students, O’Neill said she went to every teacher to ensure they weren’t opposed to her visiting with the dog. With their blessing, O’Neill visited with each of the classes in the elementary school and explained to the students if they didn’t behave and pay attention when Lucy was around, then Lucy wouldn’t return to their class.

“Getting to see Lucy became an incentive for them, so the students are always really well-behaved when she comes around because they don’t want to lose their chance to see her,” O’Neill said. “She makes students look forward to coming to school.”

In a survey she conducted of 102 fourth- through sixth-grade students, 89 included Lucy as one of their favorite aspects of school. Beginning this month, Lucy will begin visiting the school multiple times each week.

Principal Dennis Hynes said he’s been pleased with Lucy’s inclusion at the school.

“It’s a wonderful program. Lucy comforts the students and comforts those who may be having a bad day. Even the adults in the building look forward to seeing Lucy,” Hynes said. “Sometimes everyone just needs to pet a dog.”

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