Nativity therapy dog brings joy to staff and students

Finley is very popular with the students. Left, kin- dergartner Lola Gura pets Finley as she visits Shirley Collier’s classroom. Only three students at a time are allowed to pet Finley. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MATT MCCABE

by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven

LEAWOOD — Each day, Finley Kearney arrives at Nativity Parish School here in her crisp, plaid uniform, ready to work.

But Finley is a little different from the rest of the students: She is a two-and-a-half-year-old, 70-pound golden retriever.

She’s also the teacher’s pet — literally. Finley joined Nativity principal David Kearney and his family as a nine-week-old puppy.

This school year, however, Finley serves as a trained therapy dog for both students and staff. Her mission is to bring peace, calm and comfort to those who may need it.

And everyone needs that from time to time, Kearney said.

“We’ve had a lot of success stories,” said Kearney, who is a member of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park. “Sometimes, we’ll have a teacher come up and ask for Finley to stop by their class and comfort a student.

“Sometimes, one of our staff will say they need a ‘Finley hug.’ And sometimes Finley helps motivate a reluctant learner.”

This is Kearney’s first year at Nativity, but not Finley’s first time in the classroom. She accompanied Kearney at his last position in an Olathe school.

Finley also gained experience through Pets for Life, an organization that provides pet visits to over 200 facilities in the Kansas City area, including hospice houses, residential homes for adults with special needs and schools.

Finley received an initial round of service dog training from a parish friend of the Kearneys. A therapy dog differs from a service dog. To be a therapy dog, Finley had to pass a number of tests, including demonstrating she could sit, stay, leave treats alone, ignore another dog and allow her paws, ears and tail to be touched without reacting.

Finley was so excited to join Nativity, she “wrote” a letter to the school, explaining that her tail was “wagging like crazy.” Finley and Kearney are sensitive to students with allergies to pets and those who are fearful. She greets students at arrival and sends them home at the end of the school day.

In between, she spends much of her day with the office staff and on walks (on a leash) to various classrooms with Kearney. He is the only person allowed to walk Finley around the school.

There are other Finley rules, too. Students must ask permission to pet or touch her, wash their hands afterward, let Finley smell the back of their hand before petting her, pet her on her back or side and pet her quickly so that others will have a chance.

Only three students at a time are allowed to pet Finley, and Kearney does not allow students to get distracted in the classroom or hallways when Finley is around.

Finally, Finley is a bit of a fashion icon. Like the students, Finley wears the school uniform, which was designed and sewn by Kearney’s wife Therese. On rainy days, Kearney and Finley wear matching raincoats.

“The kids have been awesome with Finley and it’s been good for our community,” he said.

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