On any given day, the usual crowd of teenagers can be found milling the halls of Papillion-La Vista High School. But one member of the pack may take visitors by surprise.
Sunnie, short for Sunshine, is a 9-year-old golden retriever who volunteers daily as a therapy dog at the school.
Her owner, Lynda Molyneaux, has been bringing Sunnie to PLV for the past nine years.
Molyneaux asked Jim Glover, PLV principal at the time, if he would be open to a therapy dog in the school.
“I’d had my eye on it for a lot of years, I thought it’d be kind of fun to change it up a little bit,” Molyneaux said.
Glover told Molyneaux to go for it. She contacted the district to see what her next steps might be.
“The dogs are owned by the handler,” Molyneaux said. “We take them through a training program and get them certified through an agency. She’s a volunteer at this school, it is not a district program.”
Molyneaux sought out a dog she could train specifically as a therapy dog, and when she got Sunnie, began her training at a young 4-months-old.
“It takes about six to nine months to get a dog trained and certified,” Molyneaux said. “This is all she’s ever known, to put on a vest and go to work.”
Sunnie was certified through a program called Love on a Leash, where she was required to pass a test and complete 10 visits to different settings including hospitals, nursing homes and the school.
She has also received numerous titles from the American Kennel Club, including the K9 Good Citizen, the AKC Therapy Dog and Therapy Dog Distinguished.
“It’s mostly because of the amount of hours she works,” Molyneaux said. “She puts in as many as I do.”
Sunnie, who was the first therapy dog in the district, shows up to PLV every day. With Molyneaux’s working as a counselor, Sunnie has plenty of quiet time in the office, visiting the halls during passing periods.
Molyneaux’s daughters, who each work in district elementary schools with their own therapy dogs, bring their dogs to school only a few times a week, as that classroom setting allows for little down time for the dog.
Sunnie’s job is essentially to help improve the climate of the building, “to make it a happier and healthier place,” according to Molyneaux.
“Even if students only smile as they walk by, it chemically makes them happier, makes people feel a little better,” she said. “There’s a chemical reaction in our brain when we see a cute, fluffy dog. That ‘aww’ factor that we all have is chemically releasing endorphins.”
Molyneaux recalled specific example of Sunnie’s positive impact on teens throughout the years.
One student with a fear of dogs, stemming from a bad childhood experience, was nearly up against the wall any time she would pass by Sunnie.
But by her junior year, she was approaching Sunnie on her own.
“It helped her learn to trust,” Molyneaux said. Another girl, who was allergic to dogs, told Molyneaux: “I can’t pet her but it always makes me smile seeing her in the hall and seeing the other kids enjoy her.”
Sunnie also volunteers as a reading dog locally. Students can practice reading out loud to Sunnie and other dogs without judgment.