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A golden retriever helps WilCo students manage their emotions. Her name is Luna.

Luna Raptor was basically born to be a therapy dog. The 3-year-old Golden Retriever comes from a long line of therapy and companion dogs. And when she was just eight weeks old, she showed one telltale sign that she would be a promising one herself: she was more interested in people than dogs.

“We always say there are dog people,” said Tara Stewart, Luna’s owner. “So, [Luna’s] a human dog.”

Stewart is the director of the Successful Transition Education Program – the school for students in Williamson County Juvenile Services programs. She takes Luna to work two to three days a week.

Williamson County Youth Services

A table shows the different students served by Williamson County Juvenile Services.

STEP, a partnership between the county and the Georgetown Independent School District, serves a wide variety of students. Some were expelled from Williamson County public schools. Others are waiting for a court to hear their cases, or a judge has ordered them to be included in the program.

Matt Smith, deputy general manager of Williamson County Juvenile Services, says about two-thirds of the students are between the ages of 14 and 16, and 75% are male.

“I think the common factor that we’re seeing is a history of childhood adversity being the cause of it coming to us, no matter what the offense might be,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve tried to make our program more therapeutic.”

Smith said he and other youth service officers had been interested in getting a therapy dog ​​to work with the children long-term for some time, but weren’t sure they had the resources to do so. He was “over the moon” to find out Stewart had a trained therapy dog ​​because it would benefit the children without burdening other staff.

How Luna works with children

Stewart was named STEP’s principal in May 2020, a few months after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted schools across Texas to close and offer distance learning. She began taking Luna to work in Spring 2021 to get her used to the space and other staff before exposing her to the kids in the program.

“Then when the teachers came back and the students got back into the regular classroom, we started doing the rounds,” Stewart said.

Stewart can tell when Luna is ready to work.

“Because she’s going to go over and stand where her collar and bandanas — we call them her clothes — are because she knows she’s only going to put those on when she goes to work,” she said. “If she gets back on the bed while I get ready, we’ll know, ‘No, too tired today.'”

A person's hand rests on a golden retriever who is lying down quietly.

A STEP student pets Luna.

Stewart brings Luna into the classrooms and she is also summoned when a student is not responding to adults. She described a case where a boy didn’t speak to his teacher or counselor. So they brought in Luna.

“She walked right up to him, put her nose under his arm, twisted his arm up and he sat up. He petted her without saying a word for about three minutes and then started his classwork,” she said. “So it’s just amazing what they can do that we can’t.”

Stewart said research shows that petting a dog can lower blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety. For example, a 2021 study by the journal AERA Open found that college students exhibited reduced stress levels and improved cognition for weeks after interacting with a therapy dog. Other studies show that introducing a therapy dog ​​into schools can improve children’s well-being by increasing positive emotions and their engagement in school activities such as reading.

Therapy dogs are non-judgmental

Case manager Jordon Hicks said Luna is an asset, but when she’s unavailable, staff use other trauma-informed techniques to connect with children who are struggling to manage their emotions. He and other Williamson County Juvenile Services workers are trained in trust-based relationship intervention designed to help children who have a history of trauma, early harm and toxic stress.

Hicks said he can ask students a series of questions to help them open up, but Luna removes the need for those types of icebreakers. He added that having a therapy dog ​​like Luna also offers children acceptance when they are afraid of being judged by their peers or other people.

“The kids don’t come in and say, ‘Oh, this dog is going to judge me for that,'” he said. “No. Dogs are there to offer you comfort and comfort.”

This ability to connect with children, regardless of why they are in the program, is one of Luna’s strengths, according to Stewart.

“Dogs aren’t people, but they behave like people. And they are better than humans, to be honest.”

Lisa, a 16-year-old STEP student

“They have good hearts. They’re just coming out of tough times and made bad decisions, and a lot of things drove them there,” she said. “So we really just want to help them figure out who they are so that when they come back into the community, they can make those better choices.”

Students in STEP agree that Luna offers nonjudgmental comfort. (The names of all students in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Sarah, who is 12, has known Luna for almost two years. She said she was really excited to learn that there is a therapy dog ​​at the facility. Sarah said she likes to see Luna when she’s stressed or sad and she thinks she’s helpful to other students as well.

“A therapy dog ​​would really help people who are here when they’re angry or stressed,” she said. “Feel free to calm it down with the therapy dog ​​or other animals.”

Erin, a 15-year-old, said seeing Luna in the classroom is a bright spot in her day and she sees other students have similar reactions.

“It’s even the kids you wouldn’t expect to be happy. As soon as she walks in, everyone has a big smile on their face,” she said.

16-year-old Lisa was nervous when she first met Luna, despite having a dog at home. Once her brother was bitten by a big dog and had to have an operation. But now Lisa feels comfortable with Luna.

“I feel like I’m cheating on my dog ​​because she’s going to smell me and be like, ‘Who have you been with?'” she said.

Lisa said that sometimes talking to Luna can be easier than talking to a person. She said dogs empathize with you and they don’t answer.

“Dogs aren’t people, but they behave like people,” she said. “And they’re better than humans, to be honest.”

Dog therapy also helps the staff

While time with Luna is beneficial for the students, the staff also see the benefits. Stewart said working with Luna didn’t feel like work. It also gives her a chance to connect with students who see her as more of a “dog lady” than a principal.

“The kids don’t look at me and say, ‘Ugh, the principal’s in the room,'” she said. “It’s called ‘Where’s Luna?'”

Smith said that while he knew having a therapy dog ​​would be beneficial for the students, he was surprised at how much it helped the staff to have one.

“The more [emotionally] The more regulated our staff are, the better they can help children become regulated,” he said.

Smith recalled how Luna helped change a meeting with an employee who had struggled to the point that it was affecting her work. He had forgotten that Luna was in their office too, but then he noticed that Luna had rested her head on the employees’ laps.

“That changed the meeting,” he said. “It was such a tense meeting. [The employee] started tearing up, and it allowed us to have some real, more heartfelt conversations about how things could get better.

Can this be scaled?

Carrie Proctor of the Texas Counseling Association said more school districts are turning to therapy dogs and other creative ways to support students’ mental health.

“Even before the pandemic, there was an increasing number of students struggling with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal thoughts,” she said.

Proctor said dog therapy and calming rooms for students are helping schools with limited mental health resources and counselors who are stretched thin.

“Just different things to try to help students regulate emotionally, deal with it, and get back into what’s at hand,” she said.

Stewart sees a growing interest in bringing therapy dogs into schools. But, she said, school boards and staff may hesitate because of safety concerns. For her part, Luna is doubly insured. The insurance covers any injuries caused to her or another person.

Stewart said people interested in introducing therapy dogs into an educational setting need to be on the right track. This includes starting slowly and making sure the dog is properly exercised.

“My concern is that so many people will just start bringing dogs and then if incidents happen it will result in the rest of us not being able to bring this dog that we know is doing a good job,” he said you .

STEP Director Tara Stewart gives Luna a treat as they enter her office.

STEP Director Tara Stewart gives Luna a treat as they enter her office.

Stewart put hours of her time into training Luna. The two also spent hours away from stores like Academy, PetSmart, and Hobby Lobby on the weekends learning how to ignore distractions and how to greet people.

“The most interesting thing she found while we were out was a feather boa in the hobby lobby. She didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “But that’s about all I can remember of her being a little wary.”

Luna eventually passed the test to be certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

“All the time and effort that went into it [is] It’s 100% worth it when you walk by and see people’s faces light up,” she said.

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