A golden retriever helps students in WilCo learn how to 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 service dogs. And when she was just eight weeks old, she showed a tell-tale sign she'd 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. "Well, [Luna’s] a people dog."
Stewart is the principal of the Successful Transition Education Program — the school for students in Williamson County Juvenile Services programs. She takes Luna to work with her two to three days a week.
S.T.E.P., a partnership between the county and the Georgetown Independent School District, serves a variety of students. Some were expelled from public schools in Williamson County. Others are waiting for a court to hear their cases, or a judge has ordered them to be in the program.
Matt Smith, the assistant executive director of Williamson County Juvenile Services, says about two-thirds of the students are 14 to 16 years old, and 75% are male.
“I think the common factor that we see is a history of childhood adversity that’s at the root cause of them coming to us no matter what the offense may be,” he said. “That’s part of why we’ve tried to gear our program to be more therapeutic.”
Smith said he and other juvenile services officials had been interested for a while in getting a therapy dog to work with the kids long-term, but they weren’t sure if they had the resources to do it. He was “overjoyed” when he found out Stewart had a trained therapy dog because it would benefit the kids without putting a strain on other staff.
How Luna works with kids
Stewart was named the principal of S.T.E.P. in May of 2020, a couple of months after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted schools across Texas to close and provide remote instruction. She started bringing Luna into work during spring 2021 to get her used to the space and other staff, before exposing her to the kids in the program.
“Then as the teachers came back and the students came back into the regular classroom, then we started making the rounds,” Stewart said.
Stewart can tell when Luna is ready for work.
“Because she will go over and stand by where her collar and her bandanas — we call them her clothes — are because she knows she’ll only put those on when she’s going to work,” she said. “If she gets back on the bed when I’m getting ready we know, ‘Nope, too tired today.’”
Stewart brings Luna into classrooms, and she is also called in when a student is not responding to adults. She described one instance where a boy was not talking to his teacher or his counselor. So, they brought Luna in.
"She walked right up to him, put her nose under his arm, flipped his arm up, and he sat up. He pet her for about three minutes without saying a word and then started doing his class work," she said. "So it's just amazing what they can do that we can't."
Stewart said research shows petting a dog can lower blood pressure and reduce stress as well as anxiety. A 2021 study from the journal AERA Open, for example, found college students had lower stress levels and improved cognition for weeks after interacting with a therapy dog. Other studies show introducing a therapy dog into schools can improve children’s well-being by increasing positive emotions as well as their engagement in academic activities like reading.
Therapy dogs are judgment-free
Case manager Jordon Hicks said Luna is an asset, but when she's not available, staff use other trauma-informed techniques to connect with kids who are having trouble managing their emotions. He and other staff at Williamson County Juvenile Services are trained in Trust-Based Relational Intervention, which was developed to assist 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 eliminates the need for those types of icebreakers. He added that a therapy dog like Luna also offers kids acceptance when they’re afraid of being judged by their peers or other people.
“The kids don’t come in like, ‘Oh this dog is going to judge me for this,'" he said. "No. Dogs are there to offer you comfort and solace."
That ability to connect with kids, regardless of why they’re in the program, is one of Luna’s strengths, according to Stewart.
“Dogs aren’t humans, but they act like humans. And they’re better than humans, to be honest.”Lisa, a 16-year-old S.T.E.P. student
“They've got good hearts. They've just come from hard places and made poor decisions and a lot of things drove them there,” she said. "So we really just want to help them work on figuring out who they are so that when they do return to the community, they can make those better choices.”
Students in S.T.E.P. agree that Luna offers judgment-free comfort. (All students’ names 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 there was a therapy dog at the facility. Sarah said she likes to see Luna when she is stressed or sad, and she thinks she's helpful for other students, too.
“A therapy dog would really help for people that are here when they’re mad or stressed out,” she said. “They can, like, 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 comes in, everybody has a big smile on their face,” she said.
Lisa, who is 16, was nervous when she first met Luna, even though she has a dog at home. Once her brother was bit by a big dog and needed to have surgery. But now, Lisa is comfortable with Luna.
“I feel like I’m cheating on my dog because she’s going to smell me and be like, 'Who you been with?'” she said.
Lisa said talking to Luna can be easier than talking to a person sometimes. She said dogs empathize with you, and they don’t talk back.
“Dogs aren’t humans, but they act like humans,” she said. “And they’re better than humans, to be honest.”
Dog therapy helps staff too
While time with Luna is beneficial for students, staff see the upside as well. Stewart said working with Luna doesn’t feel like work. It also gives her an opportunity to connect with students who are more likely to think of her as the “dog lady” than as the principal.
“The kids don’t look at me and say, 'Ugh, the principal’s in the room,’” she said. “It’s, ‘Where’s Luna?’”
Smith said while he knew a therapy dog would be beneficial to the students, he has been surprised how much having one has helped the staff.
“The more [emotionally] regulated our staff are, the better they are at helping the kids become regulated,” he said.
Smith remembered how Luna helped change a meeting with a staff member who had been struggling to the point that it was affecting her work. He had forgotten that Luna was also in the office with them, but then realized Luna had put her head in the employee’s lap.
“That changed the meeting," he said. "It was such a tense meeting. [The employee] started to tear up, and it allowed us to have just some real, more genuine conversation about how things could get better."
Can this be scaled up?
Carrie Proctor, with the Texas Counseling Association, said a growing number of school districts are turning to therapy dogs and other creative ways to support students’ mental health.
“There was a rising number of students that were presenting with issues regarding anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, suicidal ideation, even before the pandemic,” she said.
Proctor said dog therapy and calming spaces for students help schools with limited mental health resources and counselors who are stretched thin.
“Just different things to try to help students emotionally regulate, be able to cope, and get back into whatever’s at hand,” she said.
Stewart sees a growing interest in bringing therapy dogs into schools. But, she said, school boards and staff can be hesitant due to safety concerns. Luna, for her part, is double insured. The insurance covers any injuries to her or to someone else.
Stewart said that people interested in introducing therapy dogs into an educational setting must go about it the right way. That includes starting slow and ensuring the dog gets proper training.
“That would be my fear is that so many people just start bringing dogs, and then when incidents happen, it’s going to cause the rest of us to not be able to bring that dog that we know is doing a good job,” she said.
Stewart invested hours of her time into training Luna. The two also used to spend hours outside of stores like Academy, PetSmart and Hobby Lobby on the weekends learning how to ignore distractions and also how to greet people.
“The most interesting thing she found when we were out and about was a feather boa at Hobby Lobby. She didn’t know what to do with that,” she said. “But that was about the only thing that I can remember that she was a little bit cautious of.”
Luna eventually passed the test to be certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
"All the time and effort put into doing this [is] 100% worth it when you walk by and you see people’s faces light up,” she said.