Therapy dog Luna will comfort students

In Hough Elementary’s case, happiness is a warm dog

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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The newest addition to Hough Elementary School’s classroom, a little girl with curly black hair, is shy when you first meet her. But get to know her and her face bursts into a wide grin.

Then her wagging tail and wet nose set her apart.

The Hough Foundation, which supports Hough Elementary School and its families, bought a therapy dog for the Vancouver campus at the request of special education teacher Melissa Cantwell. The black goldendoodle, named Luna after Luna Lovegood in the “Harry Potter” series, recently completed a 16-week therapy animal training school at her breeders’ facility in Alabama. Cantwell will continue to work with and train Luna, and she’ll attend school all day later this year.

“She’s a calming agent,” Cantwell said, sitting on the floor of a classroom as Luna gnawed a bone nearby.

Cantwell has been a special education teacher for 12 years, working with students on the autism spectrum as well as students with more severe mental and physical disabilities. She’s advocated for innovative projects in her classroom, including writing a grant for her students seven years ago to get iPads with a speech therapy application.

Cantwell calls these wild hairs her “epiphanies,” and it was in February that another one came. Cantwell had a student with spina bifida, a birth defect where the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord don’t close. The student had anger issues that made it difficult for Cantwell to connect, she said.

“She’s severely depressed,” Cantwell said.

But the girl wrote an essay about why dogs make the best pets, writing about the joy and comfort they bring. Stunned, Cantwell suddenly wished she could bring that little girl a dog, she said.

That same day, Cantwell was working to calm an angry boy screaming because his dad had left the house, taking the family dog with him. Again, Cantwell wished for a dog.

“I ran down to our school principal and was like, ‘We need a therapy dog,’ ” she said.

Cantwell, with the support of Principal Steve Vance and the school staff, wrote a proposal to the Hough Foundation asking for about $15,000 to pay for Luna, her training and initial supplies. The board approved Cantwell’s plan.

“We like to pride ourself on not saying no,” Hough Foundation Executive Director Jill Campbell said.

“When we made the proposal to the board, that was a good day,” Cantwell added.

The Hough Foundation is a nonprofit entity that supports the school and is funded by donations, not the general school budget.

Luna, who lives with Cantwell, will be available to the whole school once she’s brought in full time. Luna, who right now is uncertain of stairs but otherwise cheerily romps around the school, will be a first responder when children are having temper tantrums or otherwise need a little comfort.

Cantwell said she hopes Luna’s presence will prevent teachers from having to send children to the principal’s office, stop emotional meltdowns before they become too severe or, in some extreme cases, prevent staff from having to call security.

“It’s definitely an innovative idea,” she said. “A dog can de-escalate a situation substantially faster.”

This summer, Luna is roaming the halls of the school with Cantwell, becoming familiar with her new space. Students at the Hough Elementary School summer meal program and camp introduced themselves to their new furry friend with pats and kisses.

Ian Brakefield, 7, said he’s looking forward to playing with Luna through the school year.

“A dog can help us every day,” he said.

India Woods, 9, said the dog can help with stress and anxiety.

“It can comfort you,” she said. “It’s soft. It comforts me, so I would think it comforts other people.”