• therapy dog, Hough, playground
  • Melissa Cantwell, Luna, therapy dog, playground
  • therapy dog, Hough Elementary, interacting with students
  • therapy dog, student

First photo: Therapy dog Luna poses on the Hough Elementary playground. Second photo: Luna with special education teacher Melissa Cantwell. Third photo: Students Mia Jordan, second from right, and Lyric Wandling Ward, far right, take a break with Luna and teacher Melissa Cantwell, left. Fourth photo: Fourth-grader Judy Leyva embraces Luna. Photos by Katharine Kimball.

Therapy dog augments lessons in kindness, empathy

One of the newest staff members at Hough Elementary is teaching kids how to be kind, empathetic and compassionate. She helps them calm down when they’re upset. She listens to them read and is patient if they miss a word. In the words of fourth-grader Judy Leyva: “She brings peace and joy.”

That Luna is paid in kibble and belly rubs rather than direct deposit is beside the point.

In the months since she joined the Hough community, Luna has bolstered the staff’s already-strong efforts to teach social and emotional skills. “Dogs can do a better job of consoling kids than adults do. It’s pretty powerful,” said Luna’s handler, special education teacher Melissa Cantwell.

A dispute between friends, for example, might once have upset a child all day and required the student to miss up to an hour of class time to decompress. Now a student can be ready to return to class after just 10 minutes with Luna.

“She helps me calm down, relax and helps my mind work,” said third-grader Lyric Wandling Ward.

Therapy dogs also have shown that they can boost attendance and academic performance. However, most therapy dogs support smaller groups, such as a specific classroom. Luna’s job is to support the entire school.

Holding the leash is an innovative educator who ensures that Luna’s time at Hough is successful. Last school year, Cantwell recognized a pattern. A student who was often fearful, angry and hated to write composed a persuasive piece about the joys of having a dog. Later, Cantwell comforted another student, who was wrestling with family changes and the loss of his dog. Cantwell had an epiphany: Hough needed a therapy dog.

With the support of Principal Steve Vance, she began to research the subject and work out the logistics including vaccination, certification and insurance. Her findings pointed to the goldendoodle breed, a mix of golden retriever and poodle, as being more allergy-friendly than other breeds. She and Vance made a proposal to the nonprofit Hough Foundation, a longtime valued supporter of the school and neighborhood that share its name.

The foundation granted the school $15,000 for the purchase, training and transport of the dog. A goldendoodle training school in Alabama identified Luna as having the right temperament for the job. Luna completed a 16-week course that prepared her to socialize with both children and adults, sometimes many at once. The school voted on her name, an homage to the Luna Lovegood character from the Harry Potter series.

When Luna arrived in Vancouver last summer, she easily found her place among the students and staff. An average day includes listening to preschoolers practice saying words and helping kindergartners rehearse letters of the alphabet. Soon after she turns 1, in January, she’ll visit classrooms to supplement Cantwell’s lessons. Cantwell supervises Luna’s interactions. Under Cantwell’s direction, Luna avoids children who have severe dog allergies and acts appropriately around people who fear dogs.

Luna also has demonstrated a talent for helping kids learn responsibility and self-regulation skills, resulting in fewer tantrums and outbursts. Said Cantwell, “She’s a huge motivation to have a good day.”

According to Cantwell, “The parents’ perception, from what we’ve been able to tell, has also been extremely positive. Some of them just love on her in the morning when they drop off their kids.”

“She makes me feel better when I’m stressed. She’s a perk to the staff, too,” added Cantwell, who with her family takes care of Luna outside of school hours and covers ongoing costs.

Every staff member deserves a break, but Saturdays and Sundays can be long for Luna, Cantwell said. “She’s actually very mopey on the weekends. She doesn’t really like staying at home.”

Instead, Luna is happiest when she’s at Hough, interacting with humans of all ages. Said Cantwell, “She really is for everybody.”

Follow Luna’s adventures by visiting her blog and following her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Principal Steve Vance, Hough

#TeamVPS: Steve Vance


Hough Elementary School

Years with VPS: 18

A few things I’ve learned:

The biggest thing I have learned in the 18 years is to embrace mistakes and use them as opportunities to learn and grow. I have also learned so much about teamwork. There truly is nothing that cannot be done when you have the right people at the table.

Four words that describe me:

Charismatic, hardworking, lifelong learner.

When I’m not working:

You might find me enjoying the outdoors, either backpacking to a backcountry mountain lake in summer or downhill skiing in winter. You also might find me spending time with one of my three grandsons. Becoming a grandpa has been one of the most enjoyable experiences.