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White boxer puppy bringing comfort to clients at Safe Futures

New London — The staff at Safe Futures was looking for a team member with a good temperament who could withstand the stressful duties of working with people traumatized by domestic violence.

They found the perfect employee in Luna, a white boxer puppy who will be trained as a therapy dog.

In the short time Luna has been on the job at the agency's office on Jay Street, she has helped a child open up and talk with a counselor, entertained children while their mother received assistance and helped ground an employee who was having a bad day.

She prances around the first floor wearing a purple bandana to signify domestic violence awareness and relishes the attention she receives during her eight hours on the job. She sleeps on a soft bed inside a cozy wire cage in the lobby and has a pile of plush toys. Staff members take turns walking her, and she lives with Executive Director Katherine Verano.

"We had a client come in with a child who didn't want to talk to anybody," Verano said. "We put the puppy on the girl's lap, and she talked for about an hour with a victim advocate."

Only 11 weeks old, the puppy has the sweet disposition she will need throughout her career. Just  10 pounds now, she'll weigh about 45 as an adult. She will begin obedience lessons, soon followed by training to become a certified therapy dog. She will work in the offices in New London and Norwich and sometimes at Safe Futures' shelter for domestic violence victims, where clients for years have suggested that a dog might bring them comfort.

Safe Futures was able to purchase Luna with an animal welfare grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, which also is helping the agency's "Protect our Pets" committee to build a kennel for clients' pets at its safe house.

Luna sat on a board member's lap for an entire meeting recently. Another day, a staff member who was upset held the puppy for a while and said, "This works for me." On another occasion, Luna occupied some children who came in with their mother, who was in crisis, while an advocate worked with the mother.

"She's good at sensing the tone, the flow, the atmosphere, and adjusts her behavior," said Nazmie Batista, associate director of residential programs and counseling. Luna takes over Batista's first-floor office at times, nestling in a pile of pillows in the corner.

Annie De Los Santos, an advocate for adults who sometimes works in the local courts, said staff members have been introducing Luna to clients who are upset and crying to get her accustomed to the work of a domestic violence therapy dog. Adoring clients now are scheduling their appointments around Luna's working hours, De Los Santos said. Verano said the puppy also has won over patients at a rehabilitation center where her mother is recovering from surgery.

"When you have trauma, anxiety, what's better than having a soft puppy on your lap?" De Los Santos said.

The Safe Futures staff voted to name the puppy Luna, a reference to the Harry Potter character Luna Lovegood and to a magical closet in the famous series by J.K. Rowling. Safe Futures also has a "magical closet" that somehow is always full of donated gifts and supplies, Verano said.

The employees had talked about acquiring a therapy dog for some time. They considered adopting an adult, but a veterinarian advised them it would be best to get a puppy that they could train for their specific needs. They did their research on training the puppy and keeping her healthy, and are careful to limit her to eight hours of work a day with plenty of down time.

Verano's daughter, Kaitlyn Berkel, found Luna when she went with a friend to purchase a brindle boxer in Pennsylvania's Amish Country. Berkel called her mother and told her about the last puppy in the litter, a sweet white boxer with pink undertones and blue eyes. Verano drove to Pennsylvania and fell in love. Only 20 percent of boxers are white, Verano said. Luna is not an albino, though she needs to wear sun screen or skin protection due to her coloring. White animals are sometimes prone to deafness or blindness, but Verano said Luna can hear and see perfectly.

Every morning, Verano said she jingles her keys and says, "Do you want to go to work?" and Luna comes running.


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