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Meet Luna, the Coyotes’ black Lab who could eventually change a life

(Photo via the Arizona Coyotes)

PHOENIX — Before any Arizona Coyotes fans could hear the goal horn sound for the first time in the 2019-20 season, their new dog Luna listened to it first.

She’s the team’s newest acquisition, a black Lab puppy who will one day be a service animal but is currently being raised and trained. Luna was recently at Gila River Arena, her new workplace, where she was getting acclimated to the cold ice, the sound of pucks and hockey sticks and, of course, the goal horn.

Luna needs that training so she can eventually be paired with a veteran and have the skills to handle all sorts of environments. It’s part of a program by National Assistance Dogs, Inc. (NADI), who provided the Coyotes with a dog to raise and help train until she’s ready for service. For now, Luna will spend her days with Cole Cook, the Coyotes’ director of business analytics, and his girlfriend Allie.

This all came about when a Coyotes employee told Cook that the team had wanted to get a dog but would need someone to take care of it. It so happened that Cook and Allie had contemplated getting a dog. They wound up with Luna, a dog described as being chill, calm, friendly, playful and one who loves to sleep (her bio on the team website says her favorite napping spot is the locker of defenseman Jakob Chychrun).

“I think the players love it,” president and CEO Ahron Cohen said. “A lot of our players are dog owners and dog lovers. Knowing that Luna’s going to be around, there’s really no limits on different ways for Luna to engage with people around the office. She’ll pop in on some practices, maybe a couple meetings with coach [Rick] Tocchet, maybe she’ll sit in on some scouting meetings with John [Chayka]. Who knows?”

It’s the first time the Coyotes have had an official team dog, but it’s not the first time a team in the NHL has done something similar. Last year, the St. Louis Blues had a puppy named Barclay join them. Luna also won’t be the first dog to roam the Coyotes offices.

According to Cohen, the Coyotes have had a dog-friendly policy for a few years now. Described as a workplace incentive, he said there are probably three or four dogs in the Coyotes offices on a given day.

“No real dog drama to speak of,” Cohen said. “Most of the dogs are pretty chill.”

Luna will be at many home games, practices and team events, wandering around for fans to get the chance to come up and say hello.

“And then we’re also going to try to get her out with some of our community initiatives that we do,” Cohen said, “whether it be going to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital or some other community outreach events with kids, just to put a smile on their faces.”

Originally, Cook said, the Coyotes thought they were getting a boy dog. So they played around with names like “Ollie,” a play on the name of team captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, or “Biz,” the nickname of former Coyotes forward Paul Bissonnette, who now works for the team.

“But Luna was actually a name that one of our IT guys suggested on our company email chain,” Cook said. “It was fitting with the Kachina logo, the moon and the coyotes howling at the moon. We figured Luna was a good fit for a female black Lab.”

LUNA’S FUTURE

Once Luna is raised and trained thoroughly and completely, her role as a service dog will begin.

“I think that’s the first and foremost most important thing is kind of providing assistance to a veteran in need who either was injured or immobilized in action,” Cook said. “So Luna will be doing a variety of tasks for a veteran when she’s fully trained, anything from turning on the lights or getting something out of the fridge or even carrying groceries.”

NADI began after its founder, Andrew Armstrong, sustained a serious ankle injury in 2007 while snowboarding. He eventually needed surgery to repair his ankle and wound up with a service dog named Smitty.

Armstrong saw the way Smitty drastically impacted his life, from helping him with small tasks to giving him strength and perseverance in times of struggle. Getting connected with veterans through word-of-mouth opened doors for him to pay his experience forward.

“[The dogs] pick up on your heart rate and your respiratory, your breathing,” he said. “So if you’re going into a nightmare, I’ve actually had a dog wake me up from going into bad dreams or whatever. And it’s more comforting to wake up to that than anything else, and it’s very reliable.”

One veteran, Pat Lanas, is a retired Navy corpsman who was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. He has had his service dog, a golden retriever named Jake, for three years.

He literally saved my life,” he said.

“I came back from the war, but I never came home. It’s very hard to talk about without feeling judged. Jake is the only living being that I can tell all of it to. And he reads my mood better than my wife does. So he feels the anxiety coming on, he’s right there. He feels me dealing with the guilt and he’s right there … He comes up and he’ll put his paw on me, he’ll nudge me. Literally he comes and he lays on me.

“They physically get in contact with you. They force you focus on them.”

Luna will be trained in large part by Sammye Darling, the executive director of NADI. She’s personally seen the way dogs can help veterans and first responders in mobility assistance, as well as improving their mental health or their behavior.

“I really am in this because these guys served our country, and they come back with struggles. … There’s a heavy suicide rate for that population, and if I can help just a few veterans not do that, that means the world to me and it makes me feel like I can give back like they gave to us,” Darling said. “And it’s just really amazing, because animals have such an impact on a human mind, and apparently body, as well.

“So it gives them a sense of purpose to wake up and take care of something and feel like they’re not going to be judged for the struggles they’re going through, and they have someone that they feel like they can connect to when humans have sometimes failed them or don’t understand.”

NADI begins training dogs at eight weeks of age, socializing them to different people and environments and setting them up for success early on. That’s why Luna heard the goal horn recently at Gila River Arena. Maybe one day, she and a veteran or first responder will attend a game together.

“The organization is incredible, because Andrew made it his personal mission,” Lanas said. “So he wants other people to experience what he experienced with Smitty, and it’s something so relatable. Because I can’t imagine my life now without Jake. Just the way these dogs are, they’re like people in their own minds. They read you better than you read yourself. They know what you need, and you don’t even realize it.”

In the meantime, Luna will be working hard on her training, spending lots of time with her caretakers, Cole and Allie, and bringing joy to people around her in the process.

Certainly these dogs provide great support for our nation’s veterans that have really dealt with some major challenges,” Cohen said. “Any little way in which we can help facilitate Luna getting trained and then being able to support that veteran, we’re proud to be a part of.”

National Assistance Dogs, Inc. is in need of volunteers to help with maintaining their facility, as well as people to raise puppies or even donate financially. The organization provides all necessary training for those who wish to raise puppies. To find out more, visit their website at nadiassist.org.

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