It works at hospitals and nursing homes, so why not airports?
After the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, an interfaith chaplain volunteer at Mineta San José International Airport (SJC) brought her certified therapy dog, a Boxer/Great Dane mix named Orion, to the airport hoping it would help ease travelers’ anxieties about returning to the skies.
It worked. Orion was a big hit with both passengers and employees. Now SJC has 13 teams of volunteer handlers and dogs in a K-9 Crew that visits with passengers in the terminals a few hours each day, seven days a week.
The dogs include breeds ranging from a Cocker Spaniel, a Rat Terrier and a Miniature Schnauzer to Golden Retrievers, a French Mastiff and a Rottweiler. And they’re all certified by Therapy Dogs International (TDI), which makes sure the dogs are tested for non-aggression, general obedience and willingness to be hugged and petted in the midst of noisy and distracting airports. Handlers are also required to pass a security clearance before joining the team.
“We’ve had many very touching encounters with airport employees and travelers,” said Kyra Hubis, the SJC therapy dog program leader who has been visiting the airport with her Golden Retriever, Henry James, each Monday for the past four years. “It’s especially poignant to see soldiers being deployed hugging Henry James and telling him to ‘take care of the house’ while they’re gone.”
It took a few years but, inspired by the SJC experience, Miami International Airport, San Antonio International Airport, Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, and others – about 27 airports at last count – now also have therapy dog programs in the terminals.
“Airports are exciting places of much activity, but at times they also can be overwhelming for some travelers,” said Scott Elmore, spokesman for ACI-NA, an organization representing airports in North America. “As simple as it may sound, encountering a four-legged friend in the terminal can be exactly the experience that takes the edge off the airport experience,” he said.
Los Angeles International Airport kicked off its Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program on April 15, 2013. MDC is very supportive of these animal programs.
“We were the third airport therapy dog program to launch and, yes, it was intentional to start on tax day because people are already stressed on that day for that reason,” said Heidi Huebner, the PUP program director.
The 31 dogs in the LAX program are profiled on the airport’s website and include C.C., a Field Spaniel whose favorite treat is bananas, and Tru, an English Setter back on duty after undergoing an operation that resulted in the loss of a leg.
Wearing red vests that instruct people to “pet me,” the dogs in the Pets Unstressing Passengers, or PUP, program wander LAX’s terminals with their owners, providing comfort and airport information.Wearing red vests that instruct people to “pet me,” the dogs in the Pets Unstressing Passengers, or PUP, program wander LAX’s terminals with their owners, and providing comfort .
Wearing red vests that instruct people to “pet me,” the dogs in the Pets Unstressing Passengers, or PUP, program wander LAX’s terminals with their owners, providing comfort and airport information.
Hazel, a pointer mix, gets a lot of attention in the Delta terminal at LAX. Hazel’s owners, Barbara and Lou Friedman, are two of the over thirty volunteers who help bring smiles to anxious travelers. Five-year-old Alexandra and 7-year-old Emmett take turns petting Hazel with fellow traveler Meagan Moroney in the Delta terminal at LAX. Marwick Kane and his long-haired Dalmatian Kai greet travelers at LAX. The LAX dogs typically are available for a few hours a day every day of the week. Each dog works until he or she gets tired.
After a 22-hour flight from Manila, Mindy Warguez and her kids have a nice visit with Kai. Corkey Tenney, a volunteer from Santa Monica, gets licks from Rosalie, a Chihuahua/terrier mix, while they visit travelers at LAX.
Each volunteer dog in the PUP program gets their own trading card, which is given out by their owners to the travelers they encounter during their shift in the terminals. PUP volunteers Marwick Kane (with Kai), Lou Friedman (with Hazel), and Bod Lederfine (with Maggie Mae), walk around the Los Angeles International Airport terminal.
“When the dogs are in the terminals you can feel the stress level drop,” said Huebner. “Expressions change. People look up from their laptops and their phones. They take pictures. They come over to pet the dogs. Conversations start between strangers. And even people just passing by begin to smile.”
In Florida, the FLL AmbassaDogs program at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport began in August 2013 and currently has a dozen dogs and their handlers visiting with passengers throughout the week.
“Teams approach passengers and ask if they would like to visit with the dog,” said Tawana Guthrie, FLL customer relations manager. “And each of our AmbassaDogs has their own business card, which provides information about the dog and contact information for the program.”
Reno-Tahoe International Airport rolled out its Paws 4 Passengers program last year, during Thanksgiving.
“With canceled flights, delays, bad weather, a poor experience in security, or people just being afraid to fly, there are many reasons why passengers could benefit from a therapy dog at the airport to pet and enjoy,” said airport spokeswoman Heidi Jared.
Twenty dogs and their handlers are now in the program, with dogs ranging in size from a tiny Chihuahua named Spike to a 185-pound Leonberger named Chronis.
“One of the most rewarding experiences has been to watch the WWII Honor Flight veterans interact with our therapy dogs,” said Jared. The Paws 4 Passengers team has been out to the airport for all three Honor Flights this year “and each time, the veterans get a big smile on their face when they pet the dogs or when they come around the corner from security and are greeted by the entire four-legged team with the handlers waving flags and cheering on the veterans,” said Jared.
In partnership with the San Francisco SPCA, San Francisco International Airport officially launched its Wag Brigade last December.
The initial roster of five dogs and handlers has grown to 16 teams, with another five teams “getting ready to charm the socks off of our customers,” said Christopher Birch, the airport’s Director of Guest Experience.
The volunteer dogs at SFO range from a 9-pound Havanese to a 115-pound Swiss mountain dog, but a schedule of where and when the dogs will visit each airport terminal isn’t published.
That partly because “during each two-hour shift it’s common for a team not to cover much ground due to the dogs being so busy greeting guests,” said Birch, and also “because the dogs decide when the shift is over.”
Of course, not everyone is a dog lover. Some people would feel less stressed at an airport if they could cuddle with a cat.
“We used to have cats in our organization and we grandfathered in about 10 of them prior to deciding to have just dogs,” said Billie Smith, executive director of Wyoming-based Therapy Dogs, Inc. “The cats weren’t quite as accepting of everyone as the dogs were,” said Smith, “but there are always exceptions.”
Source : usa today ; Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t or Won’t Show You, and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.