Therapy Dogs to the Rescue for Airport Stress

You may have seen guide dogs for visually impaired people at the airport, and if you’ve spent much time there, you’ve no doubt noticed security dogs that are able to sniff out a wide range of smuggled objects and substances, going far beyond illegal drugs and explosives.

Some dogs have been so highly trained they can detect live, illegally transported animals sold via the black market, poached rhino horns and harmful plant species. A number of dogs have such honed their sensitive olfactory abilities to the point they can even detect contraband electronics and cash that may have been used for nefarious purposes.

And as the BBC reported in 2018, dogs have even been trained to detect diseases, from cancer to Parkinson’s disease to malaria. But there’s another condition that humans can suffer from in great measure, especially at airports, and that’s stress, and trained dogs are not only trained to detect it, they just do what so many dogs do, which Matador Network describes:

“Despite the fact that airport sniffer dogs have been trained to narc on passengers, their very presence provides a sense of comfort to them. It’s hard not to smile at a happy Labrador working hard to earn a treat or giggle at the tickle of a wet beagle nose sniffing out invasive plants.

It’s also calming for passengers to witness the visible presence of anti-terrorism tactics in action, making them more assured of the airport’s security.

Perhaps the detector dog’s greatest skill is resisting cuddling and kissing every person who walks through the airport yet still improving their mood. You’re not allowed to pet them, but as recognition for dogs’ innate talents spreads, you may just find yourself at an airport that employs therapy dogs that you are very, very encouraged to pet.”2

From traffic jams to forgotten wallets, and delayed flights to confusion about which gate and which flight, professionally certified therapy dogs are being made accessible to stressed-out travelers to help maintain calm and bring harried passengers down to earth with their friendly approachability and furry warmth.

How Therapy Dogs Relieve Passenger Stress

Providing dogs trained to calm travelers between flights is being referred to as a movement, according to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, which was first conceived and implemented at Mineta San Jose International Airport in California following the 9/11 terror attacks.

One of that airport’s first therapy dogs was a 4.5-year-old golden retriever named Henry James and his owner, Kyra Hubis. The pair typically visited with more than 100 airport visitors traveling on Mondays, provided the passengers welcomed Henry James’ calm, accepting presence, but were also not allergic. Mercury News described Hubis’s motivation for the job:

“Henry James and Hubis walk the terminals to comfort passengers who may be stressed, grieving or feeling the jitters of flying. Hubis, a retired critical care nurse for 30 years, runs the therapy dog program as a volunteer. She finds that many passengers are in need of a dog’s wagging tail, wet nose and unconditional love.”3

The organization’s website notes that videos of passengers stopping to interact with trained therapy dogs wearing distinctive “Pet me!” vests, as well as with their friendly handlers, convinced airport personnel around the U.S. to start their own programs. Between 2017 and 2018, the number grew from 48 to 58. Not surprisingly, each has been met with resounding success:

“(Airport therapy dog) programs have today become so widespread and integral to the airport’s success helping passengers de-stress. These dogs are so popular that many therapy dogs have their own social media accounts, hashtags, and even trading cards. Their goal is to bring people together and to help them benefit from the relaxation that comes from petting a dog.”4

Because the airport therapy dog programs have been such a hit, the movement has spread internationally. To date, there are 48 such programs, with Aberdeen International Airport in Scotland being the first in the U.K., and at least one in Canada.


Differences Between Canines Trained for Specific Purposes

There are therapy dogs and there are service dogs, and each performs very different functions. Therapy dogs in airports, schools and nursing homes are there for the express purpose of providing comfort and making themselves available to pet, pat and chat with.

Service dogs, on the other hand, are at airports and other places to perform a specific job — help their owners with a disability — and should never be distracted by a person’s voice calling to them or offered food to entice them, as it may put their owner at risk.

Additionally, while service dogs have special rights, therapy dogs do not. In an airport setting, only therapy dogs that have been trained as such are allowed to enter, and only when the airport has implemented a bona fide therapy dog program.

But it’s possible for dogs that are consistently well behaved, as well as naturally calm, affectionate with humans and unaffected by the presence of other animals, to be considered for the task, fully vetted (along with their respective handlers) and duly certified. Dogs pass with flying colors only if they can walk through an airport and resist reacting to the array of sights, smells and sounds.

Most of these therapy dogs are available only for a day on a rotating basis, but in most cases, several dogs will appear on a volunteer basis at any one airport. That way, they’re available to passengers. Some complete their rounds once a week or once a month, depending on the dogs and their respective handlers.

More About Airport Therapy Dog Teams

A perfect example for a “dream team” is Fred McCraven and his great Dane named Max, “a complete sweetheart,” says Lauri Golden, the manager of customer engagement at Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, where dog and handler teams for the all-volunteer CLT Canine Crew5 were deployed in 2015. McCraven said his main motivation for volunteering his services was simply to show off his dog.

Dogs for stressed out passengers includes another group organized to show off socially acclimated pups that have earned certification as airport therapy dogs at LAX (Los Angeles World Airports6). PUP, aka Pets Unstressing Passengers, has a list of requirements for the dogs they use in this capacity:

  • Dogs must be privately owned, at least 2 years old and have at least one year of work with a recognized dog therapy organization
  • They must undergo LAX classroom and in-terminal training
  • Dogs must be registered with the nationally recognized organization known as Therapy Dogs, Inc. (TD, Inc.), which registers, insures and supports members who are involved in volunteer animal-assisted activities
  • Volunteers and their dogs must complete a walk through LAX to ensure that as a team, they’re a good fit for the large airport, after which handlers are fingerprinted and badged
  • Each team is expected to work one weekly, one- to two-hour shift at one terminal

Besides helping to relieve the stress and anxiety air travelers might be experiencing for any number of reasons, the handlers must be prepared to assist with answering questions, directing passengers if they’re lost and program promotion that entails handing out PUP trading cards featuring the canine “stars” making the program possible.

Of all the stressors that might take place in an airport, a cancelled flight may be one of the most dreaded. But one example of how valuable these dogs are was witnessed when the dreaded cancellation occurred and the disappointed passengers were offered a visit with a therapy dog. They eagerly agreed.

The result? According to The Bark, PUP director Heidi Heubner was surprised that the passengers not only loved the sweet dog that buddied up to them, they were heard saying, “Who cares that we’re delayed! It was worth it to see the dogs.”

Post Courtesy of Healthy Pets

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