Airport Therapy Dogs Lend a Calming Paw

Standing in line to check bags, taking your shoes off as you go through security, walking what feels like a mile to get to your gate, wearing a mask and hoping no one coughs near you; let’s face it, flying is more stressful than stress-free these days.

But what if you had a chance to stop and cuddle with a dog in between all this? Would it make it just a little easier?

Therapy dog groups around the country want to help. Many have created programs where specially trained dogs (and even a pig) spend time visiting with travelers at airports. For a time they were grounded, but at some airports around the country, they’re back in service.

Friendly Skies

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is one of the busiest travel hubs in the U.S., with millions of people passing through per week. To help ease passengers’ stress, the airport instituted a program in 2013 called Pets Unstressing Passengers—PUP—where therapy dogs interact with people who are visiting the airport. Since then, the program has been an inspiration to other airports around the world.

“Since launching the PUP program, it has grown from 20 dogs to 110,” says director Heidi Huebner. “I believe there are close to 80 airports that have programs now, and I continue to get calls for information on how to start a program.”

The reason for the demand is simple. People love seeing dogs at the airport. “I get so many emails and calls from people who have met my PUPs, saying what an awesome experience they had, or ‘I was having the worst day, and being able to pet a dog made my day,’ or ‘I miss my dogs so much, I’m so happy I got to see a dog at LAX.’  I love watching people as they approach a PUP and break out into a huge smile when they see ‘Pet Me’ on the dog’s vest.”

Special Dogs

To become a therapy dog at airports, dogs must receive training and certification from a therapy dog organization. The various airport therapy dog programs also look for specific traits in a dog.

“Any dog wanting to join the PUP team must first do a meet and greet with me to make sure it’s a good fit,” says Huebner. “We meet in my office, and if that goes well, we visit a terminal. I look for a dog with the personality of a therapy dog, who has confidence and seeks out people. They must not react to anything such as loud noises, crowds of people around them, screaming children, banging or suitcases and heavy traffic as they enter the terminal.”

Dogs who get this far must pass tests given by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD), the group that partners with PUP, and certifies and registers the dogs.

Once the dogs have made the cut, the handlers are next.

“Volunteers must pass the background check with ATD and LAX,” says Huebner. “Then they receive training from me and are ready to start.”

Other airport programs have different requirements. The AirPAWS program that operates at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, and is sponsored by the nonprofit group Orange County Animal Allies (OCAA), requires dogs and handlers be fully vested in the program, and have one year of experience with OCAA and its pet therapy program.

“This requirement ensures that the ambassadors we send have a proven track record of responsible service under our program, and that their dog is compatible with the busy environment of an airport,” says Kevin Marlin, executive director of OCAA.

AirPAWS dogs must be at least one year old, spayed or neutered, be a regular household pet, possess a friendly, balanced temperament, and a desire to approach and seek attention from strangers. Dogs must not demonstrate signs of resentment, shyness or aggression of any kind.

Whether a major international airport like LAX or a smaller airport like John Wayne, therapy dogs makes travelers’ lives happier.

“The stress of traveling can be hard on passengers, and having a furry friend available to help ease stress has made flights much more enjoyable for thousands of travelers,” says Marlin. “During the pandemic, traveling can be extra stressful, and our teams are now returning back to the airport. We want to make sure the passenger experience is relaxing. Passengers regularly comment that interacting with a dog has been the best part of their trip.”

If you’re flying soon, airports with therapy dogs back at work include Punta Gorda Airport in Florida, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Fort Wayne International Airport in Indiana, Philadelphia International Airport, and John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Audrey Pavia is a freelance writer and author of Horses For Dummies and Horseback Riding for Dummies. She lives in Norco, California, with her two Spanish Mustangs, Milagro and Rio.
Photo courtesy Cheyanne Leeds