Canine therapy at airports takes off
Cuddling pooches, selfies with mini-horses or even a pig now a big hit with travellers
Most families taking a cross-country flight can’t get out of the airport fast enough. But Washington, DC residents Charles and Shalini Kapur, and their daughters Kiran and Alisha, happily delayed their holiday for a few minutes when they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in July.
That’s because a surprise was awaiting them near their gate: cuddly canines waiting for some love.
“It re-centres you after a long flight,” Charles Kapur said as his daughters stroked Coco, a fluffy white standard poodle, and a kindeyed labradoodle named Tucker.
Since 2013, LAX has gone to the dogs. It has plenty of spa stations, high-end shops, restaurants and other touches, but one of the US’s busiest airports also relies on wet noses to help travellers stressing over oversized bags and overbooked seats.
The furry emissaries come cour- tesy of the Pets Unstressing Passengers programme – otherwise known by its acronym, PUP. Under its auspices, brigades of as many as seven or eight red-shirted dogs and their similarly attired volunteer owners walk through terminals and offer passengers their pets’ unwavering love for a couple of hours a day (even at weekends).
PUP volunteers say they encounter the occasional shy or standoffish stranger, but most affection is reciprocated. Maria Miller said that Penelope, her Chihuahua-Jack Russell mix, had pink lipstick on her forehead a mere 15 minutes after a recent visit to the terminal.
It “destresses you” before you board, said Andrea Marr, a dentist. Especially passengers like her: She missed her flight the previous day and had to pony up for new tickets, but she melted when she saw the sweet, goofy face of Rusty, a chocolate-coloured pit bull.
Michelle Sanchez, who was travelling home with her mother and 3-year-old daughter, Ashley, says their surprise encounter was a par- ent’s dream come true.
“Having her be happy and relaxed and occupied, it takes that stress off of me,” Sanchez said of her daugh- ter’s fascination with Coco.
Like true Angelenos, the dogs know all about branding and marketability. They will happily pose for your selfies and request that you follow them on social media as their owners hand out baseball-style trading cards with their pictures and account handles.
Bathroom breaks are handled discreetly, thanks to animal-relief stations at each terminal. While there are occasional and inevitable run-ins with their brethren working on the Transportation Security Agency’s canine teams, the PUP volunteers try to keep things professional and leave quickly so as to not distract them.
“We laugh that this is the only job you can fall asleep in,” said PUP Programme director Heidi Huebner as Rusty dozed on the floor near his owners, Lillian and Chris de Groof. Huebner chooses volunteers based on the temperament of both the canines and the humans who own them because, “even if they’ve already worked as a therapy dog somewhere, the airport’s completely different”.
To be considered, dogs must be privately owned, be at least 2 years old and have at least one year of experience working with a recognised dog-therapy organisation. Huebner conducts an initial meet-and-greet. The teams must then pass three tests to be registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs by paying another visit to the airport to see how they interact with other dogs and their handlers, and making two test runs at hospitals that have volunteer programmes.
There will soon be 72 dogs involved in LAX’s PUP programme – including Huebner’s own husky mix, Chance – and they can be found at various terminals throughout the day.
Huebner and the PUP programme have helped 50 airports across the country to set up similar programmes but not all their animals are dogs. Huebner says it would take a special kind of cat to join a roaming canine cavalry in a crowded airport, so Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport has miniature therapy horses and San Francisco International Airport has a pig.
The programme has helped break down stereotypes and cultural divides. The De Groofs said people had been pleasantly surprised by their pit bull’s low-key demeanour and initiated discussions about the breed. The other dog owners agree because they can work to curb “the canine biases” sometimes seen in less dog-friendly cultures, as well as help grateful parents calm children’s tantrums.
But what human would want to volunteer to spend time at an airport, even if a beloved pet came, too?
Miller said that volunteering quelled her fear of flying, and was confidence-building for Penelope, once a skittish shelter dog. Now she loves to go to LAX.
Coco, a standard poodle, strikes a pose. PUP programme dogs have their own social media accounts and will happily appear in travellers’ selfies.