Ca­nine ther­apy at air­ports takes off

Cud­dling pooches, self­ies with mini-horses or even a pig now a big hit with trav­ellers

Pretoria News Weekend - - PET CARE - THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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