If the fear of flying makes you want to head to an airport bar for a pre-flight cocktail or three, an alternative for calming frazzled nerves is becoming more and more available – and it won’t give you a hangover.
Around 30 U.S. airports currently have comfort dogs available. One airline has begun to provide these dogs as well. For the holidays this year, United Airlines expanded its annual United Paws program from two airports to seven in Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark and Washington, D.C. More than 200 comfort dogs soothed thousands of travelers.
“United Paws is a wonderful program that comes at just the right time for some holiday travelers who may be experiencing a bit of anxiety or stress,” said Dr. Walter Woolf, a veterinary consultant. “Research shows that just petting a dog releases oxytocin, the hormone associated with bonding and affection, and also decreases levels of stress, helps us breathe easier and lowers our blood pressure.”
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was one of the first airports to launch a comfort dogs program. PUP (Pets Unstressing Passengers) has been in existence there since April 15, 2013. (Yes, it was intentionally started on Tax Day, one of the most stressful days of the year.)
“When you walk in with the dogs, you feel the stress level drop immediately,” Heidi Huebner, director of volunteers at LAX, told CBS Los Angeles at the time. “People start smiling, people start talking to each other, they’re taking pictures, they’re hugging the dogs.”
Across the country, the FLL AmbassaDogs program at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was also launched in 2013.
Twelve teams of volunteer handlers and their dogs “approach passengers and ask if they would like to visit with the dog,” Tawana Guthrie, FLL customer relations manager, told USA TODAY. “And each of our AmbassaDogs has their own business card, which provides information about the dog and contact information for the program.”
The very first comfort dog at a U.S. airport was Orion, a boxer/great Dane therapy dog brought to Northern California’s Mineta San José International Airport (SJC) in 2001 by her owner, an interfaith chaplain volunteer, in the hopes of soothing travelers’ fears after September 11.
Orion was a huge success and inspired SJC to employ more comfort dogs. The airport currently has 13 teams of volunteer handlers and dogs who visit the terminals for a few hours every day.
Comfort dogs must be specially trained and, in some airports, certified by Therapy Dogs International (TDI), which tests them for temperament, obedience and the ability to be hugged and petted amid the chaos of an airport terminal. Any size or breed of dog is eligible, from rat terriers to rottweilers.
“We’ve had many very touching encounters with airport employees and travelers,” Kyra Hubis, SJC’s therapy dog program leader, told USA TODAY. Hubis and Henry James, her golden retriever, have volunteered at the airport for a few hours every Monday since 2011.
“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,” Hubis said.
Photo credit: YouTube