Airports are filled with tension. It may not always seem that way, but air travel has that effect on some people, whether they are running late or just don’t feel comfortable being squeezed next to strangers at 30,000 feet.
There’s a new breed of airport dog, not sniffing out drugs or bombs, but putting people at ease as they get ready to take flight. They’re not only really good at what they do, they probably enjoy it as well. That’s because it generally involves them getting a belly rub or a simple pat on the head.
They go by Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUPs) and they come in many breeds, actually. At Los Angeles’ LAX Airport, there’s everything from a Doberman to three Australian Labradoodles on the job.
An Irish wolfhound named Finn has an exceptional skill.
“He looks you in the eye and lies down on the job,” said owner Brian Valente. “When I’m around Finn, it makes me feel like things are OK. When Finn’s around other people, they are OK. It’s almost instant, even if just for a moment.”
The idea of having therapy dogs at airports is believed to have started at Mineta San Jose International Airport, where in the days after September 11, 2001, stranded passengers sat anxiously awaiting their next move.
Volunteer Kyra Hubis has a five-year-old golden retriever named Henry James that works at the San Jose airport, spending a few hours there each week.
“His job is to be touched,” said Hubis. “I am just standing there with him. They are talking to him. If I need to answer for him, I do. But I am at the end of his leash, he’s not at the end of mine.”
There’s a screening process for the therapy dogs — a job interview, if you will. They have to be comfortable with crowds, noise, and lots of attention. Handlers are expected to be vigilant about watching for people who may not be so fond of animals, or may have allergies. This is usually done by allowing travelers to approach the dogs (not the other way around), which are easily identified with their vests and bandannas.