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Airport Therapy Dogs Help Travelers Deal with Stress

Therapy Dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Most people find air travel at least a little unsettling, and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) wants to help. In April, the airport launched PUPs – Pets Unstressing Passengers. The dogs are certified by a national organization and wear red vests that read, “Pet Me!”
  • Currently there are 30 dogs in the PUPs program, which runs seven days a week. Usually there are just two or three dogs at LAX at a time, but the goal of the program is to have a dog in each terminal at all times. The program’s mission is “To keep waiting passengers calm.”
  • Airports in San Diego and Miami also use therapy dogs, and in fact, Mineta San Jose International Airport introduced the very first airport therapy dog in the days after Sept. 11, 2001.
  • The dogs in these programs are well trained, and their handlers are taught to be sensitive to passengers who seem fearful, dislike dogs, or have allergies. The programs have been very well-received by the traveling public.

By Dr. Becker

If you find air travel nerve-racking, and many of us do, you might be happy to know that Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) has launched a new program to help passengers relax. It’s called PUPs – Pets Unstressing Passengers.

Therapy dogs, accompanied by their owners, can now be found in LAX boarding areas, at baggage claim, and everywhere in between. Dogs are certified by Therapy Dogs Inc., a national organization with more than 12,000 approved handler/dog teams. Some of the dogs are purebreds, others are mixed breeds, but they’re all ready and willing to befriend anyone who stops to say hi. They even wear red vests that read, “Pet Me,” and carry trading cards full of “furry facts” and airport info. (See pictures here.)

PUPs dogs must be in good health, skilled, stable, well behaved, and able to work on a slack 4-foot leash. They must be comfortable with crowds, and strange sounds and smells. The dogs’ handlers are trained to watch for travelers who seem fearful or dislike dogs, or those with allergies. Most of the time, passengers approach the dogs and not the other way around.

PUPs Mission: To Keep Waiting Passengers Calm

Currently there are about 30 dogs signed up with PUPs, and the program runs seven days a week. The dogs’ handlers are volunteers and work two-hour shifts walking around LAX, introducing passengers to their dogs. All the dogs should be able to work a shift without needing to relieve themselves, but the airport has also arranged for a few “doggy relief stations” just in case.

Right now there are just two or three dogs at the airport at one time, but the goal is to have a dog in each terminal at all times.

The PUPs program is part of an effort to improve passenger satisfaction at LAX, which was named the country’s second-worst airport in 2012 by Travel+Leisure magazine. The PUPs mission statement: To keep waiting passengers calm.

San Jose Airport Introduced First Airport Therapy Dog in the Wake of 9/11

Los Angeles International isn’t the first airport to bring therapy dogs to stressed out travelers.

According to the Huffington Post, Mineta San Jose International Airport actually introduced the first airport therapy dog in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, when flights were grounded and passengers were stranded, anxious and afraid. The airport now has nine dogs.

Miami International also has a dog, Casey, a 4-year-old Golden Retriever. Casey has her own website, fan mail, and business cards and she’s a regular on "Airport 24/7: Miami," a weekly reality show on the Travel Channel.

Air Travel, No Matter the Reason, Can Be Stressful

People fly for different reasons, and not all of them are pleasant. Not everyone is flying off to a vacation hotspot or to attend a business retreat. There are sick relatives to visit, and sadly, funerals to attend. There are stressful relocations, and armed forces deployments to dangerous, faraway places. And regardless of the reason for the trip, getting to and from the airport, negotiating check-in and security screenings, finding your gate, stowing your carry-on, and handling all the other details of air travel can be quite stress inducing. A soft, furry coat and wagging tail can be a welcome sight in the midst of the madness.

According to Heidi Huebner, director of volunteers at LAX that launched the PUPs program in April, “You can literally feel the stress levels drop, people start smiling, strangers start talking to each other and everybody walks away feeling really, really good.”

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