Meet the Good Dogs Making Air Travel Less Stressful

therapy dogs airport program

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many people experience stress in airports, so Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) unleashed a program known as Pets Unstressing Passengers — PUP, for short — to meet, greet and calm nervous passengers
  • PUPs are the stars of trading cards — one for each of the 72-or-so dogs associated with the program, which was the first of its kind — and kids who fall in love with the dogs collect the cards as a memento
  • Pups in the program are part of Therapy Dogs Inc., which requires the dogs to have at least one year of experience working with a recognized dog therapy organization and humans to be registered with Alliance of Therapy Dogs
  • Each dog and their owner/handler works a one- or two-hour shift per week at an assigned terminal, but the dogs’ activities with the PUP program includes visits to hospitals, schools and nursing homes

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Many people experience stress when they travel, but when it comes to stress, experts have observed for years that when dogs show up in schools, nursing homes and hospitals to be their friendly selves, the smiles go up and the stress goes down, for travelers and flight crews alike.

Now there's a new venue for the kindness-in-motion abilities of dogs: airports. In fact, a program aptly named PUP, short for Pets Unstressing Passengers, has been unleashed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) since 2013, and advocates say it's the single most anxiety-arresting program they've ever heard of.

Wearing red vests that advertise their availability as objects of affection, as they're labeled "Pet me!," the dogs are literally trotted through areas of the airport where passengers, especially those not altogether familiar with the drill, are often stressed. Passenger stress in airports can develop due to time crunches or unfamiliarity with the drill of security checkpoints, lost luggage, lost connections or worry over whether themselves or their baggage will make it to the right place for pick-up.

Frayed nerves increased when a TSA officer was killed and three others injured in a shooting in 2013. The PUP program was the first of its kind and started by PUP program director Heidi Huebner. According to the Los Angeles World Airports website, the program was put in place to:

"Enhance the customer experience, providing stress relief and comfort to passengers through interaction with pets. The pups are the volunteers 'own' dogs, and both donate their time to LAX. They are registered with Therapy Dogs Inc. We welcome you to visit, hug, kiss and take pictures with the PUPs when traveling through LAX."1

The First 'Meet a Dog, Ditch Your Stress' Airport Program

The dogs in the innovative program are sweet and dedicated, but they're also trained. As The Washington Post noted:

"Brigades of as many 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 on weekends). Although PUP volunteers say they encounter the occasional shy or standoffish stranger, most affection is reciprocated … the dogs know all about branding and marketability; they will happily pose in your selfies and request that you follow them on social media."2

There are even trading cards — one for each of the 72-or-so dogs associated with the program. Like the baseball icons of yesteryear, canine PUP volunteers are the stars of trading cards that the kids who encounter the dogs in the airport love to collect. Each card bears a dog photo and stats like what their favorite treats or rewards are. Canines featured in the program are as varied as the people in airports who chat them up and are in turn, calmed down.

Ryu and Echo are both Labrador retrievers, and Pierre is a French bulldog. The dogs are well-loved; case in point: Penelope, a Chihuahua-Jack Russell mix, boasted pink lipstick on her forehead within minutes of her working day.

A few more stars in the PUP galaxy include Coco, a white poodle, a Labradoodle named Tucker, and Rusty, a chocolate-colored pit bull described as having a "sweet, goofy face."3 There's big dogs and little dogs, some calm, stately and dignified and others with wheels to help steady injured legs, with names like Twisty and Jelly Bean.

PUP Dogs Are 'Professionals' Who Are Allowed to Sleep on the Job

Pups in the program are part of Therapy Dogs Inc., which requires the dogs to have at least one year of experience working with a recognized dog therapy organization. Humans must be registered with Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Each dog and their owner/handler works a shift of one or two hours per week at one assigned terminal. Not just any dog can be part of the program. Huebner chooses dogs to enter the program as "volunteers" if they have the temperament for it, but that goes for the humans who own them as well.

As Huebner explains, "even if they've already worked as a therapy dog somewhere, the airport's completely different."4 Any canine accepted into the program must have his or her own dossier proving they're at least 2 years old. Heubner herself is introduced to each dog, after which human and canine teams are put through three tests in the airport to see how well they interact in an atmosphere that can be a bit stressful.

The PUP-wannabes and their human counterparts also go through "test runs" at hospitals that have incorporated volunteer programs, and then the owners jump through the last hoop that requires them to have background checks at LAX, undergo fingerprinting and wear a badge.

PUP Detail: Dogs Designed to Help Passengers 'Keep Calm and Fly'

Up until 2013, police K9s were the dogs most commonly associated with airports, namely those brought in to sniff luggage and detect illegal substances. Occasionally there's a nose-to-nose meeting between PUPs and K9s, but the nonfraternization policy between the two is strict.

Then these dogs started roaming airports looking for somebody to pay attention to them, but with the ulterior motive of doing what pets are designed to do — make oldsters, youngsters and everyone in between feel that even in a place as confusing and potentially dangerous as a busy airport, everything's normal. Vice Media noted:

"PUP dogs certainly generate more delight than their badge-wearing counterparts. Watching Pierre, Ryu and Echo waddle through the arrivals hall was something like witnessing the Beatles on their first US tour. Hyper kids and exhausted parents alike ceased bickering, yawning, and texting and ran to the dogs, wearing identical expressions of wonder."5

As many expected, the program didn't stop at LAX. Heubner has traveled to 50 airports around the U.S. to set up similar programs, which heralds its resounding success. Specialists, consultants and dog lovers are looking at ensconcing a similar program at Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Amazingly, not all the animals in the program are dogs. There are miniature therapy horses at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, and San Francisco International Airport boasts a pig.