Flying can be very stressful. The airport itself is often crowded. There are lineups and then there is the reason you are flying. It isn’t always a vacation. It can be a funeral or to visit a sick relative. There may be stress at home or work to deal with as well. Since 9/11 there has also been the added stress of the risk of terrorism. Airports recognize this airport stress and are trying out new ways to make it easier for travellers.
In the days immediately after 9/11, a volunteer chaplain at the Mineta San Jose airport requested permission to bring his dog, Orion, in to help soothe agitated passengers. The dog was such a hit that they decided to make the program a permanent feature of the airport and they now have 9 dogs in the program.
More recently, Los Angeles international (LAX) and Miami International airport have added canines to their staff as well. Called Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUPs), the dogs used are certified through Wyoming-based Therapy Dogs Inc. They must be well-behaved, calm, social with strangers, healthy, comfortable in the airport environment, and able to be kept on a four foot loose leash. The handlers and dogs go through a training process that includes teaching them ways to identify people who may be frightened of dogs, have allergies or for other reasons not wish to be near the animal.
The dogs wander through the airport with their handlers, wearing vests that say “Pet me”. As with all airport staff, they must pass through security. LAX has thirty dogs on staff. Although Miami only has one dog, named Casey, she is already a part of the reality series “Airport 24/7: Miami”.
Casey is a golden retriever and she knows how to make passengers feel welcome. Her presence was recently requested for the arrival of a flight from Brazil. Carina’s parents knew that the autistic child would be tired and stressed after the flight and felt she could use a break before they resumed their journey by car. Casey and her handler met Carina at her flight and brought her a gift basket. It made Carina’s day.
The dogs have also helped soldiers through difficult departures and passengers just having a very bad day. It is well known that patting a dog can bring your blood pressure down and relax you. Recent studies have also shown that dogs can identify a person in distress. Anyone who has ever flown with a dog can attest to how many people come up wanting to interact with the animal as you get him checked in. So, it is not surprising how successful the program has been.
There are already plans in the works to introduce more PUPs. Watch for them at an airport near you!