Most families who have just taken a cross-country flight can’t get out of the airport fast enough. But D.C. residents Charles and Shalini Kapur, and their daughters Kiran and Alisha, happily delayed their vacation for a few minutes when they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in July.
That’s because there was a surprise awaiting them near their gate: cuddly canines waiting for some love.
“It sort of re-centers you after you’ve had a long flight,” Charles Kapur said as his daughters stroked Coco, a fluffy white standard poodle, and a kind-eyed labradoodle named Tucker.
Since 2013, LAX has gone to the dogs. Although it has plenty of the spa stations, high-end shops, outposts of local restaurants and other touches that so many airports have incorporated through recent remodels, one of the country’s busiest airports also relies on cold noses to help travelers who are stressing over TSA screenings, oversized bags and overbooked seats.
The furry emissaries come courtesy of the Pets Unstressing Passengers program — otherwise known by its acronym, PUP. Under its auspices, 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. Maria Miller said that Penelope, her Chihuahua-Jack Russell mix, had pink lipstick on her forehead a mere 15 minutes after a recent visit to the terminal.
It “de-stresses you” before you board, said Andrea Marr, a Navy dentist based in San Diego. Especially passengers like her: She missed her flight the previous day and had to pony up for new tickets, but she melted when she saw the sweet, goofy face of Rusty, a chocolate-colored pit bull.
Michelle Sanchez of Connecticut, who was traveling home with her mother and 3½ -year-old daughter, Ashley, says their surprise encounter was a parent’s dream come true. “Having her be happy and relaxed and occupied, it takes that stress off of me,” Sanchez said of her daughter’s fascination with Coco, who reminded her of their own dog, Peanut.
Like true Angelenos, the dogs know all about branding and marketability; they will happily pose in your selfies and request that you follow them on social media as their owners hand out baseball-style trading cards with their pictures and account handles. Bathroom breaks are handled discreetly, thanks to the animal-relief stations that are now in the post-screening areas at each terminal. While there are occasional and inevitable run-ins with their brethren working on the Transportation Security Agency’s canine teams, the PUP volunteers try to keep things professional and leave quickly so as to not distract them.
“We laugh that this is the only job you can fall asleep in,” said PUP Program Director Heidi Huebner as Rusty, dozed on the floor near his owners, Lillian and Chris De Groof. Huebner chooses volunteers based on the temperament of both the canines and the humans who own them because, she said, “even if they’ve already worked as a therapy dog somewhere, the airport’s completely different.”
To be considered, dogs must be privately owned, be at least 2 years old and have at least one year of experience working with a recognized dog-therapy organization. Huebner conducts an initial meet-and-greet. The teams must then pass three tests to be registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs by paying another visit to the airport to see how they interact with other dogs and their handlers, and making two test runs at hospitals that have volunteer programs.
Owners must also agree to undergo a background check at LAX and be fingerprinted and badged. There will be 72 dogs involved in LAX’s PUP program by the end of the summer — including Huebner’s own husky mix, Chance — and they can be found at various terminals throughout the day.
Huebner and the PUP program have assisted 50 airports around the country in setting up similar programs. These programs have different names and, more important, not all their animals are dogs. While Huebner says it would take a special kind of cat to join a roaming canine cavalry in a crowded airport, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport has miniature therapy horses and San Francisco International Airport has a pig.
There is currently no such therapy-animal program at Dulles International Airport or Reagan National Airport, although a Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority media relations spokesperson said that it is under consideration and noted that some airlines have brought animals in for passengers during high-stress travel times.
The program has helped break down stereotypes and cultural divides. The De Groofs said that people have been pleasantly surprised with their pit bull’s low-key demeanor and initiated discussions about the breed. Ellen Lee, who owns Coco, and Jena Williams, who owns Tucker, said that they like working in the Tom Bradley International Terminal because they can work to curb what Williams calls “the canine biases” sometimes seen in less dog-friendly cultures, as well as help grateful parents calm their tantruming children.
But what human would want to volunteer to spend time in an airport, even if a beloved pet got to come, too?
Miller said that volunteering feeds her personal fascination with airports and helps quell her fear of flying, and that it is confidence-building for Penelope, who was once a skittish shelter dog. Now she loves to go to LAX, although it may or may not be because they both get some Taco Bell on the ride home.
Who doesn’t appreciate a drive-through run after a day at the airport?
More from Travel: