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Forget a pre-flight drink. Pet an airport therapy dog.

Airports have been using therapy dogs to soothe anxieties for decades, but we may need them more than ever

Oreo, a dog on Denver International Airport’s Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS). (Denver International Airport)

The airport, generally speaking, is not a peaceful place. Stressed-out strangers rush to take off their shoes at security, put on their shoes afterward and power-walk through terminal mazes to their gate.

And while heading to the airport can be an exciting time for travelers, “people are not always traveling to go on vacation to Cancún,” aid Cristina Alcivar, founder and editor of Vane Airport Media, a website dedicated to airport wellness. “There are people traveling for work. People are traveling because of mourning. People are breaking up ... People say goodbye forever inside of airports.”

That is more true than ever as people navigate travel during a global health crisis and with a dramatic increase of unruliness in the skies.

Sure, you could drown your travel anxieties at the airport bar or spend a fortune on an airport massage, but some airports have an even better option: airport therapy dogs.

If you’re lucky enough to encounter one, airport therapy dogs can be just the thing to soothe those anxieties. Here’s what you need to know about them and where they can be found.

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First of all, what’s an airport therapy dog?

It turns out that bringing dogs to airports makes people really happy. Not guide dogs or emotional support dogs, but specifically airport therapy dogs.

“They create a better experience for passengers,” Alcivar said. “They humanize your experience.”

Through her website and social media, Alcivar has been getting the word out about airport therapy dogs and what the animals can do for their nerves. She would like more people to know about the science that shows dogs can enhance your mood, and therapy dogs can calm you at places that tend to cause stress, such as hospitals, courts and airports.

Just after 9/11, San Jose International Airport (SJC) in California was the first airport to introduce therapy dogs to its terminals. The airport’s chaplain volunteer Kathryn Liebschutz asked to bring to work her trained therapy dog, Orion, in hopes of easing traveler anxiety in the wake of the attacks. SJC saw the positive impact Orion made and started an official program.

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Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) followed San Jose’s lead, and it was the second airport to start a therapy dog program. The LAX Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program has grown to be the largest in the country, with 121 therapy dogs before the pandemic and about 5,200 volunteer hours logged in 2019.

Heidi Huebner developed the PUP program in 2013 and continues to manage it. She is now an expert on airport therapy dog programs and has helped 70 other airports launch theirs. Perhaps the most important information Huebner teaches is that not all dogs can become airport therapy dogs.

“You can’t train a dog to have this type of temperament; they have to be born with it,” she said. “Their natural personality is a dog that’s very outgoing and loves people and doesn’t get scared by lots of activities and loud noises.”

Aside from temperament, airport therapy dogs must have other qualifications, such as having at least one year experience working with a recognized dog therapy organization, being registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and passing an initial meet-and-greet walk-through test. Dogs can be different breeds, sizes and ages. Their handlers are fingerprinted and badged, and they must commit to at least one shift weekly.

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Where can I find them?

According to Alcivar, therapy dog programs are a growing trend for airports in the United States, but unfortunately for traveling dog lovers, they aren’t as prolific as Cinnabon or Starbucks.

From Alcivar’s research, 87 airports in North America had programs before the pandemic hit. After suspending programs in 2020 because of safety concerns, airports are slowly reinstating therapy dog volunteers. Alcivar made this chart to highlight the 35 airports with dogs back in action.

Many programs have reduced volunteer numbers as dogs have retired out of the system. Some programs also changed the way they operate with pandemic protocols.

At Nebraska’s Lincoln Airport (LNK), “we now have a designated area where the handler and the dogs hang out and it gives passengers the ability to approach them,” said Rachel Barth, a spokeswoman for the airport. “It makes [handlers and travelers] feel safer.”

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There is no database on where and when you can find airport therapy dogs. And because programs are powered by volunteers, even if an airport has therapy dogs, they probably will not be there all day, every day.

Travelers can Google the name of an airport they are visiting and “therapy dog” to see if a program exists. Some airports have social media accounts that mention their programs, or accounts for the programs themselves that post when and where their dogs will be on duty.

Who should pet them?

Young, old, solo, business — there isn’t one kind of traveler who can benefit from petting an airport therapy dog.

Tara Hoover, who heads the Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) therapy dog program, PIT PAWS (Pups Alleviating Worry and Stress), has seen adults lie on the floor for better petting access, and elderly fliers clamor for selfies with Juno, her certified therapy dog.

Volunteers like Tara and Juno can be a godsend for travelers with fear of flying.

“My very first day — I’ll never forget it — we sat with a passenger in tears,” Hoover said. “She was so scared and nervous … I sat with her for a while and she just sat there and was petting [Juno] just talking, trying to pass the time.”

Passengers have told Hoover that they didn’t have to take anxiety medicine such as Xanax before their flight because they were so soothed after spending time with Juno. The dogs are also a big hit with families — kids are overjoyed to pet a dog, and parents welcome the distraction.

The dogs can be just as therapeutic for airport staff, whether they are TSA agents or concession-stand cashiers.

“That comfort is important also for the employees. They really missed the dogs and they are happy to see them back,” Huebner said. “We have these little trading cards … and the employees love collecting them. They know when there’s a new team. They’ll be like, ‘I’ve never seen this dog before.’”

At Denver International Airport (DEN), spokesperson Stacey Stegman said she hopes that their therapy animals can reach as many travelers as possible. Their therapy dog program, ironically called CATS (Canine Airport Therapy Squad — although they do have one therapy cat on staff that is walked around on a leash), is a positive contribution to the world that gives people unconditional love at a time when everyone needs it.

Next time you’re flying, keep your eyes peeled for a volunteer, and get ready to give the animal a pet.

“We know that when you’re traveling, it’s busy, it’s stressful, and let’s add covid into the mix which makes it even more crazy,” Stegman said. “When you see some of these animals, I would say take a moment, pause, feel a little bit of joy. It’s just going to make your trip that much better.”