How therapy dogs help calm stressed airline passengers at Los Angeles International Airport (at San Francisco it’s a pig)
Pets Unstressing Passengers – PUP for short – sends therapy dogs and owners to airport where frazzled children, and some adults, pet them before or after their flights; it’s one of scores of such programmes at US airports
Most families who have just landed after a long flight cannot get out of the airport fast enough. But recently, Charles and Shalini Kapur, and their daughters Kiran and Alisha, happily delayed their holiday for a few minutes when they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) from Washington.
That’s because there was a surprise awaiting them near their gate: cuddly canines waiting for some love.
“It sort of re-centres you after you’ve had a long flight,” Charles Kapur says as his daughters stroke Coco, a fluffy white standard poodle, and Tucker, a kind-eyed labradoodle.
Since 2013, LAX has gone to the dogs. The airport, one of America’s busiest, has plenty of the spa stations, high-end shops, outposts of local restaurants and other touches that so many US airports have incorporated during recent renovations.
However, it also relies on cold noses to help travellers who are stressing over security screenings, oversized bags and overbooked seats.
The furry emissaries come courtesy of the Pets Unstressing Passengers programme – otherwise known by its acronym, PUP.
Under its auspices, brigades of as many as seven or eight red-shirted dogs and their similarly attired volunteer owners walk through terminals for a couple of hours a day (even on weekends) and offer passengers their pets’ unwavering love.
Although PUP volunteers say they encounter the occasional shy or stand-offish stranger, most affection is reciprocated. Volunteer Maria Miller says 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, says Andrea Marr, a navy dentist based in San Diego, California. She had missed her flight the previous day and had to buy new tickets, but she melted when she saw the sweet, goofy face of Rusty, a chocolate-coloured pit bull.
Michelle Sanchez, of Connecticut, who was travelling 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 says 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.
“We laugh that this is the only job you can fall asleep in,” says PUP programme director Heidi Huebner as Rusty dozes 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 says, “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 two years old and have at least one year of experience working with a recognised dog-therapy organisation. 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 programmes.
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 programme 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 programme have assisted 50 airports around the United States in setting up similar programmes. These programmes have different names and, more importantly, 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.
The programme 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 demeanour and initiated discussions about the breed. Ellen Lee, who owns Coco, and Jena Williams, who owns Tucker, says that they like working in the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX 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 end children’s tantrums.
Miller says 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.