Therapy Dogs Make Flying Friendlier

From designated yoga rooms to quick-service spas, airports are working to take some stress out of travel. Their newest amenity? Therapy dogs.

By | Posted: January 9, 2015, 8 a.m. PST

Of course, therapy dogs have been used in numerous other settings, such as nursing homes, hospitals, and schools. Yet their presence at airports is relatively new, and more airports are catching on to the trend.

Wag Brigade 
Courtesy San Francisco International Airport

Take, for instance, San Francisco International Airport, or SFO, which officially launched its Wag Brigade, currently a team of 20 dogs and their owners, in December 2013. "The Wag Brigade’s purpose is to enhance the overall passenger experience,” says Christopher Birch, SFO’s customer service manager. "Our therapy dogs add an undeniable element of surprise and excitement, and they’re making passenger travel more enjoyable.” In fact, some passengers who get anxious about flying have even requested the dogs’ schedule ahead of their flights, so they can interact with them prior to boarding.   

The participating dogs are evaluated and certified by the Animal Assisted Therapy program at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Each team is made up of volunteers, and is scheduled once a week for two hours maximum. Wearing custom vests that read "Pet me!” they circulate through two terminals and a post-security area. SFO plans to cap the program at 25 dogs to ensure that encountering the teams in the terminal remains a surprise-and-delight moment, Birch says. 

On the opposite coast in Florida, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, or FLL, had 14 dogs as of March in its FLL AmbassaDogs program, which officially kicked off in August 2013. Like the Wag Brigade, these dogs are found on the concourses behind security — and yes, dog and handler have to pass through Transportation Security Administration security — for two-hour periods. Each dog has her own business cards, which her handler gives to passengers in hopes they’ll provide feedback about their experience with that dog, says Felice Schneider, special projects coordinator for FLL.  

Not only do these dogs provide stress relief and comfort; their handlers answer general questions passengers may have, such as where they can find shuttle service or the nearest bathroom.

Dogs who want to participate in these programs must meet certain requirements. For instance, to be a FLL AmbassaDog, a dog must be registered or certified as a therapy dog and be current on vaccines. Each dog must also go through an evaluation and training process that introduces her to the airport environment. In addition, handlers have to undergo a criminal background check and fingerprinting, attend an airport orientation class, and take a computer-based learning class on security.

If your airport doesn’t currently have a program with which you can get involved, sit tight, as one may be coming your way soon. "These programs are simply too important to the flying public and should be at every airport in the United States,” Schneider says. 

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Cathy - 208485   Greendale, WI

1/14/2015 8:07:45 PM

Just read the article about therapy dogs and making flying friendlier. I think that this is so incredible. I can say that because I have a therapy dog who has been working 7 nursing homes, 2 hospitals, and a tutor at 2 local libraries. I can't say enough just how important these dogs are to their jobs as ambassadors of smiles, relaxation, lowering of blood pressure in high anxiety situations, etc..... the list is endless. I would like to know of any airport in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area if they are looking for a therapy dog to be part of this program in their facility. Please let me know
Cathy & Puzzle

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