PET ME! PET ME! PET ME! Airport Therapy Dogs

This is an easy answer for you dog lovers.   What the best thing about walking into your home? Your dog greeting you like you’ve been away for a month! Apologies to the rest of the family, but it’s the truth, right? They race to get to you as fast as they can. No one gets as excited as your dog when they see you again – after a few hours, a few days, or face it – just going to the mailbox. You came back! Dogs love us with their whole bodies – wagging tails, bodies, and slobbery kisses (if they can work those in). What happens to you? You smile, give them a rub, get down on their level and tell them hello.   Your blood pressure drops and those worries and aggravations just melt away. I bet you’re feeling better just thinking about it.

So what do airport therapy dogs do? Just re-read that first paragraph. Therapy dogs wearing ‘Pet Me’ vests serve travelers at 30+ airports in the United States. The concept started soon after 9/11 at the San Jose International Airport in California. In addition to the normal flight fears, travelers now had the fear of terrorism added to the list. Some of the other issues airline travelers face on a regular basis include:

  1. Fear of arriving late for their flight
  2. Fear of missing their flight
  3. Flight delays
  4. Missing connecting flights
  5. Fear of cancellations
  6. Standing in long lines for check-in and security
  7. Fear of flying in general

At the San Jose Airport, a volunteer airport chaplain brought in the first therapy dog. Orion, a certified therapy dog, was a Boxer/Great Dane mix and gets credit as the first of many airport therapy dogs.

These dogs go through therapy training to ensure that the airport noises, crowds and strangers approaching them that will be a part of their job are not an issue. They’re walked all over the airport to give them a sense of confidence working in that environment. Their volunteer handlers also go through rigorous screening, including background and security checks. Typically, the dog/handler team stays in one spot considered an area of high stress (check-in or security for instance). Teams may be requested to visit gates in the event of flight delays. Travelers are welcome to approach the team for some doggy-love. Strangers start up conversations quickly, talking about their dogs at home. That common bond creates a friendlier atmosphere simply due to interaction with a ‘pet me’ therapy dog. Dogs love the attention and travelers benefit from reduced stress. One of the most heart-warming moments for these teams is interacting with men and women leaving for deployment. Getting to pet a dog and reminisce about their pet makes for a special bonding.

The first three airports to have this type of program were San Jose, Miami and Los Angeles. Los Angeles started with 30 teams (dog/handler) and evolved over time to 52 volunteer teams.

The nearest airport in our area with an airport therapy dog program is Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Since March of 2015, the Canine Crew comprised of 15 teams have served travelers on a daily basis from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Since Charlotte is an American hub and 70 percent of the flights are connections, the stress level can be intense. To qualify as a Canine Crew, dogs are required to be certified as in-service therapy dogs with one year of experience. The dogs wear their ‘pet me’ vests and their handlers wear CLT Canine Crew t-shirts. Many of the dogs have baseball type ID cards with their names and favorite activities listed. Be on the lookout for these special greeters on your next visit to the Charlotte Airport.

These programs are volunteer-based with fairly unstructured schedules. Most teams work one day a week. Since dogs can get busy meeting and greeting quickly, schedules are usually not published; the teams may not get very far into the airport before they get to work. The dogs are good at signaling when their shift is over – although some may just need a nap to get ready for the next round. These dogs come in all shapes and sizes. They’d love to meet you and send you on your way with a smile on your face! Meeting and greeting is their job!