Airport Therapy Dogs Bring Comfort and Cheer to Stressed Travelers

Jan 31, 2018

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For travelers who love animals, “Thank God it’s Friday” has taken on a whole new meaning at LaGuardia Airport.

Since Thanksgiving Week 2017, the New York airport has partnered with Bideawee, a local animal welfare organization, to bring therapy dogs to the airport every Friday afternoon.

LGA’s Terminal B has been undergoing a $4 billion redesign since August 2017. It’s the first airport rebuild in the United States in more than 20 years — and while it will eventually help with the congestion at LGA, the ongoing construction has added chaos and stress for travelers.

In addition to the therapy dog program, the terminal’s operator and developer, LaGuardia Gateway Partners, has brought in live music as well as an improv and juggling crew called the “Fun Squad” to lighten the mood.

The therapy dogs are part of a “Comfort Crew”, where children (and adults who identify as children at heart) receive trading cards with the dog’s photo and name after a petting session.

“[The dogs] make the airport — especially this airport — more bearable and less LaGuardia-ish,” said Darlene Collins, a mother traveling to Canada with her three children. “If there’s a kid having a tantrum and they see a dog, they’ll snap out of it.”

Bideawee is a local nonprofit that trains pets and owners to serve the community through visits to nursing homes, schools — and airports. Owners of therapy dogs are known as handlers when on the job, and they are responsible for ensuring that the animal is comfortable and able to perform within the rigorous demands of an environment like LaGuardia.

LaGuardia is neither the first nor the only airport to embrace animal comfort for stressed travelers. Charleston International Airport (CHS) began welcoming therapy dogs around the same time LaGuardia implemented its program over Thanksgiving 2017. At Denver International Airport (DEN), therapy dogs are just one form of distraction for travelers: the airport also offers ice skating, goat yoga, and beer tasting from time to time. Since August 2017, Bradley International Airport (BDL) in Connecticut has partnered with Bright Spot Therapy Dogs to bring pooches and passengers together twice a week. Overseas, therapy dogs at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (BOM) have soothed travelers young and old since September 2015.

Therapy dogs who work in hectic environments like airports undergo a particularly rigorous screening to ensure they can handle the stress and distraction of the job. Bright Spot’s founder and executive director Cynthia Hinckley told Lonely Planet that Dan, the program specialist at Bradley, “meets with each new handler first, familiarizes him/her with the airport so the handler can determine if his/her dog will do well in this environment with the other dogs there working in security, and the growing number of dogs accompanying their owners on planes. It’s a busy, noisy environment not right for every dog.”

“Some therapy dogs do better in a quiet setting like a nursing home. If the handler feels it will work for him, the next session with Dan takes place with the handler and the dog where the teams demonstrate their skills in interacting with people in the public area of the airport. On a third session, Dan takes the team through security and down to the gates to mingle with travelers.”

Feature photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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