The newest way to calm pre-flight jitters isn’t dabbing on essential oil or assuming the Shavasana pose in the TSA lane. It’s Grace — an 8-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever.
Grace is one of a dozen therapy dogs participating in Paws for Passengers, a program at the Asheville Regional Airport in Fletcher. Formally launched in July, the initiative recruits canines to take the edge off flying for nervous passengers.
“Research suggests that pets reduce anxiety and have a happy effect,” says Tina Kinsey with the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority. Bonding reduces loneliness and is also known to lower blood pressure and produce endorphins. These good vibes are especially important in an airport, where stress tends to fester. Besides the universal fear — roaring six miles above the earth in a fallible metal bird — today’s logistical questions compound the hassle: What if my flight is delayed and I miss my connection? What if security confiscates my shampoo because it’s not in the right-sized bottle? How much can a carry-on weigh?
It’s an unfamiliar process for newcomers, says Kinsey. But even savvy travelers can be put off by long waits and short layovers, not to mention the ever-sobering threat of terrorism in a post-9/11 America.
“It can be overwhelming,” agrees Barbara Gregory. Gregory adopted Grace, a puppy afflicted with hip dysplasia, from a Henderson County breeder a few years ago. “She had this gentle, joyful personality,” says Gregory. “I call her my wonderful, marvelous lickologist. She’s always happy and wagging her tail.”
Gregory took such joy in Grace that she wanted to share her with the community. So she contacted the Henderson County Animal Shelter and consulted with an onsite Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) tester/observer. T/Os, as they’re called, screen dogs to see if they’re a good fit for therapy work. The process begins with a basic test designed to ascertain the dog’s ability to handle a variety of situations (such as encountering other dogs, passing up food on command, interacting with agitated passersby, allowing strangers to give pretty enthusiastic hugs). Should the pup pass, she must then undergo three supervised visits to public spaces during which T/Os watch for friendly, well-mannered behavior. They also observe the handler’s ability to control the dog.
There’s no other formal training besides obedience school, says Paul Howey, founder of Fur Kidz Sake: Pet Therapy for All Ages. He and his wife Trish own Jelly, a nine-year-old, 85-pound Siberian Husky/Golden Retriever mix. They’re certified through Pet Partners, an organization similar to ATD. According to Paul, who’s worked in pet therapy for 15 years, dogs don’t need to be oriented on sitting quietly by someone’s bedside or comforting a hyper-caffeinated executive.
Successful visits just require that handlers select the right dog for the job. Which means active pups should work alongside kids and college students and calmer canines are better suited to the elderly and very young children.
Luckily, Jelly is versatile. “We found him on the country road where we live,” says Paul. “He was about ten weeks old at the time.” Being an older dog now, Jelly does well in all sorts of environments. He “reads” with elementary schoolers and plays volleyball at rehab centers (spiking with his wet nose). He’s also started volunteering at the airport. Besides guiding him toward stressed travelers, Jelly’s humans provide the program with nationally tested and registered pet-therapy teams.
“All teams on the Paws for Passengers program are shadowed for one to two hours so that he/she can see the dog teams in action,” says Paul. Seeing puppies in terminals is unconventional, most airport staff admit, but not unprecedented. After 9/11, California’s Mineta San José International Airport enlisted a boxer-Great Dane mix named Orion to assuage passengers’ pre-flight nerves.
Canine counseling was adopted at other airports; it’s since evolved to include additional four-legged species, even potbelly pigs like LiLou at the San Francisco International Airport.
All this left David King, guest-services supervisor at Asheville Regional, feeling inspired. “I heard about pet therapy in airports maybe two years ago,” says King. “It’s just spread by word of mouth since.”
But pet therapy’s uptick in popularity has given way to some big misconceptions. For one, people confuse therapy pets with service animals. “Which is wrong,” says Gregory. Service animals are necessary to an owner’s functioning, whether physically or psychologically — they can be trained to get the mail, assist in dressing, guide the disoriented, and search a room for panic triggers, among dozens of other jobs. Therapy pets are just there for comfort (at airports, they do not actually board the plane).
Still, the effect of pet therapy shouldn’t be undervalued. To keep her ATD membership active, Grace must make regular rounds at Pardee Hospital. She’s like a four-legged candy striper, dropping by patient rooms for a quick pat and belly rub. And though she visits schools, retirement facilities, and even funerals, this is her first go at an airport.
“It’s a different environment,” says Gregory. “There is lots of rushing and frustration.” Despite the bustle, Grace remains collected in high-energy atmospheres. (Well, besides her thumping tail and a little drool.) “People breathe a little easier when they see Grace,” Gregory continues. “She brightens their day.”
According to King, Grace and her four-legged co-workers will be stationed at airport hotspots — baggage claim, terminals, TSA security lines — in the early morning and late afternoon. Outfitted in uniforms emblazoned with “Pet Me,” the pups are there to lend an ear for scratching and a paw for shaking. And to look cute while doing it.
“A pet-friendly atmosphere is reflective of our region,” says Kinsey. “Our goal is to bring what makes Western North Carolina special into the airport.”
The Asheville Regional Airport is located at 61 Terminal Drive in Fletcher. For more information about their Paws for Passengers program, see flyavl.com. Visit furkidzsake.org to learn more about Paul Howey’s organization, Fur Kidz Sake: Pet Therapy for All Ages.