Therapy Dogs at Airports: Who’s a Good Flyer?

dog travel. Jack Russell Terrier is lying and playing in a suitcase. collect things
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Key Points

  • Therapy dogs at airports are dogs that help anxious or stressed people who are traveling.

  • There are currently 37 airports that have therapy dog programs in the United States.

  • Dog handlers encourage travelers to pet the therapy dogs at the airports.

  • Service dogs and therapy dogs are not the same.

  • If you want to become a therapy dog handler, you and your pet have to pass the requirements.

Generally speaking, the airport is not a peaceful place. You're stressed out, rushing around as security yells at you to take everything out of your bags and get your shoes off. Then, there is a maze of terminals you have to navigate to get to your gate. Throw in the time crunch and it's no wonder your armpits are sweaty! Overall, the airport is stressful, even for the most level-headed people.

Sure, it is an exciting time but for many people, all the stress heightens anxieties. Those emotions make traveling a dreadful experience. Yes, heading to the airport bar and dropping $17 on a tiny cocktail is tempting but seeking out the therapy dogs at airports is far more fun.

If you are lucky enough to encounter an airport therapy dog, then you have hit the jackpot. These dogs are there to help ease your travel anxieties.

Airport therapy dog plays with children in play room

What Are Airport Dogs?

It is likely that you’ve seen security dogs at the airport, but you are not allowed to pet those dogs. They are doing an important job of keeping everyone safe. However, airport therapy dogs are a different story. Not only are you allowed to pet them, but dog handlers encourage you to!

Therapy dogs are dogs trained to help people de-stress. Research has found time and time again that simply petting a dog lowers the stress hormone cortisol. Interacting with a dog increases the hormone oxytocin, which is the feel-good hormone.

The increase in understanding of helping passengers destress triggered the emergence of these dogs. Currently, 37 airports across the country have therapy dogs on duty. With numbers steadily growing the frequency of these dogs has grown.

The Emergence

Therapy dogs emerged after the 9/11 terror attack. The goal of these dogs was to help flyers who were understandably uncomfortable and nervous about their flights calm down. The first airport that introduced these animals was the San Jose International Airport. The first dog that started this, Orion, changed how airports saw therapy dogs. After seeing the benefits that Orion offered, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) followed suit.

LAX started its own therapy dog program called the LAX Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program. It is the largest in the country with 121 therapy dogs and over 5,200 volunteer hours logged in 2019. The pandemic slowed down the need for therapy dogs but as airports get up to speed more and more dogs are showing up.

Where Are These Therapy Dogs?

This is the tricky part. Finding them isn’t as easy as looking up a database and seeing what times they are there. Before the pandemic, it was possible to find them there almost daily. All the airport therapy dogs are there on volunteer bases. Back in 2020, there was an abundance of these dogs across the United States. After suspending the programs during the pandemic, though, those numbers went down.

Googling the name of the airport you are at and seeing if the program exists is a great start. Some airports have a whole social media page dedicated to their programs. These pages often pinpoint where to locate the team that day and how long their dogs are on duty. When in doubt, ask the airport staff if they know if there is a program there.

Airports With Therapy Dogs

Lucky for you the places that have therapy dogs are fairly large. Now, you won’t find them in the smaller airports, as right now they do not have the program available. If you are traveling you are likely to find a therapy dog at an international airport. With so many people coming in and out of these places it became clear that stress levels are high.

Especially during the early stages of opening up the airports during a pandemic, it was clear that traveling often wasn’t for a fun reason. People were going back home after not being able to for months, travelers were saying goodbye for the last time, and overall the feeling at the airport was heavy. As of 2023, there are 37 airports with therapy dog programs up and running.

Dog wears sunglasses and stands next to pet suitcase

How Often Are the Dogs There?

Since these programs rely on volunteers, there is no promise that dogs there are going to be there that day. Some airports only have these dogs weekly or even monthly.

For those lucky people traveling through North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport, these dogs are almost always there between 10 am and 4 pm. Look for the dogs with the blue vets that say “Pet Me!” on them. You'll find the teams scattered throughout the airport to reach the maximum amount of people possible. If you are lucky, you might find Max the Great Dane. Max loves his job and takes it seriously. He’s big but that just means there is more love to give!

Petting the Puppy

You just so happen to be in luck no matter who you are. Young, old, solo, business, and all other kinds of travelers are welcome to pet the puppy! There isn’t one kind of travel that would benefit greater from petting an airport therapy dog than another.

Tara Hoover, the leader of the Pittsburgh International Airport therapy dog program Pups Alleviating Worry and Stress, has reported that she’d seen adults lie on the floor for better petting access. She also has seen elderly fliers come over to take a selfie with her dog Juno before a flight.

Hoover has seen the change just petting a dog makes in her time working the program. She has had passengers tell her that they no longer needed to take an anxiety medication, like Xanax, before flying because they were so soothed by spending time with Juno.

Airport therapy dog plays with children in play area

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The dogs are also a big hit with kids. Kids are often overjoyed to pet a dog in a place you typically wouldn’t find a dog. Sure, you are going to see service dogs, but you are not allowed to pet them most of the time. A therapy dog though is a magical experience for the young and old alike.

These dogs aren’t just limited to helping the passengers on these plans though. The dogs that are a part of this program are just as therapeutic for the airport staff. Working in an airport is no easy task, and these dogs provide a small break in the chaos for many.

At the Denver International Airport you may notice that there is something a little different happening. Their therapy dog program is ironically called Canine Airport Therapy Squad and has one unique member. There is a therapy cat on staff that walks around on a leash for those who are more of a cat person than a dog person.

No matter the program, stop and give one of these dogs a pet if you see them. Maybe you don’t feel stressed, but petting a dog before a flight is a great way to start your travels.

Difference Between Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs

Dogs have been man’s best friend since ancient times. They have done everything from hunting with their humans to protecting their humans. Most dogs now are simply there to provide their humans love and affection, but there are a select few who do more. Service dogs, working dogs, therapy dogs, and even emotional support dogs all fulfill important roles in helping their two-legged companions.

What Do Service Dogs Do?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that service dogs must have training to perform specific tasks and work with people with disabilities. Some common jobs that you may be familiar with are guide dogs that assist in navigating the world to those with visual impairments, signal dogs that alert the deaf to sounds, service dogs that help their owners in wheelchairs do basic tasks that their owner can’t do, and even dogs that detect seizures before they happen.

The ADA classes these dogs as medical equipment. This means service dogs go places where animals are typically forbidden. Places like restaurants, stores, libraries, and other public places allow service dogs to enter. An owner of a service dog is not restricted from a place that won’t allow dogs, like apartments.

These dogs are an extension of their owners. They not only help their owners live a better quality of life, but often these dogs are the difference between life and death.

Airport therapy dog sniffs a passenger's suitcase

What Is a Therapy Dog?

Unlike service dogs, these dogs aren’t trained to live with a specific handler. These dogs, with their human teammate, volunteer in clinical settings, schools, nursing homes, libraries, and even airports to provide comfort, affection, and love to the people there. Service dogs go through intense training to do the task they provide. Therapy dogs are not trained as intensely. The training that a therapy dog goes through is your typical obedience training.

Now, training isn’t enough. A therapy dog must be calm and unfazed by unfamiliar noises and movements. They also need to be comfortable with handling and touching by a variety of different people.

Do Therapy Dogs Have Legal Rights?

The ADA mandates that service dogs have full public access. Denying that goes against the law and requires a hefty fine. However, therapy dogs do not fall under the same protections that the ADA provides service dogs.

Therapy dogs do not have the same legal rights to access public spaces. They do not have uniforms, though many have found that a vest with the words “Pet Me!” is beneficial to the program. Different organizations have different guidelines on uniforms, rules, and training that their therapy dogs must have.

As a general rule, any therapy dog under an organization needs training, insurance, and licensing by the non-profit that’s offering its services.

Therapy Dog Certification

Any dogs you encounter at the airport have all received certification and insurance from the therapy dog organization they are a part of. They are safe to pet, play with, and meet.

Getting certified isn’t the only requirement for the program though. Each dog, and in one case cat, have to walk through the airport before starting as a therapy dog. This ensures that they are able to handle the bustling environment without reacting. If that goes well, then their owner would then go through a security and background check. If you see a therapy dog in the airport rest assured that they and their owners are carefully vetted and are safe.

Airport therapy dogs plays with passengers

Popular Therapy Dog Breeds

Now that you know more about these amazing dogs, what about those who want to become one? Is every dog allowed? Well, just because your dog gives you unconditional love, that doesn’t necessarily qualify them as a good fit for therapy work. Likewise, just because you are an empathetic person, you might not be ideal for a therapy dog team.

Many organizations do not allow puppies under a year old to be therapy dogs. Puppies are still growing and learning how to be a dog. While it is great socialization, there are risks. Puppies need all their vaccinations and they need to go through training. Overall, it is just safer for a puppy not to be a therapy dog.

From there, many organizations require dogs to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen test for obedience. Even service dogs have to take this test. Your dog also needs to have a therapy certification that affirms that they are friendly and good around people.

Other than that, age and breed don’t really matter. Everything from a four-pound terrier to a Great Dane. Truthfully, as long as your dog passes the requirements, and listens to you, then there is nothing stopping your pet from becoming a therapy dog. Most dogs love to work, and this is just another way they find enrichment and joy.

Dog looks at airplane resting on paper map

Would You Make a Good Therapy Dog Handler?

Training a therapy dog is an amazing way to get new experiences for you and your dog. The world opens up for you as a pair, and you get to help your community. Sometimes you have to be in unforeseen roles. When you go to different locations, you may be the only person they are interacting with that isn’t part of a team they see all the time.

You have to understand that it is hard work. Connecting with people who need therapy animals is natural. Ensure that you are in a good mental headspace before starting. While you are often able to decide where you work with your therapy dog, keep in mind your likes and dislikes. If you don’t love children then look into working with the elderly. If you and your dog love various kinds of people, then working in an airport is sure to be right up your alley.

Declaring Your Love of Dogs at Customs

Therapy dogs are these amazing animals that easily impact lives. If you are one of the lucky few that find a therapy dog in the airport, don’t hesitate to go give them a pet. They are there to make your travels easier by just being cute.

If you don’t see a therapy dog at your airport, don’t give up hope just yet. Therapy dog programs are growing quickly and you never know if your airport is next on the list.

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