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Airports + Therapy Dogs= Happiness

Flying can be stressful, even for people who enjoy it. And not all trips are happy occasions; some might involve leaving behind someone you care about, going to a funeral or visiting a sick relative. Imagine, in the middle of all of a stressful moment during your travels, you lock eyes with a friendly dog whose vest exclaims “Pet Me!” You approach the dog, who comes right up to you and allows you to pet their soft fur. You can almost feel your stress melt away for a moment and walk away a little calmer. This isn’t just an exercise in imagination, it is a reality thanks to Asheville Regional Airport’s Paws for Passengers program. This popular program invites certified therapy dogs into the airport to simply provide support to passengers. 

 

Therapy Dogs in Airports

As of September of 2023, there were at least 76 airports in the US with therapy dog programs. The airports with these programs are located all over the country and range in size from larger airports like DEN, ATL and LAX to smaller regional airports like AVL. All the programs have different names, uniforms and sizes (for example DEN has 90+ animals in their program), and have the same goal of providing comfort to passengers.

Therapy dog programs in airports have been written about by major publications like The Washington Post, USA Today and Los Angeles Times. AVL’s Paws for Passengers was even featured in an article by NC Health News and a segment on Now This  News!

 

Paws for Passengers

AVL’s Paws for Passengers program began in July of 2017. The program has grown from a start with 9 volunteers, to today’s 28 teams! The program has been a hit since its inception, especially events like the airport’s annual Valentine’s Day Smooches from Pooches “kissing booth.” 

In the fall of 2023 AVL had the opportunity to revamp the uniforms, and the change was made from yellow to blue custom-made vests for both the dogs and their humans. The vests state “Pet Me!” in large letters to make people aware that these are not service dogs, but instead therapy dogs that you are welcome to interact with. 

2023 also saw the debut of more events, like the Paws Lemonade Stand, the Red, White and Paws Hotdog Stand and the Paws Pooches Pumpkin Patch. Events featured custom-made signage, décor and lots of candy. Many of the Paws dogs will come in costumes or festive apparel for various holidays and events. 

Custom matching uniforms aren’t the only cool thing about AVL’s therapy dogs; each ambassa-dog has their own custom trading card that includes their picture, name and fun stats. The Paws program also has its own website page and LCDs in the terminal, including a featured “Pup of the Week.” 

 

Our Teams

AVL has 28 teams in all shapes and sizes. The dogs range in age from 2-14 years old. There are 14 different breeds of dogs in the program plus many mixed-breeds and the dogs’ sizes range from 10.5 pounds to 145 pounds! One thing they all have in common is a lot of training. All of the dogs in the program have taken classes and are registered with a reputable therapy dog organization like the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. They have undergone special training in order to be able to safely function in busy public spaces and interact with all types of people. There are rules and procedures that they follow in order to ensure that everyone has a safe and pleasant time. 

The humans in the program also come from a variety of backgrounds. Our members vary in age, vocation and how long they have been therapy dog handlers, but the one thing they have in common is their love of sharing joy with people through their beloved dogs. 

The pooches in our program have a variety of skills and interests outside of their work. Many of them can do tricks, and some do activities like agility. There are even some award-winning show dogs among the Paws members!  A lot of them also volunteer other places in the community like hospitals, libraries, nursing homes and schools. 

 

The Science 

While it is fun to have dogs roaming the airport and offering cuddles, there is actually scientific evidence for the benefits of therapy animals. Therapy dogs have frequently been used in hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare settings, but businesses are starting to see the benefits of using therapy dogs in other public settings. 

There has been research that has shown the benefits of therapy dogs, which includes decreased stress and pain, as well as an elevation of endorphins like oxytocin and dopamine. You never know what someone in an airport is dealing with in their personal life. Therapy dogs can lend some comfort to those who are having a difficult time, are stressed out or just miss their own dog. 

 

Watch For Our Dogs in Teal

The next time you are flying through AVL, keep an eye out for friendly people and dogs in the blue vests that proclaim, “Pet Me!” They will be happy to take a moment to talk and share some well-deserved dog cuddles. Even when everything goes smoothly, travel can be stressful; and things don’t always go smoothly. And it’s not just flying through AVL that offers chance encounters with therapy dogs. There are many other airports across the country with the programs, so you might be lucky and get to interact with therapy dogs in multiple locations on your next trip!