US airport calming nerves of fretful travellers with 'therapy dogs'

Fretful travellers
Even though it is proven statistically that flying is safer than driving on for miles, getting in an airplane still makes lots of people nervous.

Studies have shown that about 40 per cent of Americans express some fear of flying and 6.5 per cent have such an aversion to being airborne that the anxiety largely prevents them from ever getting on a plane.

Officials at Norman Y. Mineta International Airport in San Jose have taken a novel approach to making sure passengers are comfortable before hopping on their fights - a pack of therapy dogs fearful flyers can play with as a way to ease anxiety.

"The program was started just after 9/11 when a lot of travelers were extremely anxious about taking to the skies again," airport public information manager Rosemary Barnes said.

"We have a robust chaplain program and a lot of the chaplains had their own personal dogs they would take on strolls around the terminals," she said.

The effort has since grown to include 11 volunteers who walk their therapy dogs -- including a German Shepherd, miniature schnauzer and Bordeaux mastiff -- up and down the terminals a few hours a week.

The program runs on donations, which pay for the uniforms of the furry counselors: red vests covered in patches embroidered with slogans like "Pet me I'm friendly."

"We know from a whole body of research that blood rate, heart rate and respiratory rate decrease when a person interacts with an animal," Rebecca Johnson, researcher at the University of Missouri said.

Kyra Hubis, who runs the airport's therapy dogs program, said that the dogs in the program, all of whom wear bright red vests so they can be easily identified from across the terminal, have to be certified as therapy dogs and pass a test that "involves them being calm, cool and collected around walkers, wheelchairs and canes."

The concept of therapy dogs first started during World Word II, where they were used to lift the spirits of injured and sick soldiers. In the decades since, therapy dogs have been employed everywhere from high schools to convalescent homes.

Miami International Airport has a similar therapy dog program in place and Los Angeles International Airport is in the process of starting a therapy dog program of its own.

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