Pre-Flight Checklist: Pet a Dog
So what happens if you combine the two — bring the stress-relieving dog to the stress-inducing airport? “Something really special,” said Colm Marmion, customer relations coordinator for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which oversees a pet therapy program called Ready, Pet, Go in partnership with Travelers Aid Society of San Diego and Therapy Dogs, Inc.
Introduced a year and a half ago and inspired by similar programs in operation at dozens of airports across the country, Ready, Pet, Go sends therapy dogs to amble around San Diego International Airport under the joint guidance of a volunteer handler and an airport ambassador. The dogs wear green vests emblazoned with “Pet Me” to distinguish them from guide dogs and to make clear that they are safe to approach and ready to dispense and receive affection.
“Once one person finds out, you end up with a group of people that come over. Everybody’s almost sitting on the ground with the dogs — young travelers, old travelers,” Marmion said. “The handlers do a great job of working the crowd.”
The young especially get a kick out of the experience. “A lot of kids love to pet dogs, but these days you don’t know if it’s a working dog or not,” Marmion said. “But with our program, they are encouraged to pet. And they’re very appreciative of that.”
Marmion often takes part as an airport ambassador and has seen evidence of the program’s success firsthand. “There was one instance where a gentleman gave the dog a huge hug and then he shared with us that he had just lost his dog. So this was the best thing, being able to spend two or three minutes just holding the dog.”
It’s not just airport visitors who appreciate the interaction. “We didn’t think the employees would take advantage of it, but they certainly are,” Marmion said. “Everybody from the TSA pets the dogs after coming through the checkpoint. They need some stress relief, too.”
The dogs are a variety of breeds and chosen from a certified pet therapy organization, Therapy Dogs, Inc. “The handlers bring them out to the airport with an airport ambassador and they’ll test the waters and see if it’s a good fit for them. Some dogs like the airport environment; for others, it’s just a little too much. So the handler really knows their animal best so they are able to determine if it’s a good fit for them.”
The dogs roam the airport multiple times a week in shifts that last up to about an hour and a half, depending on how tired they become. They routinely connect with about 200 people per shift, and so far there have been no negative incidents with the dogs, Marmion said. “They’re very docile,” he said. “They’ll come up and just lean up against you and put their paw out and nudge you a little bit. They’re really great.” Plans to expand the program are in the works, he added.
Reaction to Ready, Pet, Go, he said, has been nothing but positive. “People are surprised about the program, but they really do think it’s a great idea — especially in this environment. An airport can be a stressful experience, so if we can de-stress them and make them feel comfortable through our facility then we are doing a good job.”
By Kendal Patterson
Follow Kendal at @kendalpatterson
Photos courtesy of San Diego International Airport