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20 Surprising Things About Airport Therapy Animals

You're on your way to the airport and the heavy traffic makes you feel nervous that you'll miss your flight. You rush to check in your heavy luggage, and wait in a long line, only to realize your flight is delayed. You make it through another long line at security and finally, after putting on your shoes, you try and find your gate. You're stressed and it's only 8 a.m. Suddenly, once you find your gate, you see an older woman with a large dog wearing a vest that says, "Pet me." You walk over and smile, petting the friendly pup and you immediately feel a calm pass over you. These are airport therapy animals and you'll find them in over 30 airports across the U.S.

Therapy animals have been used in hospitals and nursing homes, so why not bring these furry friends to airports? An airport can be stressful and the hectic surroundings can have anyone on edge. That is why airports began to incorporate therapy animals to help ease passenger's fears and anxieties. From Los Angeles International Airport to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you'll be able to pet one of these animals before or after your flight, and even take a selfie with them.

Airport therapy dogs have become so beneficial to passengers that some airports have even brought in cats, a pig and even a mini horse! Before you encounter one of these therapy animals, check out these 20 surprising things about them that we didn't know.

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20 What Are Airport Therapy Animals?

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Introducing therapy animals at airports has become a great way to help passengers when they are feeling stressed, anxious or scared about flying or just dealing with the hectic commotion that comes with an airport. No one likes going to the airport, where you can expect delays, wait in long lines and have to rush to your gate when you get their late thanks to bumper to bumper traffic. These animals, which are mainly dogs, wear vests that read "Pet Me," which lets passengers know that they are free to come up to the animal, pet them, and share their own pet stories with the many volunteers that choose to participate in this wonderful idea.

19 Airport Therapy Animals Started In The U.S. After 9/11

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After the events of September 11, 2001, it was common for people to feel extremely uneasy when having to fly. The first three airports to have a therapy animal program were San Jose, Miami and Los Angeles. Los Angeles International Airport began with 30 teams (dog/handler) and quickly grew to over 50 teams. Therapy animals have been used in nursing homes, hospitals, assisting people with PTSD, and children with autism. These trained and certified animals are a great way to decrease anxiety and increase a sense of comfort and safety, which makes therapy animals perfect for airports and passengers who don't enjoy flying.

18 It Was Started By An Airport Pastor And Her Dog

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So how did therapy animals make their way to some of our airports? The airport therapy animals project got its start after 9/11, with California's San Jose International Airport welcoming these furry friends. An airport pastor actually started the concept when she brought her dog to work with her to help calm passengers and make them feel safe. After that, the program reached Miami and Los Angeles. Soon, many other airports followed suit, including, Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, Charlotte Douglass International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, Gerald R. Ford International Airport, and the busy LaGuardia Airport in New York City.

17 Therapy Animals That Work In Busy Airports Like LGA Undergo Rigorous Screening

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Not every dog can become an airport therapy animal. Dogs must go through therapy training courses to ensure that the noises, crowds and strangers approaching them will not be an issue. These dogs also walk all over the airport to get familiar with it and have confidence when they are at work. LaGuardia Airport and Los Angeles International Airport, which are two of the most hectic airports, have therapy dogs that are trained extensively so that they are used to the large crowds and millions of people flying every day. Don't forget these dogs are professionals and specially trained to help people by providing comfort and support.

16 Their Owners Must Also Go Through Extensive Background Checks

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Just like their pooches, owners must also go through backgrounds checks, security checks and rigorous screening before they can become a certified therapy dog volunteer. These dog/handler duos usually stay in one spot considered an area of "high stress," particularly in check-in areas or security. Teams can also be asked to visit gates when flights have been delayed so that passengers aren't feeling stressed or upset that they'll have to wait a little longer to get to where they are going. These handlers are also trained to be considerate of people with allergies or who do not like animals. If you see a therapy dog, you are welcomed to go up to it and get that puppy love you need if you're feeling scared about flying or having a rough day. These dogs will instantly put a smile on your face and are known to decrease anxiety.

15 Therapy Animals Are Not Service Animals

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Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs. According to the American Psychiatric Association, therapy dogs are personal pets of people who have had their canine certified or registered to help others improve their physical, social, emotional or cognitive function. These dogs work in many settings including hospitals, nursing homes, private practices and airports to help people deal with anxiety and stress. The presence of a dog can instantly create relief and help a person feel calm. A service dog lives with his or her owner who may have physical or emotional disabilities and helps with their daily living.

14 Therapy Dogs Help To Calm Passengers Before Or After A Flight

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According to the American Psychiatric Association, a therapy dog can help in a number of situations and "can create a safe point to start conversation and their nonjudgmental, accepting nature makes them good for this therapy role." Benefits of therapy dogs include, decrease anxiety, increased sense of comfort and safety, reduced loneliness, enhanced self-esteem and confidence, increased prosocial behaviors and decreased behavioral problems. The addition of therapy dogs in airports have helped passengers reduce their anxiety when a delay occurs and can brighten up a person's mood even if they aren't willing to pet the animal but instantly smile when they see one.

13 Therapy Dogs Come In All Sizes And Breeds

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Not all airport therapy dogs are large breed dogs. These pooches range from Chihuahua's, Cocker Spaniels, Rat Terriers, Golden Retrievers, Rottweiler’s and Great Danes and are all certified to help any passenger having a bad day. At Charlotte Douglass International Airport the CLT Canine Crew even welcomed a deaf Australian Shepherd who understands hand signals. All dogs are tested for non-aggression, how they behave and of course, if they are willing to be hugged and petted by strangers in a hectic airport. So if you love smaller dogs or get lucky and get to meet a 185-pound Leonberger named Chronis, there is a breed for everyone.

12 San Francisco International Airport Welcomed The World's First Therapy Pig

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With a growing list of therapy dogs at airports, San Francisco International Airport decided to change it up and introduce its passengers to the first therapy pig. LiLou, a spotted Juliana pig was the first pig to be certified in the Animal Assisted Therapy Program at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Just like airport therapy dogs, LiLou wears a vest that says, "Pet Me" and even performs a number of tricks, including greeting people with her snout and twirling and standing on her back hooves. LiLou's owner, Tatyana Danilova, loves the idea of bringing her pet pig to the airport to greet passengers. "It also brings positive emotions to me seeing that we can do something good for the community and bring more smiles in some unconventional way."

11 The Program Brings Strangers Together

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With passengers allowed to come up to these therapy animals on their own volition, they can easily strike up conversations about their own pets with the handlers and others around them, bringing strangers together and creating a sense of ease. Having a common bond creates a more relaxed atmosphere at the airport because of their interaction with the therapy animal. The most heartwarming bond is with the men and women leaving for deployment because being able to pet a dog can allow them to reminisce about their own beloved furry friend. Travelers immediately light up when they see a dog and volunteers want passengers to come up to their pooches so it will always make for great conversation.

10 You'll Find Minature Horses At Cincinnatti/Northern Kentucky International Airport

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Seeing a dog can instantly put a smile on anyone's face, young or old, but what if you spot a mini horse trotting around the airport? At Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, miniature horses bring calmness to passengers, and yes, you can pet them too. Just like therapy dogs, these miniature horses have also gone through extensive therapy training so that they are comfortable in an airport and being surrounded by strangers. Passengers coming through the airport love seeing the mini horses with their owner, Lisa Moad, stating that they tell her "that it made them feel much better, kind of calmed down, took a deep breath. A lot of them thank us for being there at that time because they needed that little bit of support before they get on the plane."

9 Cats Offer Cuddles, Too

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Not everyone is a fan of dogs; so a few airports have started bringing in therapy cats for passengers who are fans of these furry felines. It was only a matter of time that airports welcome cats and when Denver International Airport launched its airport therapy dog program in 2015, called Canine Airport Therapy Squad, they also welcomed their first non-canine member named Xeli (pronounced Zeelee), a therapy cat who enjoys getting pet by passengers and hanging out on her cat tree. "We know there are a lot of people who love cats just as much as people who love gods," airport spokeswoman Daria Serna stated, adding, "It will be great to have her on the concourse visiting people and making people smile. She loves to meet people."

8 Petting A Therapy Animal Can Decrease Tension And Has Health Benefits

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As we mentioned before, therapy animals have a lot of benefits for people who are feeling stressed or for those who are just under the weather. Even simply petting one of these airport therapy animals can decrease tension and release endorphins that produce a calming effect. Therapy animals have been trained to even help increase self-esteem, increase verbal communication and develop social skills. A passenger and a handler can interact with one another over the bond of a therapy dog, which can help both people with feeling comfortable around strangers and reduce anxiety. After 9/11, millions of people who fly were on edge, so these therapy animals have really helped passengers feel more pleasant at an airport.

7 Yes, You Can Take A Selfie With These Cute Animals

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When you approach these friendly pups, feel free to take a selfie with them! These dogs have been specially trained to be around strangers and be around a hectic environment, so they aren't scared or timid when you come up to pet them or give them belly rubs. Therapy dogs have had countless of hours of professional training and their handlers know them best, they are their owners, of course. Your friends will love seeing you cuddling up to a pup on social media and some of these therapy animals even have their own Instagram accounts, so feel free to tag your photos and share them with their owners!

6 Volunteers Admit Bringing Their Dogs Help Them As Well

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Airport therapy animals not only help those passengers who are feeling stressed about the entire flying process, but it also helps the pup's handlers, too. Maria Miller, who works as a volunteer with her dog Penelope, a Chihuahua-Jack Russell mix at Los Angeles International Airport said that working as a handler "feeds her personal fascination with airports and helps quell her fear of flying." Handlers and passengers even share special bonds with one another over pets, which is something that wouldn’t really happen between two strangers at an airport if a dog or other animals wasn't involved. Miller also added that the program also benefits Penelope, too. Becoming a airport therapy dog has helped Penelope build confidence because she was once a skittish shelter dog.

5 Travelers Are Saying Nothing But Great Things About The New Airport Additions

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Minnesota’s Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport debuted its Animal Ambassadors program in 2015, and the organization admits it's helped calm passengers before or after a flight. "Just as people soften with the smile of a stranger, dogs can lighten a heavy mood,” the organization's website stated. “Research shows that positive interactions with animals increase endorphins, oxytocin, prolactin and dopamine, the hormones associated with blood pressure regulation, pain relief, stress relief and joy." Who wouldn't want to feel stress free and get the chance to snuggle with a loving pup? Passengers have had nothing but fantastic experiences with these canines and we're sure many other airports will be incorporating these airport therapy dog programs as well.

4 The Program Has Helped Break Down Stereotypes

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Certain breeds of dogs have received a lot of negative attention, especially the pit bull breed. However, handlers Lillian and Chris DeGroof, who volunteer at LAX, have helped break down stereotypes since bringing their pit bull as a therapy dog for passengers. The couple stated that passengers have been pleasantly surprised with their dog's low-key demeanour and have had dozens of talks with passengers about their pup's breed. Handlers Ellen Lee and Jena Williams, who work in the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX work to curb "the canine biases," which is sometimes seen in less dog-friendly cultures.

3 Handlers Are Not Paid

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Being a handler of one of these airport therapy dogs seems like a fun gig, but remember, these are volunteers who spent their time training their own dogs and are not being paid to walk around the airport. Volunteers do go through extensive background checks and security checks, so not everyone can become one. Joel Schwartz, a handler at Lehigh Valley International Airport writes, "I travel almost an hour each way at my expense. The only things we receive for our time is a shirt, name tag, bandana for our dogs, a badge for security purposes and a place to park our vehicles." These handlers are also aware of passengers who might have allergies or just don't like dogs so they do not approach anyone. However, Schwartz added "passengers who do not want to see a dog is so minuscule."

2 You Can Find Airport Therapy Animals In More Than 30 Airports Across The U.S.

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Airport therapy dogs have become such a hit when the first programs emerged in airports like San Jose, Miami and Los Angeles, that dozens of other airports have taken notice and added their own therapy dog concepts. If you fly to any one of the airports that have therapy animals, you might encounter dogs of all breeds and sizes, cats, a pig, and even a couple of miniature horses, if you're lucky. These programs are scattered across U.S. airports, so if you see an animal wearing a "Pet Me" vest, feel free to enjoy a few minutes of bonding time to release that annoying airport stress.

1 Feel Free To Stop And Pet Any Of These Therapy Animals When You See One

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Even if you enjoy going to the airport, don't be afraid to go up to one of these therapy animals and enjoy a little bonding time with not only the dog but with their handler as well. Airport therapy animals have really brought strangers together. "We're often afraid to talk, or are on our devices, but with the dogs, people are sharing stories and photos of their own dogs, talking about where they're going. I never get tired of watching them. Sometimes my face hurts from smiling so much, watching them in action and listening to what passengers are saying," program director of Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP), Heidi Heubner shared.

References: psychiatry.org, usatoday.com, npr.org, healthline.com, durangoherald.com, lehighvalleylive.com, forsythwoman.com

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