Therapy Dogs Ease Passenger Stress At Most Major Canadian Airports

You may just encounter one this holiday season, if you're lucky.

Ralf went through extensive training and a rigorous screening process before he was approved for his job last year. He has to follow a strict code of conduct and undergo security protocol. His colleagues know that he takes his job seriously.

Ralf is a seven-year-old Alaskan malemute, and he’s one of five therapy dogs who regularly volunteer at the Saskatoon International Airport.

Ralf, an Alaskan malamute, with passengers at the Saskatoon International Airport.
Ralf, an Alaskan malamute, with passengers at the Saskatoon International Airport.

At 157 pounds, Ralf is no small pooch. “When he walks down the terminal, you can’t miss him,” Jackie Porter, the airport’s manager of customer and terminal services, told HuffPost Canada. But according to his handler, Matthias Harkness, Ralf is “a real gentleman.”

He’s even made friends with another therapy dog, a young Australian shepherd named Rowyan who looks like a much smaller version of him. Sometimes, Porter says, the two of them will work together and people will do a double take: “Did Ralf shrink?”

Ralf with his "mini-me," Rowyan.
Ralf with his "mini-me," Rowyan.

Therapy dogs meant to ease stress are becoming something of a staple at Canadian airports. The practice started at the Edmonton International Airport in 2015, and quickly grew in popularity. Officials in Edmonton now advise other airports on their pet therapy programs. There are now therapy dogs at airports in Fort McMurray, Alta., Calgary, Halifax, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Thunder Bay, Ont., Regina, Toronto, and Saskatoon, to name a few.

Airports are often places of high stress. Nervous flyers, tight deadlines, delayed flights, and enclosed spaces generally make for an anxious environment — even without the added stress of the holidays.

How dogs help

Therapy dogs “act as a calming mechanism, and this has a physiological and psychological effect on people,” UBC Okanagan professor John-Tyler Binfet told Huffpost Canada. (He’s also director of the school’s dog therapy program, Building Academic Retention through K9s — also known, of course, by the acronym BARK.)

Part of the reason they’re helpful, Binfet said, is traced back to the “biophilia hypothesis” — the idea that humans are intrinsically pulled towards the natural world.

“The airport situation is stressful, and we’re drawn innately to spend time with nature, and dogs provide this opportunity in a desert of nature where it’s all metal and plastic and furniture and stuff,” he said. “The dogs are this refreshing, soothing comfort.”

All dogs have handlers who volunteer their time, Porter explained. The Saskatoon International Airport, where she works, partners with St. John’s Ambulance. Because the therapy dog program runs on a volunteer basis, there aren’t set times when dogs will be there, but the airports encourage people to try to come at busy travel times.

A therapy dog with a young passenger at the Vancouver International Airport.
A therapy dog with a young passenger at the Vancouver International Airport.

Dog memories are still fresh, years later

It’s been three years since John Chidley-Hill encountered a therapy dog at an airport, but he still remembers the experience in vivid detail. He was travelling back to Toronto from Swift Current, Sask., which started with a three-hour bus ride to Regina early in the morning.

“I wouldn’t describe myself as a nervous flyer, but it was a long day,” he told HuffPost Canada. He had been covering the Women’s Curling World Championships in Swift Current, Sask., as a sports reporter the previous two weeks, and was travelling with competitors from Italy and Switzerland who had days of travel ahead of them.

“It was definitely a weary business traveller mood in the airport, until Butterscotch arrived,” he said.

Butterscotch was a little Scottish terrier wearing a red vest emblazoned with the words “Therapy Dog.”

“Honestly, it was the cutest dog I’ve ever seen,” he said, adding that Butterscotch affected the atmosphere in the airport. “Strangers were conversing about Butterscotch. It really lightened the mood.”

Butterscotch the terrier, at the Regina Airport.
Butterscotch the terrier, at the Regina Airport.

One thing Chidley-Hill remembers about Butterscotch was the dog’s sense of purpose, he said, explaining that the dog moved efficiently through the X-ray machine and through the security gates, as if he understood the whole process.

“He would go up to each person, stop, and look expectantly to see if he was going to get pet, and then Butterscotch would move on if the person wasn’t interested.”

Chidley-Hill spent five or ten minutes petting and playing with the dog before Butterscotch moved on to someone else.

“Everyone got excited, there was a real palpable sense of happiness wherever Butterscotch went,” he said.

Sweet doggos can seek out people who need them

Not everyone likes dogs, of course, but the canines are trained to move on if they’re near someone who isn’t interested. But sometimes the therapy pets can actually identify the people who really do need help, said Peggy Blacklock, manager of guest experiences at the Calgary International Airport.

The airport has a roster of almost 50 therapy dogs (and one cat!), and they often identify people in mourning, or people with severe anxiety, Blacklock told HuffPost Canada. The airport even produced a video about one of their therapy dogs, Murray, who found his way to a passenger whose daughter had recently died.

UBC prof Binfet said it takes a specific kind of dog to work at an airport, which can be a high-stress environment for canines, too. “You can’t just throw a dog therapy team that’s worked in a quiet hospital setting into an airport,” he said. “You can’t have traveller stress reduced at the expense of the dogs who experience stress because all these people are rushing up to them.”

It’s important to consider the dogs’ needs too, he explained. “It sounds a bit Oprah-fied, but we’re always asking: does the dog want to do this work?”

The stress of the airport is part of why therapy dogs go through such extensive screening, Blacklock said. The Calgary airport’s dogs also have shifts that usually last 90 minutes, but are dependent on the dogs themselves.

Generally, though, she said “the dogs love what they do.”

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