Patti Anderson and her cairn terrier, Ballad, were among the original volunteers in 2015 for the Animal Ambassadors program at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “The first day we were here, one of the first people that came through was a woman who had just buried her younger brother out west,” says Anderson. “I saw her coming and she looked stressed. I started to ask her, ‘Would you like to pet a dog?,’ but I didn’t even get that out. This elegantly dressed businesswoman fell on the floor on her knees, and she started sobbing.”Anderson says the woman stopped crying after about five minutes. She stayed for half an hour talking about her brother. “It was really powerful.”
Janna Webster, executive director of the Airport Foundation MSP, had been working with the Animal Humane Society. “When I read that [the Los Angeles airport] had started a pet therapy program, I said, ‘we have to have that here.’”
The airport works with volunteers who bring in their own dogs. Both human and furry volunteers are trained and certified as teams, and also go through an orientation process at the airport. “The dogs are trained on how to interact with people, and they go through socialization trainings,” Webster says. “The things they have not experienced are walking on terrazzo floors, moving walkways, the tram, going through security. So that’s a big part of the onboarding process, seeing if they can do it. Some of them can’t.”
Not all passengers are equally happy about seeing therapy dogs. “We decided early on that since different cultures have different reactions to dogs, we are not stationing animals on the G concourse, where most of our international arrivals come in,” says Webster. “We also have a policy that people approach the dogs — the dogs don’t approach the people.”
Different than service animals, these therapy dogs stay within the confines of the airport and do not travel with passengers. The airport is considering adding other services.
“We are getting requests for people who want dogs to meet them at the gates,” says Webster. “If there are people in crisis getting on flights, now they know we have this program. We get calls like, ‘my son is autistic and this is his first time flying, and he’s calm around dogs.’”
Kathi Atha, another volunteer, comes with her English Cream Golden Retriever. The dog, Zoe, was originally a retirement project for Alta and her husband. “We do this regularly,” says Alta. “Zoe came almost 100 times last year. She greeted over 20,000 people. There are a lot of things dogs can do that are special — hospice, nursing homes, schools — but this is more fun.”