It’s almost time to board, but one passenger, a 30-year-old man traveling with his mother, isn’t nearly ready. In fact, he’s terrified, as only someone who’s truly afraid of flying can be. Collapsing on the floor near the departure gate at the Albany, New York, International Airport, he rocks back and forth, clutching his head.
That’s when Volunteer Ambassador Terry Brown spots him. And Brown isn’t alone. He’s accompanied by two Shetland sheepdogs: seven year-old Ziggy and eight year-old Jenna. They’re a godsend, because, as the young man’s mother explains to Brown, her son loves dogs.
Instructed by Brown to approach, the dogs begin licking the man’s face and hands. After 10 minutes, as he pets the dogs, his breathing returns to normal, the panic attack passes — and he’s ready to board.
It’s all in a day’s work for Ziggy and Jenna and the airport’s 21 other Canine Greeters, specially trained dogs that roam the terminals, greeting travelers and helping alleviate the many stresses of air travel, from long security lines to canceled flights to upset children.
The dogs range from a nine-pound Boston terrier to a 175-pound Newfoundland, and they can be found everywhere at the airport — in the concourses and the baggage areas, the military courtesy room, the observation deck — anywhere a traveler (or a crew member) might benefit from a moment with a friendly face and a wagging tail.
“At times,” says John A. O’Donnell, CEO of the Albany Airport Authority, “Air travel can be stressful; the dogs have a calming effect on our travelers.”
The program started almost by accident. “We had a dog who was on duty here with the Albany County Sheriff’s Department,” says Helen Chadderdon, who is the director for the Airport Volunteer Ambassador Program. “Mac would greet all the children and although he was a narcotics dog, he was most friendly and everybody loved him. Mac inspired our program.” Sadly, he died last year, at age 13.
“I then had a volunteer ambassador who was training Breck, a yellow Lab,” says Chadderdon. “Breck came in and was very friendly, and he became our first Canine Greeter!” Then came Sasha, Zelda, Praise, Renzo-Gideon, and Gemini. After that, as Chadderdon says, “Word got out, and we went from six to 23.”
Albany is one of several airports around the country that have introduced some version of Canine Greeters. LAX, for instance, calls its program Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUPs).
One harried traveler named Ralph was among the many charmed by the Albany airport program, so much so that he took the time to email Chadderdon, who is the airport’s marketing and concessions manager. Ralph wrote that, during a three-hour holiday season layover, “I had been diligently working on my laptop but stopped and watched the effect Elske and Elmo (two Newfoundlands) had on tens, if not hundreds, of people…Thanks to all of you for making my holiday more special, and thanks from the many, many who stopped to talk and pet these gentle souls and meet their masters.”
The “masters” in this case are the dogs’ handlers, part of a team of more than 130 volunteers in the airport’s Ambassador program, which was launched in 1995 to assist travelers on their journeys, pointing them to arrival and departure gates, baggage claim, and ticketing areas. They wear burgundy blazers and large lapel pins that read “I’m Here to Help.”
That’s the same pin each of the dogs wear. Most of them are AKC Good Citizens or accredited therapy dogs, and they are all hand-picked by Tim Fischer, the program’s evaluator and a former head of the New York State Police Canine Unit.
To participate in the program, dogs have to be well-groomed, healthy, stable, skilled, well-mannered, and able to work on a schedule. It goes without saying that a Canine Greeter needs to be comfortable in crowds, and shouldn’t be easily alarmed by loud noises. The handlers have to be sensitive to who might be afraid of dogs, or have allergies, or just plain not like to be around them.
Some of the canine greeters are even trained to provide a little preflight entertainment. Ziggy, for instance, entertains passengers by using his paws to count to 15. And Charley, a red Standard Poodle, says Chadderdon, “loves kids and can make any crying child smile!”
She adds, “Airport personnel love the dogs and know them by name. And the dogs love all the attention — what could be more rewarding than getting petted, eating treats, making everybody smile, and having your picture taken by weary travelers?”