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Toronto Toronto’s Pearson Airport enlists the help of therapy dogs to help passengers with anxiety

Molly, a Golden Retriever and part of the Less Airport Stress Initiative (LASI), relaxes with visitors at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on Aug. 22, 2017.

Rafal Gerszak/For The Globe and Mail

Toronto Pearson International Airport has established a dog-therapy program at three pre-security terminals to help quell the fears some travellers may experience with flying, after the success of dog therapy programs at airports across Canada.

“You should see the looks on people’s faces ... [The dogs] make them feel comfortable, they alleviate stress, and they bring enjoyment to people,” said Suzanne Gayle, manager of the airport’s program, which is run by volunteers who come weekly.

On Wednesday, the first day of the program, 15 volunteer teams from St. John Ambulance began wandering the airport in two-hour intervals and encouraged passengers to meet and greet the dogs, she said. Each handler wears a blue vest with the words “Welcome Team,” while the dogs wear a red and white bandana around their necks.

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The program at Pearson furthers a trend that airports in Vancouver, Halifax and Edmonton have recently embraced. Jason Colterman, the community services manager for St. John Ambulance in Toronto, said he established Pearson’s program after he’d talked with organizers of similar programs across the country.

Justin Cleveland, who works for St. John Ambulance in Nova Scotia, said the dog therapy program at the Halifax airport has been thriving since 2015 with the help of a rigorous program that trains dogs to interact sensitively with people. Reg Krake, the director of customer care at the Vancouver airport said that its program has been running smoothly since its initial trial period, in 2016.

One woman suffered extreme anxiety at the gate after having been through security, he said. When she met one of the program’s dogs she “burst into tears” and spent the next 20 minutes with it, before mustering the courage to take her flight, said Mr. Krake.

Norman, a Newfoundland dog and part of the Less Airport Stress Initiative (LASI), has his photo taken with a visitor at Vancouver International Airport.

Rafal Gerszak/For The Globe and Mail

Animal therapy has been adopted at other institutions, such as retirement homes, hospitals and universities, to help people cope with stress, fear and medical recovery. Recent studies reveal that when humans engage with pets, they can experience a boost in oxytocin, the hormone associated with love and social bonding.

Two studies from 2012, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, discovered that participants were more self-confident and goal-oriented when a pet was in the room with them, and had lower blood pressure when completing a stressful task they’d been given.

Mr. Colterman acknowledged some travellers may experience crippling fear while flying. “The dog doesn’t go in the plane with you, so it may not solve that entire fear, but it does give you something else to think about while you’re flying,” he said.

He also said the program has run into challenges. Currently, the dogs and handlers in Toronto are only stationed at pre-security areas because it’s difficult to move them through the security system, though he hopes they’ll be able to do so later in the year. “Food-driven” dogs may also be attracted to travellers with open food, he added, and it’s up to the handlers to control their pets.

Comments on a Reddit post show that not everyone is excited, and one expressed fear at the prospect of encountering an animal at the airport. Facebook users noted travellers may have animal allergies, while some foreigners may be fearful of dogs due to their cultural backgrounds.

Ms. Gayle said the owners are mindful of the concerns some travellers may have about the dogs, and will always ask whether a traveller is comfortable with the dog before approaching.

“Our handlers will not approach anybody who they see is not interested,” she said.

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