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Pet therapy takes off at Canadian airports

Dog handler Barb Olmstead and Kane, an eight-year-old Doberman Pinscher, meets with traveller Jemima Maluta at the Edmonton International Airport. The airport was the first in Canada to introduced therapy dogs to calm nervous travellers, and others have since followed.

Frazzled travellers get some canine help to calm their nerves

Unleash the hounds: Airport authorities are enrolling therapy dogs to help reduce travellers' travel anxieties, writes Marty Klinkenberg

Dressed in a green kerchief and batting his soft brown eyes, Kane ambled through the terminal at Edmonton International Airport this week. Distracted only once by the smell of doughnuts, the sweet-tempered Doberman posed for a picture with a preteen girl whose plane had just touched down and, minutes later, licked the face of a departing passenger.

"He sleeps on the couch and on the bed, and beneath the covers if you let him," says his owner and handler, Barb Olmstead. "I think Dobermans get a bad rap. His heart is as big as he is."

One of about a dozen canines employed as part of the airport's pet-therapy program, the Pinscher with pointy ears has been soothing the nerves of frazzled travellers in Edmonton for three years. In 2014, the airport became Canada's first to enlist the aid of four-legged ambassadors, an idea others have since embraced.

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Fort McMurray was the first to follow in April, 2015. Calgary unleashed a dozen dogs last spring, and now has a roster of nearly 40. Halifax, Regina, Saskatoon, Thunder Bay and Winnipeg have all let their dogs out. Vancouver is in the process of developing a pilot pet-therapy program and hopes to have it launched next year. San Francisco's airport just introduced its first therapy pig to travellers in December.

The program is based on the principal that pet therapy has proven to reduce people's blood pressure, and has a calming affect that alleviates pain and reduces stress.

"When people see them, they immediately start talking about the dog they left behind or a pet that has passed away," says Tyler MacAfee, director of communications and public affairs for the Winnipeg Airports Authority. "It reminds people of their animals, and brings back pleasant memories."

Besides Kane, Edmonton's team of popular pooches includes a beagle named Lola, black Labs named Gunner and Hope, a German short-haired pointer named Bunkers, a golden retriever named Gambler, a Havanese-poodle cross named Cherri, a Kerry blue terrier named Morgan, a pit bull named Kai, a Siberian husky named Flint, an Australian shepherd named Loki, and a disabled Shih Tzu mix named Nash, who is pushed along in a stroller by his owner.

"He is especially appealing to kids and people in wheelchairs," says Sarah Cox, the manager of passenger experience at Edmonton's airport.

Barb Olmstead walks through Edmonton’s airport with therapy dog Kane.

The airport has at least one therapy dog on hand seven days a week for a few hours, and adds more on busy travel days. A larger contingent will patrol the concourses over Easter weekend, when as many as 25,000 passengers are expected each day.

"The dogs have made a big difference," Ms. Cox says. "People e-mail me and offer to pay to have one here when they arrive, but we can't make special appointments. The dogs are for everyone."

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Ms. Cox says Edmonton borrowed the idea from airports in the United States that enrolled dogs to appease passengers who had become fearful of flying after the terrorist acts of 9/11.

"The first time we tried it, we decided to take a dog for a little walk just to see what would happen," she says. "It took us about 45 minutes to go 25 feet. We would walk a few steps and stop and be surrounded.

"We realized then that it was appealing to people. From there, it just took off."

All the dogs and their volunteer handlers receive hours of training from the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta. They are taught not to approach passengers unless invited, but once an invitation has been extended, petting is encouraged.

Once, a passenger who had just lost his dog dropped to the floor and buried his face in a golden retriever named Boomer.

"It was very moving," Ms. Cox says.

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Another time, Kane began tugging his leash in the direction of a man waiting for a flight.

"Kane went right over to him and pressed his nose against his leg," Ms. Olmstead says. "It turned out that he was a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress [disorder]. It was almost like Kane knew."

Therapy dog Kane, an 8-year-old Doberman Pinscher.

Ms. Cox says the dogs helped comfort passengers following the fires last May in Fort McMurray. Teams were called to the airport to greet some of the evacuees.

"A lot of them had lost their dogs, or had to leave them to be looked after by someone else," Ms. Cox says. "It meant a lot to them to be able to cuddle with a dog."

The dogs are so popular that trading cards have been created and are handed out at an information booth at the arrival level at Edmonton International Airport. A pet therapy wall of fame, with each dog's picture, has also been established beside the KLM counter on the departure level.

"Kane is a superstar," Ms. Olmstead says.

Mischievous when he was a puppy, Kane is now eight years old and mild-mannered. Between greeting travellers, he quietly coils up at Ms. Olmstead's feet. At home, when he is not chasing a ball, he curls up on the sofa.

"He was a chewer as a puppy," Ms. Olsmtead says. "I don't know how many books and pairs of shoes he went through.

"Now he is just a big baby."


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