Anxious fliers traveling out of Long Beach Airport, and dog enthusiasts in general, will now have access to therapy dogs after an inaugural class of pups received official vests at a ceremony behind the historic terminal building Wednesday morning. In total, nine dogs will be working at the airport going forward to comfort passengers who may be suffering from travel anxiety.
The dogs and their volunteer-humans will work in shifts at the airport in an attempt to avoid overlapping. There will be one to two dogs per day working the concourse on the lookout for passengers to pet them, an airport spokesperson said. They’ll likely be at the airport during the busiest times of the day to maximize opportunities for human interaction.
They will come in all sizes and breeds. There’s Cleo Rose, an 8-year-old golden retriever and Coco the 11-year-old standard poodle. Then there’s Rudi, a Chihuahua/terrier mix who loves watermelon and naps, but his owner said “he’s all business once he puts on his vest.”
The dogs will all don blue vests while on duty, with STARS printed on their backs along with each dog’s name.
Dale Worsham, an administrative officer at the airport, served as the emcee for the vesting ceremony, taking time to introduce each dog and their human volunteer. Worsham said that the airport is a unique environment where excitement and nerves can intersect. There are flights to catch, connections to make and loved ones to reunite with, Worsham said.
“Traveling for a lot of people can be very, very stressful so we did some research and we found that that a way to reduce stress is a furry friend,” Worsham said. “Simply saying hi, petting a dog, will reduce a person’s stress and make them more relaxed. That is why we have a therapy dog program at airports.”
The program at Long Beach is known as STARS, an acronym for Simple Therapy and Real Smiles. Each dog is part of The Go Team, a Colorado-based non-profit that helps pair handler/dog teams with airports but also other settings like libraries, schools and hospitals.
Each dog’s handler also had to pass the same kind of TSA security background checks that airport employees undergo to have access to the terminal areas.
By initiating the STARS program at Long Beach Airport, the city joins a host of other airports across the country that allow therapy animals to work on site.
Los Angeles International Airport started its PUP (Pets Unstressing Passengers) program in 2013. Airports in San Jose, San Francisco, Phoenix, Denver and Miami also have similar programs.
Bringing a program to Long Beach was presented by former Long Beach airport advisory commissioner Phil Ramsdale who is friends with Jan Hextell, whose Australian Labradoodle, Bella, received her vest Wednesday.
Ramsdale said he was approached by Hextell about bringing a therapy dog program to the airport about a year ago. Ramsdale thought the program was a good way to make the airport friendlier so he pushed forward with it and started preliminary talks to make it happen.
“Jan did the pilot and prototyped it [STARS],” Ramsdale said. “I followed her around one day and it was really a lot of fun to watch the interaction of the people with the dogs.”
He added that while the dogs are well-trained, they’re still dogs.
“People drop a lot of stuff on the floor here,” Ramsdale said. “It’s kind of hard to keep the dogs from scooping up a french fry.”
Hextell, with Bella by her side, said that she was pleased with the opportunity to give back to the community.
“What I hear the most from people is ‘You made my day,’” Hextell said. “Whether it’s an ATS that’s going on duty or a person with anxiety, that’s the mantra: Made my day.”
After the vesting ceremony the dogs were led out onto the concourse where they got to interact with travelers for the first time. Jake Bennington, who was traveling home to Utah, paused so his toddler could pet Harmony, a 2-year-old lemon beagle who is now part of the STARS program.
“It’s a good idea,” Bennington said. “My cousin just flew for the first time in her whole life a few months ago. She was scared, for 40 years, to fly. But she loves dogs, so if she had something like this, it would make it a little easier for her.”
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