When Joanna Matson and her even-keeled Cavalier King Charles spaniel Melinda arrived at the Sacramento International Airport on Friday, the first thing she did was look at the digital displays for delayed flights.
“Okay, gates 19 and 20 have been waiting for more than an hour,” she said to fellow dog handler Rose Margolis.
“Well here come the relaxation corps!” Margolis replied, rallying her huge but young and frisky golden retriever, Sunny.
Sacramento International is the newest of about 30 airports across the country partnering with volunteer therapy dogs and their handlers in an effort to improve travelers’ experience.
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It doesn’t matter the size or the breed. What matters is that they enjoy being petted and are interested in people, lots of different kinds of people.
Kathy Prendergast, BARC team member, about qualities of a good therapy dog
Airport officials expect the animals that make up the Boarding Area Relaxation Corps – which yields the adorable acronym BARC – will help relax passengers and make wait times go by faster.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said passenger Kate Carney, who visited with Sunny while she waited for her flight home to Portland. “People have a certain amount of anxiety about flying and dogs are kind of natural therapists so I think it’s great.”
Research has shown that interaction with therapy animals can reduce stress and lower blood pressure. Even if travelers didn’t pet the dogs, passengers’ faces generally lit up when they saw the animals.
“It makes me happy” said Christie Koets, 26, who said she wished there was a program like BARC at the airport in Denver, where she was headed.
There are now 21 airport-approved BARC teams. The organization is trying to have teams at the airport two or three times per week at each of the terminals and more often as it recruits more volunteers.
“People are here for something they can’t really hold or take away with them, they’re just trying to get from one place to another,” said Laurie Slothower, the airport’s communication officer, who along with a colleague presented the idea to officials after reading about similar programs in other airports. “This is a great way to add something positive to their experience.”
Apart from vests for the dogs that say “pet me” and a few extra hours of staff time per week to administer the program, BARC isn’t costing the airport a dime.
The dogs are made available by volunteers with the Lend a Heart organization, which also deploys teams to hospitals, nursing homes and schools around finals or other areas and times of high anxiety.
Several teams were dispatched to evacuation zones to comfort victims of the Butte fire, which raged across more than 70,000 acres of the area earlier this week.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Randi Scott, who was supervising Lend a Heart teams Wednesday at the Rancheria hotel in Jackson. “People would sit on the ground and let the dogs come up on their laps. Everyone had their own story, they lost their dog or it’s being sheltered somewhere else. Our dogs brought a few smiles and a little bit of happiness back into their lives.”
Lend a Heart’s therapy dogs go through an evaluation and training process that usually takes a few months to complete. The dogs are matched with assignments based on factors like their age and temperament.
Kathy Prendergast, 66, is a BARC team member and helped organize the program for the airport.
She became a member of Lend a Heart 10 years ago when she realized her retired guide dog Hoyte wasn’t quite ready to retire. Hoyte has since died but Prendergast continues to volunteer with her 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever Nikira. A friend connected Prendergast with Nikira when – at age 2 – it was clear that the dog would be too playful to become a successful guide dog.
“This is a good career switch for her,” Prendergast said. “She loves therapy work, and she loves the airport.”
Prendergast explained that Nikira was not as well-suited for nursing home visits, for example, because she might even fall asleep in such a slow and quiet atmosphere.
In addition to Lend a Heart’s standard training and evaluation, airport-approved dogs have to be assessed as being able to focus despite the venue’s elevators, noise and other working dogs such as security canines.
Prendergast says the bottom line for a suitable therapy dog is that they should enjoy meeting people.
“It doesn’t matter the size or the breed. Even some pit bulls have been wonderful therapy dogs,” she said. “What matters is that they enjoy being petted and are interested in people, lots of different kinds of people.”
Lend a Heart volunteers range from high school students to retirees and are paid in the currency of compassion.
“Sometimes it’s almost selfish,” Prendergast said. “One of our pet handlers met the wife of a fire chief. She gave reports of people coming in, wrapping their arms around the dogs and just crying. We come away with the good feeling that we’ve helped somebody.”
Lend a Heart president Kim Robinson said there’s a waiting list of 45 facilities for their therapy dogs, so she’s hoping the organization can expand. They have minimal expenses that include paying for vests and insurance for training and storage facilities. Most of that is covered by donations through their website, but they are recruiting volunteers.
Mariam Baksh: 916-321-1673, firstname.lastname@example.org, @MariamBaksh
Dog owners who want to volunteer their time and their pets can register for Lend a Heart’s Oct. 17 orientation at lendaheart.org.