Stress of traveling eased by ATL therapy dogs

Filed in News by on December 3, 2014
Therapy dogs were a big hit over the holidays

Therapy dogs were a big hit over the holidays

Over the holidays, nearly a dozen trained therapy dogs will be visiting the domestic terminal atrium at Hartsfield-Jackson to provide aid and comfort to weary and anxious travelers.

If the pilot program goes well through the end of the month, hounds could become a regular sight around the airport. Until then, volunteers will CAREing Paws, a local animal therapy group, will do their best to help sooth flyers’ jitters.

The project began when CAREing Paws organizer Melissa Saul contacted ATL Chaplain Chester Cook, who put her in touch with Department of Aviation Customer Service Manager Tracy Gilbert.

“I know this program works in other airports, such as LAX and Miami,” says Rev. Cook. “Travelers respond positively to animals. For many people, petting a dog can help alleviate anxiety.”

After insurance, legal and other practical hurdles had been cleared, the dog handlers ‑ and their dogs – went through an orientation process to ensure that everyone was able to handle the bustle of the world’s busiest airport.

The dogs first appeared at the DOA’s tree-lighting ceremony on Nov. 25 and were an immediate hit with travelers. They returned the following Sunday and plan to come back on weekends and evenings – the easiest times for the handlers, who are all volunteers.

“We had people who were actually rolling around on the floor playing with the dogs,” says Saul. “We had several people who’d missed flights or had issues with flying tell us that it really helped calm them down to be able to visit with our dogs.”

CAREing Paws – whose name includes an acronym that stands for “canines assisting rehabilitation and education” – also visits schools, senior centers, hospitals and other places where people can use a bit of cheering up. The group even helps Georgia Tech students chill out during final exam week.

CAREing Paws’ dogs are all licensed therapy animals, which are not to be confused with assistance dogs that help disabled people or service dogs used for emotional support, explains Saul. Those animals are devoted to helping one person, their owner, whereas therapy dogs have the temperament and training to deal with large groups of people, most of whom are strangers.

Saul says she and her fellow volunteers hope their airport visits can continue after the holidays.

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