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Coming To An Airport Near You: Fluffy Stress Relief

Therapy dogs Barney (rear) and Hazel are on the job comforting weary travelers at LAX.
Gloria Hillard
Therapy dogs Barney (rear) and Hazel are on the job comforting weary travelers at LAX.

Summer travel is in full swing, and that means crowded airports, flight delays and long security lines. To help calm weary travelers, some airports are turning to man's best friend.

San Jose's and Miami's international airports have therapy dog programs, and Los Angeles International Airport — ranked the second-most-stressful airport in the country last year — launched its own crew of comfort dogs this year.

After passengers clear the TSA checkpoint — put belongings in plastic bins, empty their pockets, take off their shoes and then snatch everything back up — they are met by greeters such as Hazel, a red-and-white pointer mix.

One by one, passengers look up from their laptops and smartphones, with huge smiles on their faces.

Barry Bollinger bends down to say hello to the dog leaning against his knee.

"I have a dog at home and and so I miss her a lot when I'm not there. ...It's kind of nice to have one that you can pet and say hi to," he says.

This is its own reward for Hazel's owner, Lou Friedman.

"When I hear passengers say, 'You made my day, took all the stress away, thank you very much for doing this' — can't ask for anything else. It's wonderful; it's wonderful," he says.

Friedman and his rescue dog are part of a new volunteer program at LAX called PUPS — Pets Unstressing Passengers.

To be a part of the program the dogs have to be certified therapy animals. They work in small shifts, two teams at a time.

A Line You Actually Want To Wait In

Volunteer Linda Scott says she's been taking Barney, her Australian Labradoodle rescue, to homes and hospitals for a couple of years. The airport is a new experience for both of them.

"If there's a big crowd and I sit and watch him, he actually will work the crowd, and go up to everybody and just want to say hi," Scott says.

The reactions are worth it, says Heidi Huebner, the director of volunteer programs at the airport. "You can just see the reactions of people. That's anybody — passengers, employees here, TSA agents, everybody smiles," she says.

Hazel takes a short break after passengers board their plane.
Gloria Hillard / NPR
Hazel takes a short break after passengers board their plane.

Huebner says the teams are trained to be aware of and sensitive to passengers who may be fearful or have allergies. "Basically it is acknowledging, thanking the person for letting them know and they take the dog and go the other way," she says.

But typically, passengers are waiting in line to make contact with the dogs. A small crowd looks on as Hazel gets a belly rub from Rich Merwin's three young children.

"We're on a seven-hour delay and we still got a few hours left so, it did help, yes," says Merwin.

Not surprisingly, some of the program's biggest fans are the flight crews. Delta pilot Jeff Strachan is watching Barney at the department gate. "I'm thinking that Barney should go with us, [and] not only do I think Barney, but this other one too," he says.

When the passengers board the plane, Barney and Hazel have completed their shift. Barney plops on the floor and Hazel climbs into an empty chair, laying her head on the armrest.

But suddenly — she perks up again.

Traveler Bonnie Vasconcellos approaches Hazel. Having spent the last 20 hours in the airport, she says all she needed was to hug a dog. "Things will be OK, it's all good now," she says.

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Gloria Hillard