Edmonton International Airport’s Pet Therapy Program an Instant Success
The year 2018 was the busiest ever at the Edmonton International Airport (EIA). More than 8.2 million passengers flew in and out of the bustling hub, and it’s safe to say not all of them were on their way to sunny family vacations or blissful romantic getaways. Harried executives use air transport to get to crucial meetings. Mourning family members fly to faraway funerals or to visit loved ones who are ill. And even in the happiest of circumstances, getting through today’s airport procedures can be a stressful and exhausting experience.
That’s where the dogs of the pet therapy team at EIA come in.
Back in the spring of 2014, manager of passenger experience Sarah Cox was at home watching TV, when a story about pet therapy at Los Angeles International Airport caught her eye. Watching frazzled passengers laugh and smile as they hugged and petted the animals, she wondered, “Why don’t we do that here?”
Not one to waste time, she reached out to Lori Goodwin, then director of the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta, which brings dogs and their handlers into a variety of organizations. Goodwin was immediately interested. Within days, sweet-natured husky malamute Cotton— under the watchful eye of owner Janice— was recruited for a trial run, wandering the boarding lounges to offer up free snuggles.
“As soon as that dog put on his pet-therapy vest, we only managed to walk about 15 feet in 20 minutes,” recalls Cox. “I knew immediately this would be a hit.”
With Cotton blazing the trail, in just a few weeks there were 10 dog-handler teams, with statuesque Doberman pinschers, golden retrievers and a fluffy little Havanese all bringing joy to stressed-out travellers. Those numbers remain the same today, except during busy holiday periods when the airport brings in reinforcements to meet demand.
“You think it’s going to be all kids that want to pet the dog, but it appeals to everyone,” says Cox. She’s seen men in business suits drop everything to kneel down for a canine cuddle. In the first week of the program, she watched as a middle-aged woman on her way to a funeral curl up with a pitbull, shedding tears over the mother she had lost the night before. There is a dog at the airport every day of the week, usually in shifts of about three to five hours — these hard-working pups need their rest, after all. When on the job, they can usually be found in the boarding lounges. Because all the dog teams are volunteers, the program costs next to nothing. The airport needs only cover parking costs for the handlers and supply them with T-shirts, says Cox.
It takes a special kind of dog with a special kind of training to be a therapy animal, says Pet Therapy Society volunteer coordinator Barb Olmstead. The dog must be naturally calm, good with people of all ages and backgrounds and impervious to sudden noises or overstimulation. “Studies have shown that animals help calm people and lower their blood pressure,” says Olmstead, but sometimes it takes a little coaxing to bring out those calming traits.
“We prescreen dogs for obedience,” says Olmstead. “If they pass the pre-screen, we temperament-test them.” Dogs and their handlers do a weekend of training and a test, then practicums in six different facilities. The airport is one of the most demanding settings, says Olmstead.
EIA was the first Canadian airport to introduce pet therapy, and Cox has since made it her mission to spread the word. Her 2015 presentation at a conference in Kelowna encouraged airports across the country to implement similar programs. “Hook your wagon to a society that’s doing this and it will change your airport,” she told conference attendees.
Airports in Fort McMurray, Vancouver, Kelowna and Montreal have since started their own pet therapy programs, with more on the way.
All that’s missing at EIA now, says Cox, are the tools to bring even more joy to passengers. “We’re always looking for more (therapy-dog) teams. If we had constant teams all day and all evening, that would be wonderful.”
“Airports can be such a stressful environment. It’s such a nice grounding experience to meet a dog. They give unconditional love.”
Join the team
If you and your pup would like to be part of the EIA team, get in touch with the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta at firstname.lastname@example.org
The society offers information evenings for dog owners interested in becoming volunteers, not just at the airport but in a variety of other settings.
By Sasha Roeder Mah
Photography Cooper & O’hara