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Dogs wear ‘pet me’ vests at airport hoping to relieve your stress

Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUPs) volunteer Brian Valente, left, with his dog, Finn, greet the Bloom family with their 13-month-old son, Jacob, at the Los Angeles International Airport terminal. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

As someone who could never own a dog – Andrew Walsh thinks a new program being implemented at U.S. airports is a great idea.

Just because he would never own one, doesn’t mean he doesn’t love them – despite some childhood fears. “I grew up terrified of dogs, terrified of every kind of dog, even the tiniest of dogs,” Walsh said on KIRO Radio’s Curley & Walsh Show.

Now, he’s someone that loves dogs so much he’ll use them to get out of awkward small talk at neighborhood barbeques. He also sees himself chasing down dogs in the airport.

No he’s not running after drug sniffing dogs. These are stress relieving dogs. These dogs are looking for people who need a buddy, a belly to rub or a paw to shake.

“His job is to be touched,” volunteer Kyra Hubis said about Henry James, her 5-year-old golden retriever that works a few hours a week at the San Jose airport. “I am just standing there with him. They are talking to him. If I need to answer for him, I do. But I am at the end of his leash, he’s not at the end of mine.”

The dogs are intended to take the stress out of travel – the crowds, long lines and terrorism concerns.

You never know why people are flying, said Heidi Huebner, director of volunteers at LAX, which launched Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUPs) in April. Travelers might be in town for a vacation, a funeral, to visit a sick family member or to attend a business meeting.

“You can literally feel the stress levels drop, people start smiling, strangers start talking to each other and everybody walks away feeling really, really good,” Huebner said.

Dogs have to be healthy, skilled, stable, well-mannered and able to work on a slack 4-foot leash, said Billie Smith, executive director of Wyoming-based Therapy Dogs, Inc., which certifies the LAX animals. They have to be comfortable with crowds, sounds, smells – and they need to pass through security like all airport workers.

Handlers are taught to watch for people who fear or dislike dogs or those who might have allergies. In most cases, people approach the dogs, identifiable by the vests or bandannas they wear.

The program is in operation at Los Angeles International Airport, Mineta San Jose International Airport, and Miami International Airport. No word yet if such a program is possible at Sea-Tac.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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