A day with the dogs of LAX's Pets Unstressing Passengers program.
All photos by the author
It is an indisputable fact of modern life that dogs are good and airports are bad. There’s nothing Los Angeles likes more, though, than bringing the good and the bad together (see also: paleo donuts, Will Ferrell and Mel Gibson in Daddy’s Home 2, etc.). It makes a certain kind of sense, then, that the Pets Unstressing Passengers program (PUP), in which dogs don scarlet “Pet Me!” vests and hang out in airports comforting stressed-out passengers, was launched at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in 2013.
When I arrived at the PUP offices last Saturday, the volunteer pets of the hour—two Labrador retrievers, Ryu and Echo, and a portly French bulldog named Pierre—were snoozing under a table. The table was laden with stacks of trading cards displaying photos of the 72 dogs associated with the program, as well as their “statistics” (“Best reward: Belly rubs!”, “Favorite treat: Chicken!”).
"Kids go nuts for the cards," PUP program director Heidi Huebner told me as she and her three human volunteers grasped their dogs’ leashes and set off toward LAX Terminal 5. Huebner’s program is the first to bring dogs into airports for the express purpose of calming down fliers whose nerves have been frayed by lost luggage, long layovers, missed connections, and, of course, the increasingly present fear of harm; the PUP program’s dogs were in particularly high demand following the 2013 shooting at LAX that killed a TSA officer and injured several others, Huebner recalled.
The dogs were on call as thousands of Angelenos flocked to LAX in January to protest the Trump administration’s travel ban, and they have comforted traumatized travelers in the wake of national tragedies: “People light up when they see the dogs, and their minds go to a different place,” said PUP volunteer Naomi Jost, bending to scratch her dog Echo’s ear.
The PUP program requires that all its dogs be registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. The dogs come in all breeds and sizes, and their shifts—which mostly consist of being petted with varying degrees of tenderness—tend to last about two hours, just long enough to tire them out (as pictured below).
Police dogs are the animals most commonly associated with airports, but there’s a strict non-fraternization policy in place for K9 dogs and PUP volunteer pets. "The K9 dogs are at the airport to work, so we make sure to keep them separated,” said Huebner. (At this point, I had to restrain myself from muttering into my tape recorder, “Script idea: a 2017 Lady and the Tramp reboot where a drug dog and a therapy dog fall in love against all odds.”)
PUP dogs certainly generate more delight than their badge-wearing counterparts. Watching Pierre, Ryu and Echo waddle through the arrivals hall was something like witnessing the Beatles on their first US tour. Hyper kids and exhausted parents alike ceased bickering, yawning, and texting and ran to the dogs, wearing identical expressions of wonder.
AT one point, a young woman fell to her knees and began repeatedly cooing "I love you" directly into Ryu’s mouth.
“That was the best moment of my life, I’m gonna go now,” she called over her shoulder as she disentangled herself, beaming, from the dog’s embrace.
Although the PUP dogs are meant to “un-stress” fliers, the level of excitement they unleash in some children doesn’t exactly seem to alleviate stress for parents. Upon witnessing Pierre and Echo engage in the ancient canine ritual of booping snoots, Sebastian, a one-year-old Catalonian boy in a Mickey Mouse shirt, let out a primal scream that lasted a full minute.
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“He loves dogs,” sighed Sebastian’s mother wearily, watching her small son vibrate with the kind of manic joy normally unleashed only by a family size bag of Pixy Stix (or a medium-to-high dose of Ritalin.)
As we made our way through the terminal, Pierre started nosing in the direction of a tall, bandana-clad man leaning against a pillar. The man immediately stooped to pat Pierre, revealing the unmistakable countenance of 80s TV icon Mr. T.
“Even Mr. T like dogs,” laughed the former A-Team star as he hoisted Pierre into his arms, emitting the kind of high-pitched sounds people tend to make when they cradle bulldogs.
“Wow, they’re amazing,” Mr. T marveled as Ryu and Echo sidled up to him. “I’ve heard about this program, but this is my first time seeing y’all.” As Mr. T bid adieu to his new canine devotees, whispers began to circulate among PUP program volunteers and the assembled crowd about celebrities they’d previously seen at LAX; one person had spotted Jeff Goldblum in coach on a flight to Boston, and another had caught a glimpse of Kelly Ripa at an in-terminal Starbucks.
As their moment in the limelight began to fade, Echo, Pierre and Ryu let out a harmony of yawns and curled up on the carpet of the terminal floor, seemingly soothed by the ambient noise of celebrity gossip around them— they are LA dogs, after all.
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