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Pet Therapy Takes Flight: An Interview with Heidi Huebner

Between flight delays and cancellations, lost luggage, and jet lag, traveling by airplane can be quite stressful.  Airports tend to be filled with nonstop commotion and many anxious people, but, thanks to Heidi Huebner and the Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program, travelers at Los Angeles International Airports (LAX) have the opportunity to receive some much needed pet therapy.

PUP's Director of Volunteers Heidi HuebnerPUP's Director of Volunteers Heidi HuebnerThe PUP Program

Always finding stray animals and bringing them home, Huebner developed her passion for animals at a young age.  After a career in the entertainment industry, she decided to turn this passion for animals into a career.  She started the nonprofit Kids and Pets which provided humane education for children.  Then, she took on the role of Director of Volunteers for Los Angeles Animal Services where she oversaw the volunteers at Los Angeles’ six city animal shelters.  Huebner’s roles in these positions coupled with her background and connections in the animal industry prepared her to take on the task of creating a whole new type of program involving animals: LAX’s PUP program.

After an individual in upper management at LAX heard about Mineta San Jose International Airport’s therapy dog program, she decided that a similar program should be implemented at LAX.  Through a referral, Huebner found herself in the position to create what officially rolled out as the PUP program on April 15, 2013.  Two years later, PUP is the largest of the 27 therapy animal programs that are based in airports across the nation.  The program consists of 33 volunteer handlers and 31 therapy dogs who work throughout the week in the LAX terminals to provide some much needed relaxation and smiles to travelers.

The Therapy Teams

The dogs that work in the PUP program are privately owned by their handlers must be at least two years old with at least one year of experience in therapy work.  All breeds are welcome which gives people the opportunity to meet a variety of dogs and helps break down some of the stereotypes concerning the “bully breeds.”  Additionally, PUP provides a chance to start a conversation about dogs and encourage animal rescue. 

“It’s not a requirement, but the majority of the dogs are rescues which I love,” said Huebner.
 
Before joining PUP, the dogs must also be registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.  Registration requires that the dogs pass an extensive obedience test, exhibit a friendly and calm demeanor, and work well with their handlers.  The dogs complete a therapy walk through and make at least two hospital visits before joining PUP.  Huebner believes that it is essential to not only focus on the dog’s training but also focus on the dog’s personality.  A therapy dog in an airport must be able to tolerate lots of commotion, loud noises, and hundreds of people frantically rushing by.  If the handler completes a meet-and-greet with PUP at the airport and still believes that his or her dog is a good fit for the program, he or she receives some training in order to prepare to work as a PUP handler. PUP volunteer handlers and therapy dogsPUP volunteer handlers and therapy dogs

The handler must be outgoing and comfortable engaging in conversation with travelers.  They must also complete classroom and in-terminal training that familiarizes them with LAX and educates them enough to answer general questions that travelers may have.  The handler also learns how to handle a situation where someone may be allergic to dogs and need the team to leave the area immediately.  Additionally, the handler is responsible for the safety of the human-animal interactions and wants to keep the dog from being overwhelmed by the large group of people that may be surrounding him.  The handler must be aware of the fact that people are walking from all directions and drinks and personal belongings may be on the floor where the dog could knock them over.  Once the handler is prepared to begin volunteering, he or she is fingerprinted and receives a badge that allows him or her to enter the terminals.

As a therapy team, the dogs and handlers work in unison to foster the human-animal bond throughout LAX.  Each team volunteers at least once per week for a one to two hour period in a specific terminal.  This arrangement means that there is at least one team volunteering each day during the week and often multiple teams volunteering on the weekends.

Leaving an Impact on Travelers

After rushing through security and finding the proper gate, travelers are often stressed and anxious while waiting a few hours for their flight to depart.  This is where the PUP teams come in.  They roam throughout the gated area past security, stopping to receive hugs, pats, and lots of smiles.

“I will never get tired of watching people’s reactions,” said Huebner.  “My face hurts from smiling so much as I watch the dogs making people so happy.”

When people approach the dogs, they are immediately happy and feel a sense of relief from all of the anxiety associated with travel.  One story that exemplifies the amazing impact that a therapy dog can have includes an overwhelmed businessman.  The man’s wife approached a PUP team and asked if her husband could spend some time with the dog because he was very angry and stressed out and needed something to calm him down.  When the man and dog were united, the man embraced the dog and spent 20 minutes with his arms wrapped around dog’s neck.  Upon letting go of the dog, the tension and redness had left his face.  He announced that he felt much better and that this interaction with the dog had probably saved him from having a stroke.  

Young travelers enjoy spending time with the therapy dogsYoung travelers enjoy spending time with the therapy dogsWhile many people benefit from actually making physical contact with the dogs, Huebner is amazed by the impact that the dogs have even on those who simply watch.  She has no idea how many people are benefited through PUP because everyone who sees the dogs experiences some sort of relaxation and happiness.

“You can see people get enjoyment from watching as other people get enjoyment while petting a dog,” said Huebner.

Inspiring Other Airports

Because of the results of the PUP program, Huebner has presented to 80 airports and explained her goal to inspire all of the other airports across the United States to create similar programs.  With LAX as a role model, 27 airports have taken the format of PUP and tweaked it to make it work for them.  However, Huebner realizes that every airport is different and that not all upper management is as supportive as the individuals at LAX.

Along with helping bring therapy animal programs to airports nationwide, Huebner hopes that PUP will grow to include at least 35 dogs by the conclusion of 2015.  She also aims to increase community involvement by partnering with community groups, attending events, and providing education about dogs and PUP to those in the Los Angeles area. 
  
Huebner is proud of the success of PUP thus far and looks forward to the day when therapy dogs are as commonplace in airports as Starbucks, moving walkways, and restless travelers.

For more information about LAX’s PUP program, visit their website, email Heidi Huebner, or call (424)646-8471.

  1. Air travel
  2. Flight
  3. therapy animals
  4. Tourism and travel
  5. volunteers

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