Recently, I was flying across the country and was finding the experience rather stressful. The security line was on high alert and people were grumpy. When I arrived at the end of my first leg and entered the terminal, I was greeted by a greyhound and its handler. Any worries I had, evaporated right then and there, especially when I was invited to pet the dog. This handler had no idea that I owned a greyhound and I needed a little puppy love so badly. This was my first encounter with therapy dogs who visit airports to bring stress relief and love to travelers. I’ve been infatuated with this concept ever since and am extremely excited to learn about P.E.T.S (Pups Easing Travel Stress) which is now available at my local airport, Myrtle Beach International Airport. What a wonderful gift to our autism families or for anyone to encounter when they arrive!  I wanted to learn more so I reached out to Lauren Wherung, ACE, Air Services and Business Analyst for more information.

What was the inspiration for starting this program?

“The airport team continually looks for ways to improve the customer experience at MYR.  Airports are a notoriously stressful environment and the travel process can be equally taxing, especially for travelers with disabilities, which is why airport therapy dogs are becoming increasingly prevalent in airports. Recognizing the benefits of therapy dog programs, the airport team had originally intended to start a program in late 2019, but those plans were put on hold due to the pandemic.  In 2021, our lead volunteer, Monica, who serves as a Director for the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, reached out to see if we had any interest in starting a program and we coordinated with her to launch our P.E.T.S (Pups Easing Travel Stress) program.  The rest is history!

How are dogs selected?

“We only accept volunteer teams who are certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD). ATD is the largest testing and certifying therapy dog organization in the US with over 15,000 members in the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico. To become an ATD team, members must pass a handling test and go on three therapy observation visits with their local tester/observer. Once the tester/observer finishes the paperwork, it is submitted to the ATD office for final approval. 

We require all prospective volunteers to do an initial trial visit at MYR with Monica and an airport staff member, to observe the dog’s temperament and ensure the unique airport environment is a right fit for the dog’s personality. “

PET service dogs at MYR airport

What is their job description?

“Our airport therapy dog volunteers are not considered employees, so they do not have an official job description.  Their role as a volunteer requires one weekly visit to MYR for 1-2 hours where they visit with travelers throughout the terminal who are waiting for their flights.

Can families request a dog be present when they arrive?

“Because our program is staffed entirely by volunteers, who typically have full-time jobs outside of their volunteer work, we allow our volunteers to create their own schedules and come to the airport when their availability permits.  As such, we are unable to accommodate special requests for dogs to be on-site during specific dates/times.  If a family would like to inquire if a dog will be available during their travels, we recommend that they contact the airport via our website, a few days before their travels, to let us know the date/time they will be at MYR and a staff member will be happy to check the schedule. Our P.E.T.S program currently has 7 volunteer teams with an 8th in the process of completing the required background check and training to join the program. Visit the website to make an inquiry.” https://www.flymyrtlebeach.com/contact-us/

Are there specific disabilities they help with or are their skills generalized?      

“Therapy dogs do not perform specific behaviors to assist with disabilities in the way a service dog would.  The role of a therapy dog is bringing joy to some, stress relief to others, or being used in animal assisted therapy sessions.  An example of an animal assisted therapy would be throwing a ball for the dog to retrieve to strengthen an arm muscle.” 

Can you think of a specific situation where the dogs proved very helpful?

“We find that there is incredible value in every therapy dog visit to MYR.  We regularly have the opportunity to witness the joy that is sparked when travelers see the dogs and take a moment to squeeze in a few pre-flight cuddles.  We recently partnered with the Arc of the United States and the Arc of South Carolina to host a Wings for All Event, a safe airport travel rehearsal experience for people with intellectual disabilities.  We had a few of our therapy dogs on-site for the event and we found that participants really enjoyed engaging with the dogs while waiting to board the plane. “

Can any of the dogs handle a child having a meltdown, or a child needing extreme reassurance by letting the child hug or pet them? 

Just like humans, dogs have a variety of feelings and emotions that can change day to day. While some dogs may be better equipped than others to handle certain situations, our volunteers always approach situations slowly to make sure both the dog and person are comfortable with what is happening. There may be dogs better suited to situations depending on their temperament or even the size of their breed. We currently have a variety of dog sizes and breeds in our P.E.T.S program. 

Bringing the dog slowly near the child, gives handlers an opportunity to see how their dog feels about a situation before allowing physical interactions.  Oftentimes, just the sight of a dog can begin to calm a child in a high stress moment. This can then lead to physical interaction once things have calmed down. Handlers should be comfortable enough to demonstrate/describe the best ways to interact with their dog. 

PET service dog at MYR airport

How can families feel confident that the dogs will not bite? 

“Handlers should always be confident enough to advocate for their dogs in any situation. ATD provides a real life testing process by bringing the dogs into therapy visit situations to see how they interact and handle the stress after completing a handling test. Myrtle Beach International Airport then requires another trial visit to the airport, to see how they handle the unique airport environment.  A few of our volunteers are also professional dog trainers, who emphasize the importance of learning and understanding canine body language. It’s important to make sure the dogs are comfortable during their visits. Dogs tell us how they feel through body language cues. 

ATD understands the importance of reading a dog’s cues during a therapy visit and tries to provide different opportunities for their members to engage and learn about canine body language. ATD also has rules in place, intended to prevent any potentially dangerous situations, such as using a four foot or shorter leash on visits and not allowing facial kisses. ATD always encourages active handler participation in visits, and suggests that handlers keep their hands on the dogs while they are interacting with people so they can remain engaged and observant. 

At the end of the day, dogs are still animals; however, ATD as an organization provides thorough testing for its members and a variety of training situations, with the goal of ensuring that handlers are well educated on safe interactions.   The organization also seeks to ensure that handlers are comfortable enough to speak up for their dogs and remove them from situations when the dogs are uncomfortable. We hope that if a situation arises where the dog needs to step away, travelers will understand and allow the dog to take a break. “

Are the handlers willing to bring their dogs into the sensory friendly room? 

“We require therapy dog volunteers to stay on the upper level of the terminal building so as to not distract our working police K-9s on the lower level.  Since the quiet room is located at baggage claim, our volunteers are unable to accommodate this request.  If the gate areas become too congested for a family that would like a quieter experience with the dog, they can make a request with the volunteer to relocate to a quieter area for their interaction.”

Does P.E.T.S accept donations and if so, where can they be sent?

“The airport does not accept donations for the P.E.T.S program.  Our partnering organization, The Alliance of Therapy Dogs, is a 501 (c)(3) and accepts donations on their website to support their operation. “

I have so much gratitude for the handlers, dogs and MYR. They understand the need to make traveling less stressful for everyone. What a fantastic treat for all of us!  Woof!

Photo on the bottom is from the Myrtle Beach Int. Airport Facebook group. Milo, their newest PETS member. Both photos used with permission