FWA, PAWS partner for therapy dog program

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PHOTO BY RAY STEUP

Children pet one of the Hospitality PAWS therapy dogs at the Fort Wayne International Airport. See video at INFortwayne.com.

The Fort Wayne International Airport and Pets Assisting Well-Being Inc. teamed up to create what they hope to be a doggone good time for travelers.

Since October, two to four teams of handlers and their therapy dogs have come to the airport at least once a week, greeting guests and helping them relax before their flights.

The idea was inspired by similar programs at larger airports. PAWS Director of Placement Services Kay Anderson said she first read about a similar program at the Los Angeles World Airports.

“I could envision a therapy dog to be able to be of help in almost any setting,” Anderson said. “It just makes sense.”

Later, FWA Marketing Specialist Katie Robinson learned about the program at a conference, but her team didn’t know how to get it off the ground.

“When Kay reached out it was kind of like the perfect storm; we had the same idea,” Robinson said. “We were super excited about it and definitely ready to bring it to Fort Wayne.”

It took several months to get all the wheels in motion. Robinson had to make sure FWA’s entire staff was on board so there wouldn’t be issues with safety or terminal activities, she said.

Anderson, meanwhile, had to select PAWS members, two-legged and four-legged alike, best suited for the role, where they would encounter security and other animals they might not see in other settings.

PAWS is a nonprofit that serves Allen and surrounding counties. It consists of 30 to 35 handler-dog teams that do everything from working with children with autism to participating in reading programs to visiting people in hospice and long-term care.

“We specialize in therapeutic interventions,” Anderson explained, adding PAWS teams usually work one-on-one.

Once everything was in place, the dogs made their debut during the airport’s October customer appreciation week under the name Hospitality PAWS.

People quickly warmed up to the idea, once they got used to dogs they could play with at the airport, as opposed to service or Transportation Security Administration animals.

“It’s better than we thought,” Robinson said. “People know the dogs and the handlers are good at knowing when people want to interact and when they don’t.”

The teams are able to connect with people during what can be a stressful time for some.

“They’ve had people come up at the airport who are terrified of flying, and having the dog there helped them. Dogs are comforting and relieve anxiety in any setting,” Anderson said. “Now when we’re out…people recognize the dogs from having seen them at the airport and tell us what an impression it’s made on them. Even if they don’t have anxiety it’s nice to have someone to interact with.”

Both Anderson and Robinson said families as well as business travelers have reacted well to the dogs at FWA.

“Of course the kids light up, but then you come up to business travels who are focused on their emails and phones and they set their computers aside” when they see the dogs, Robinson said.

“Those phones are away except for taking pictures,” Anderson said. “(People start) interacting with the teams and handlers and are talking to each other.”