Sign In

Therapy Dogs Ease Tension At Airport

April 3, 2020

A voice on an intercom announces pre-boarding at Gate 1 at Long Beach Airport. The nervous energy of several dozen travelers is palpable as they scramble toward the gate.

Yet a small congregation has gathered away from the haphazard line being formed. Six sets of hands stretch out to meet the new local celebrities. It’s Bella, a 3-year-old labradoodle representing the airport’s new therapy dog program STARS, and she’s clearly happy to receive the attention of several families at once.

The STARS program, short for Simple Therapy and Real Smiles, officially launched on Nov. 1. Aimed at reducing travel stress, the city has launched its therapy dog program with nine dogs. They and their handlers roam the airport concourse at targeted times throughout the week.

“Long Beach Airport is really excited about this program,” Kate Kuykendall, Long Beach Airport public affairs officer, said. “We feel like we have our own special brand and reputation for being a really laid-back experience, and so this is just one more way to make the experience better.”

The idea came over a year ago, when Phil Ramsdale, once of the Airport Advisory Commission, struck up a conversation with friend and neighbor Jan Hextell. Hextell had recently gotten Bella.

“I thought it was time to give back, and Bella was such a great companion that I wanted to share her,” Hextell said.

Airport officials agreed to a pilot program, with Hextell and Bella demonstrating the calming effects a therapy dog may have on anxious travelers. From there, the program grew dog by dog.

“We already had a volunteer program, so we created an offshoot for the handlers for therapy dogs,” Kimberly McMahon, airport public affairs assistant, said. “They go through the same process the other volunteer applicants do, with background checks by both the airport and the city. Once all that is clear, and the dog’s insurance is cleared, they can go out and begin working.”

Currently there are nine dogs with the program, of all shapes and sizes. These include Rudi, a chihuahua-terrier mix, beagles Hope and Harmony, and even a big, burly German Shepherd named Zuba.

Therapy dog certification can be done through a number of organizations. Most of the dogs with STARS are certified by GO TEAM, a nonprofit based out of Colorado. In Hextell’s case, Bella was first trained by Sit Means Sit, a dog training company that sponsors GO TEAM.

“If I was going to have a dog, I knew I wanted it to be a good dog,” she said. ‘So we investigated training programs, and found the program ‘Sit Means Sit.’ Bella went away to school for a week and came home with basic skills. Then the trainers trained us, and we needed to follow through and stay with the program.”

Therapy dogs are different from service animals and police K-9 units in that they’re meant to be pet, hugged, and played with by groups such as anxious travelers, stressed out college students, and senior citizens. The dogs with STARS wear bright blue vests that clearly show their names as well as the words “pet me.”

STARS is still in its infancy, and given the volunteer nature of the program, there’s no guarantee dogs will be at the airport at a particular time.

“We don’t require any certain number of hours worked a week or anything like that, and most of our volunteers are working other jobs,” McMahon, who oversees the airport’s volunteer program, said. “The volunteers are careful about checking the flight schedules, because there are times here when it’s a little too slow to justify having them here.”

McMahon added that Mondays are the most likely day to encounter a dog, and that there is now a waiting list of dogs if STARS expands.

The therapy dogs instantly command attention when they stroll into the concourse. Handlers like Hextell are trained to answer the basic gamut of terminal questions, like where the restrooms and particular restaurants are.

“They mainly hear things like, ‘you’ve made my day,’ which alone validates that they’re here for a good reason,” McMahon said.

After distributing trading cards bearing Bella’s name, breed, age and fun facts to a group of excited children, Hextell spurs her dog on.

Register Your Dog

  • Most Recent News

    Stolen Puppy In Denver

    Police are looking for two teens who might have been involved.Meredith) — A couple in Denver is asking for the public’s help to find their dog after they say he was stolen at gunpoint. Loki was the perfect addition for Shawn Rozinski and his girlfriend. “He’s high energy, he’s very lovable, like he just loves […]

    Read more

    PTSD Service Dogs

    esearch has shown that support dogs can speed up recovery from PTSD. Yet the cost of purchasing a service animal can be out of reach for many veterans. KMOX News discovered one local group that provides support dogs at no charge. Nicole Lanahan sits on a chair and pretends to sob. “Recon,” a German Shepherd […]

    Read more

    ESA Boogs Helps Staff

    A Delaware Valley dog has joined his owner on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing joy and hope to vulnerable adults sheltering from exposure to the virus. For the past several weeks, Boogs, a black and white Shih Tzu, has been visiting residents of Divine Providence Village (DPV), an intermediate care facility (ICF) […]

    Read more

    Therapy Dog Brings Joy

    At Hoffmann Hospice, people receive end of life care and assistance in grieving loved ones who pass away. This is naturally a very emotional place to be, and one therapy dog is helping in such a wonderful way. In this week’s “Kern’s Kindness,” meet Bernie and his owner Molly Mier. “We adopted Bernie from a […]

    Read more

    Paws Of War

    War is hell. And puppies are swell. Take one-year-old Harley, who became best friend to a team of U.S. servicemen during their recent stint inside a Middle East combat zone. When Amjad Kerrish and his fellow Air National Guard fighters were shipping out, they were too enamored of Harley to leave the dog behind. But […]

    Read more

    Service Dogs

    September is National Service Dog Month and this week a veteran from Central Texas began training with his own new helper. Rhea Hambright and Beatrice are spending the week training at Service Dogs Incorporated in Dripping Springs. Hambright is a Marine and was injured during the Vietnam War. He and his new service dog are […]

    Read more