WASHINGTON – Phil Kauf and his family were standing in the United Airines customer service line at Dulles International Airport, exhausted and tense. Their nerves were frayed after a three-hour delay in Columbus and a missed connection to Panama. Phil’s wife, Sofia, had not seen her relatives in Colombia for two years. Any additional wait time seemed unbearable.
Then a pair of floppy ears and a pendulum tail melted away the stress like a snowflake on a tongue.
“I really needed to pet a dog,” said daughter Susana, 21, after a restorative moment with a golden retriever named Patsy. “We were so stressed. It reminded me that I love my family.”
“We’ve been fighting like cats and dogs,” added Phil – pun unintended. He glanced at his wife and 14-year-old son, who were kissing and smiling following their exhale moment with the pup.
Team Comfort Dogs to the rescue.
This holiday season, passengers in concourses C and D are in for a stop-you-in-your-tracks sight: an indoor dog park whose participants are available for petting and cuddling. For the first half of Christmas week, United Airlines has invited comfort animals to seven of its hub airports nationwide. The quick therapy sessions are held on the floor instead of a couch, and passengers are encouraged to consult with a different kind of “expert.”
On Monday morning, the four-legged messengers of calm participating in the United Paws event included Patsy; Rugi, a Great Dane-Labrador mix; Cinnamon, an English bulldog; Callie, a velvety black greyhound; Pepper, a rescue blend of retriever, Labrador, terrier and hound; and Cello, a Cairn terrier dressed in an elf costume. In terms of displays of affection, the snaggle-toothed Cinnamon licked, and Cello high-fived and twirled in circles. Callie would slide her toothpick-thin body into open arms for a hug; Patsy would drop on her back and shake her leg blissfully whenever a tickler found her sweet spot.
“We introduced this program as a way to bring a bit of comfort and joy to our customers during this busy season of travel, because we understand the travel experience can be a bit rough,” said Jonathan Guerin, a United spokesman. “The science proves that simply petting a dog reduces stress, and they always bring smiles, too.”
The airline tested the idea during the Fourth of July holiday and plans to employ the program – done in partnership with People Animals Love (PAL), a Capitol Hill organization that arranges pet visits at nursing centers, mental health facilities and other sites – during other cortisol-spiking travel periods, such as spring break and summer, when hordes of student groups descend on Washington.
Many travelers, who generally feel only the cold, clammy hands of the airline industry, could use some warm fur against their skin.
“Traveling during the holiday time is stressful,” said Jack Hillelsohn, director of volunteer activities for PAL and dad of pony-size Rugi. “How can you not feel better when you have a dog coming over to say hello?”
At Dulles, the dogs “work” two shifts, from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Event participants called out to passengers like circus barkers.
“Feeling stressed?” asked John Sapienza. “She’s guaranteed to de-stress.” Patsy lay on her back at his feet, her belly available for rubbing.
The animals and their owners set out from the United Club, which provided a lounge for the dogs. Diva demands: bottled water and bowls. The group strolled through Concourse C, drawing stares that quickly turned to smiles.
“You are welcome to pet her,” Jane Zimmerman said to a man walking by. “She loves attention.”
The man took her advice, and Zimmerman shared Pepper’s rescue story with him. Of all the strange coincidences: The traveler and the dog hailed from the same city in South Carolina.
Nearby, A.J. and Sarah Jane Murphy, from Santa Cruz. California, were snapping photos of Rugi as if he were a celebrity pet. The siblings had been pacing the hallways during their long layover.
Rugi was “a nice diversion,” Sarah Jane said.
Kim Denning, wearing the familiar dark-blue United uniform, was making the rounds around the ad-hoc yard.”It is so hard to put into words how they make you feel,” said the service director. “It makes me feel happy.”
On the sidelines, an older woman quietly watched. She approached Cinnamon but then pulled back. “I just lost my standard poodle,” she said softly.
The petting really picked up in the open space outside the mobile lounge. It was a high-traffic location, with folks getting off the people-movers, checking their flights on the overhead board, grabbing a coffee at Starbucks or discovering their fate at the customer service outpost.
Sapienza positioned Pasty near the line, knowing that the blood-pressure readings there were probably running high.
“Hey, is anybody stressed?” he called out. Two women responded. One grew teary-eyed, explaining that she had recently lost her dog. The other, Catherine Minto, said that she missed her golden retriever in San Francisco. After receiving her new ticket to Rhode Island, Minto sought out Patsy and spread out on the floor beside her new friend.
“I feel much better now that I’m covered in dog hair,” she said.