Air travel can be stressful for many people – whether it is a fear of flying, delays or just the stress of being away from home, Sacramento International Airport
(SMF) is providing a furry and adorable solution.
SMF is one of 58 airports across the country partnering with a therapy dog group in an effort to improve the traveling experience.
SMF’s Boarding Area Relaxation Corps (BARC) dogs and their handlers are members of the Sacramento-based nonprofit organization Lend A Heart Animals Assisted Therapy
. BARC teams are experienced handlers and their pets who have additional training for this special program.
All BARC dogs wear blue vests that say “Pet Me,” an open invitation for travelers to say hello.
For many, hectic travel days are often cured simply by the sight of the friendly-faced, tail-waggers trudging down the concourse.
“Many people either spend a lot of time in airports or are inexperienced or frightened flyers,” said Kathy Prendergast, a BARC leader. “These dogs provide such a bright spot for what, in many ways, can be a harried day. You can just feel the strain go away when the dogs are around.”
From lowering blood pressure to improving a traveler’s moods, recent studies have shown there are many benefits to having a friendly dog to pet at the airport.
Like all BARC teams, Carol Abelson and her dog Woody have seen these benefits up close.
“On one visit we were walking through the terminal and a lady pointed out a teenager who was obviously petrified about flying,” said Abelson. “Woody and I walked over to her and she just grabbed him in a big hug for about 10 minutes. By the time she boarded, she was so much more relaxed. We see that all the time.”
BARC dogs have been wagging their way around SMF since 2015. There are now more than 30 airport-approved BARC teams spreading their stress-busting affection through each terminal at least two times per week.
“The BARC teams bring so much to our airport,” said Cindy Nichol, Director of the Sacramento County Department of Airports. “They alleviate stress and make people feel at home during what can be a hectic experience. They really are changing the dynamic of the airport environment.”
Recognizing that not everyone loves dogs, airport therapy dog teams typically remain stationary. They can be found in open areas making it easy to pet the dogs while those not so fond can easily avoid them.
The Lend A Heart organization also has teams that visit hospitals, nursing homes and schools during finals week. The dogs and their handlers go through an evaluation and training process that usually takes a few months to complete. The dogs are matched with assignments based on factors like their age and temperament.
In addition to Lend A Heart’s standard training and evaluation, airport-approved dogs have to be assessed as being able to focus while experiencing large crowds, elevators, noise and other working dogs such as security canines.
“It doesn’t matter the size or the breed,” said Prendergast. “What matters is that they enjoy meeting people. And at the very least they bring a smile to someone’s face.”