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Flying is Stressful, These PUP(S) are Here to Help: and That is Something I Can Get on Board With

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This piece was important for me to share because like many of us, flying is stressful. Everyone has their own reasons why, and they are all very real.  To say that I have a fear of flying is an understatement and I was lucky enough to stumble upon the PUP Program last year. For the 5 minutes I had before running to my gate, I blocked out everything else and just focused on the dog present. Time and time again we have linked positive mental wellbeing to pets, so isn't this a perfect way to connect them? 
 
PUP LAX Volunteers- FC: Linda Pianigiani
Part 1 of 2 with Program Director, Heidi Huebner of the PUP Program:

What is The PUP Program at the Los Angeles Airpot?

As traveling can create stress and anxieties at airports, the LAX Pets Un-stressing Passengers (PUP) program is an opportunity to provide an overall enhanced customer experience, providing stress relief and comfort to passengers through interaction with pets.

Therapy dogs and handlers roam the departures levels in the gate areas of each terminal, visiting passengers awaiting flights and providing comfort, as well as airport information. The program educates and informs passengers about the LAX projects and construction related traffic impacts.

The dogs in red Pet Me vests and handlers in red shirts with the PUP logo are an excellent addition to the customer service team. Passengers love seeing warm, wet noses and wagging tails that create a friendly, “PAWSitive” experience at LAX!

When and how did the program get its start? How many volunteers and therapy dogs are actively working the program?

There are so many schools, hospitals and programs that use therapy dogs; it just made sense to start a program at the airport. Traveling can be stressful. We have people flying for so many reasons and we really never know what is going on in someone’s life. 

We launched April 15th 2013 with 20 dogs and just celebrated our 6 year anniversary. We currently have 110 with 8 new volunteers getting ready to start in the next month. We are always recruiting more teams.

Can you describe your role in PUP?

I’m the Director of the program and I was tasked by upper management to develop and create a therapy dog program for LAX. It took about 8 months from conception and getting approvals from City Attorney, Risk Management, Commissioners, Airport Police and the other working K9 units. This is a full time job for me.  I’m responsible for the scheduling, recruiting, training, doing presentations to local businesses and communities.  I do all the PR, media and social media. 

How many passengers on average does a dog interact with each day or yearly?

The PUPs can meet and interact with anywhere between 100 and 250 passengers in their 2 hour shift.  Last year we had 4,882 hours in the terminals and 1,162 hours partnering in events.  Our total hours last year were 6,044. 

What’s it take to launch a program like PUP at an airport?

From conception to launch took about 8 months.  We were developing the program from scratch.  We had to go thru the proper chain of command to get blessings from Airport Commissioners, Police, Risk Management, City attorney, Upper management and other stake holders. Then coming up with the training, rules, scheduling, finding a partner group, how we would address badging and parking, uniforms etc…  We did all the hard work, so when I get calls or emails from airports wanting to start a program I give them out materials and let them use what fits their needs.  Why reinvent the wheel.   

What hurdles did you have to overcome?

Everyone welcomed the idea of the program with open arms.  The hurdle was really how to make sure the program would be safe and how it would run.  We decided to partner with Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD).  They are an amazing group that has been doing this for a long time.  We do a walk thru at LAX first to make sure it is a good fit before the teams start the testing process with ATD.  Once they have completed the testing process we set up their finger print and badge appointments.  When backgrounds have cleared they are ready for their in terminal training and to start the program.

How is the program funded?

We are very lucky the program is part of the airport and supported by LAX and the City of LA.  We have paid staff that work in the office and handle events and partnerships in the terminals.  We have three volunteer programs at LAX that I oversee; the PUPS, VIPs, and the LAXceeders - our Jr. Volunteer program.

Our Friend Vinny (more on him next week)! 
FC: Linda Pianigiani

There are some 50 airports now with similar programs.  How does PUP compare?

 We have become the experts in the field and have helped the majority of airports to start similar programs. I have assisted 63 airports to start a similar program. Tucson is the next airport that will be coming onboard soon.

Why don’t all major airports have programs like this?

You have to have a person on charge of the program, which is a full time position.  Some airports do not have a budget for this.  I have heard that for some of the bigger cities and East Coast airports – they don’t because so many people live too far and do not drive so they do not have a way to get there with their dogs. 

Can you share a couple examples of how the program helped someone?

We never know why people are traveling.  Are they traveling for fun, moving for a job, a funeral, divorce, spring break, family vacation?  I have gotten so many letters, emails, phone calls and stories from guests the PUPS have helped as well as my PUP volunteers sharing their experiences with me too.  Here are two that really stick out. 

    1. We were doing a Mother’s Day event and a woman came up to one of my volunteers.  She said the PUP reminded her of her dog she had as a child.  As she was talking about her family dog she started to tear up and cry.  Turns out she was flying back on Mother’s Day for her mom’s funeral.  She did not have a great relationship with her mom in her adult years. She sat with my volunteer and her dog for around 40 minutes.  They cried and talked together - all the while the dog was in the ladies’ lap allowing her to hug, kiss and pet her.  She thanked my volunteer and dog because they helped her release the anger she had towards her mom so now she could forget about the past and allow the good memories of her mom to be remembered.  This happened 2 years ago and the lady and volunteer have become long distant friends and still keep in touch with each other.

    2. A man was flying for the first time and had been stranded at the airport for 12 hours due to flight cancelations for weather.  He was ready to leave the airport and rent a car to get to his destination and then he saw the PUPs.  Two were working a shift together and saw the man approaching them with a look of concern.  He said “I see it says Pet Me on the vests”  “Can I really pet these dogs”?  Long story short.  He said he was having such bad anxiety and that these two dogs helped him to feel better and bring his breathing back to normal.  He stayed awhile petting the dogs and talking to the volunteers. He was finally able to board his flight and make it to his destination.                               

What’s been the single most memorable experience for you personally?

That is a hard question as there are so many, but I would have to say when I was speaking at the press conference officially launching the program.  It was a dream come true for me as I was watching all the volunteers and their dogs looking so proud and excited and hearing the comments from the passengers that this was such a needed and fun program we were starting.   

How has PUP changed your life?

I love my job. I’m so blessed that this is what I get to wake up and do.  Every day is new and exciting for me and I get to meet so many wonderful people along the way.  We have so much going on at the airport and so many different requests that come in for the PUPs.  One week we are partnering with different airlines for events, or meeting our TSA agent’s kids for Bring Your Sons and Daughters Work Day,  doing a yoga meditation stretch in the International Terminal, or being filmed for a TV show overseas,  being on the local news or participating in the 4th of July parade in Westchester.  I get to be creative with my passion of networking and dogs.

What have you learned about people?

People need connections to each other at the end of the day.  We all have our devices that do so much for us, but they can’t give you the one on one attention or smile and give you a hug when you are having a bad day.  The dogs bring people together and get strangers talking and laughing with each other.  It is really magical.

When you started the program you had a goal.  How has that goal changed since the world has changed so much?

My goal was to have at least 100 dogs in the program in 5 years, which we did so now I’m hoping to have a 150-200 volunteers in the next 5 years - so we will see.  My other goal was that all airports will start a program. That number is at 63 as far as I know and I believe this number will continue to grow. I still get several calls or emails a month from airports wanting to start a program. As technology advances and there is more AI coming into our world, there will be even more need for human and animal bonds and connections to warm our hearts and souls.

Have you had any negative feedback from passengers regarding the program?

We train our volunteers to be respectful of anyone who may have allergies, is fearful of dogs or just does not really prefer dogs.  The volunteers always ask before approaching people in the terminals and if the person has an issue with the dog the volunteers thank them and go the opposite direction in the terminal to give them their space.

Describe how PUP was an integral part of the Las Vegas shooting incident?

With any major incident happening in other airports or cities we ask the volunteers to come out more during that time in case any of our guests have been affected by a situation.  People really do appreciate this.

PUP enhances customer service for sure. But have you ever thought about PUP in terms of improving the wellness of thousands of people every day? 

We reach thousands of people every year at LAX and with our community partnerships.   To reach even more people would be through a TV show (which we have been approached by a few networks but we have not found the right fit yet) and be guests on the Ellen show or a reoccurring guest on a show like The Doctors would be ideal.

What’s next for the PUP Program? 

To continue to grow the program so we reach 150 -200 volunteers and I would like to start a “how to travel successfully with you dog program”.    I think we are going to continue to see more and more people traveling with their dogs.  I want to make sure they know what to expect and how they can prepare their dog so they are not fearful or overwhelmed.

For example, if your dog has never been in a carry-on bag, kennel or crate you need to  introduce and let them  practice going in and out and spending time in it.  You need to have the kennel in the living room and let the dog go in and out of it so they know what to expect and that is a safe place for them.

I also envision having a meet and greet where people can bring their dog to the airport and do a walk thru so the owner and dog know what to expect.  If the dog starts barking the owner can take time to work with the dog so they won’t bark and get over excited when they are actually travelling.  Did I mention I need to add an extra 12 hours to my day??

Ivy, working her magic. FC: Linda Pianigiani

 

What help do you need to grow the organization? 

The more exposure we get by interviews like this for people to read and learn about the program helps so much by raising awareness.

For anyone interested in working with us, please  contact me Heidi Huebner at  424-646-8471 or visit our website at  www.lawa.org/pup

When you think of PUP, what’s the first word that always comes to mind? 

Love and magical

What do you do to relieve your stress?

I take yoga, go to the beach to walk with my own dogs, get a massage

At the end of the day, what do you say to yourself?

I love what I do and have the best job in the world #oneluckygirl!