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The PUP Program at LAX, Meet Vinny and Learn How Your Pup Can Volunteer Too | Blooming Culture

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Last week we interviewed Heidi Huebner, program director of the PUP Program at LAX. The PUP Program aims to have Pets Unstressing Passengers to make your airport experience more enjoyable. I can't tell you how much I LOVE this program and was so thrilled when I discovered it. In part 2 of our blog post, we interviewed Vinny's dad, Miguel on being a volunteer with this wonderful organization. To learn more about how to become involved check out The PUP Program


What qualifications do both the volunteers/dogs have to meet?

PUP volunteers wishing to apply must have at least one year experience working with a recognized dog therapy organization. The dogs must be privately owned and be at least two years old. All PUP volunteers and dogs must be registered with Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national organization that registers, insures and supports members who are involved in volunteer animal-assisted activities. These activities include visits to hospitals, special needs centers, schools, nursing homes and for the first time for the Alliance of Therapy Dogs airports.

Each volunteer goes through an initial meet and greets and walk-through with their dog to make sure there is a good fit for both volunteer and dog. The next step is in-terminal training to learn about LAX and how to assist passengers. In addition, handlers are fingerprinted and badged.

Vinny the terrier, a PUP program volunteer at LAX.

Vinny’s IG: @vinnytheterrier


How did you learn about PUP?

Soon after I adopted, my rescue pup Vinny, I saw an ABC News report about LAX PUPs program. At the time I thought it was a great idea to roam the terminals and greet passengers with your pet.

What made you want to be part of them with Vinny?

After I rescued Vinny for a few months I decided to do some basic training. He really enjoyed the classes and loved engaging with people and other dogs. It was then that I recalled the LAX PUP Program and decided to investigate. I googled it and got in contact with director Heidi Huebner for a meet and greet and pre-evaluation.

How do you qualify to become a PUP volunteer?

The dog must be privately owned and at least 2 years old. They must also be registered by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. It’s a national organization that registers, insures and supports members who are involved in volunteer animal-assisted activities. The testing is designed to make sure you and your dog have a good relationship with each other and that your dog has the right temperament for therapy dog work. Vinny got certified as a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) which was a great first step to help him qualify as an ATD member. After passing the handler/dog tests you are also required to three supervised visits with two being at medical facilities.

What qualifications does a dog have to meet to be part of the program?

Any dog of any breed or mix of breeds can be a therapy dog. The dogs need to have a calm and gentle disposition. They must be good around other dogs, calm when strangers pet them all over, not jump on others, walk on a leash without pulling, and not startled by things such as strange noises, smells, and medical equipment.

Describe the security screening process you must go through.

Each pet handler goes through LAX classroom and in-terminal training to learn about LAX and how to assist passengers. We also complete a walk-through with our dog to make sure he is a good fit for both volunteer and dog. In addition, handlers are fingerprinted and badged. No background check is required on the dog because they are all good. 

What dogs make the best candidates for the PUP program?

An easy-going temperament is one of the best qualities a dog should have to be a good Therapy Dog. Handlers good control of their pets is also a must. A cute face and a big belly to rub doesn’t hurt either.

What’s the average number of hours you work each week?

The program usually asks for 1 to 2 hours a week. I tend to go about 2 hours every Thursday but if I have spare time I visit more often. I may add a weekend session here and there. Other volunteers with more time go 4 or 5 times a week.

How many passengers on average do you interact with each day?

On a 2 hour shift, you could see as many as 150 to 200 passengers.

How do passengers identify you at the airport?

The handler wears a bright red t-shirt with the program’s logo on it and the dogs wear a bright red vest that says “Pet Me”. We are easy to spot.

What’s a typical day for a pup?

I usually try to go around 3 pm on Thursdays. One of the perks of the volunteers is that you get a parking pass to the parking structures near the terminals. I try to keep a routine and I mostly visit terminal 5 and 6 but you also have the freedom to bounce around and visit other ones. 

How would you describe your role in the PUP program?

As of this interview, there are over 110 dogs in the program. We don’t work miracles, but we sure make you smile and help you relax. We not only walk with our dogs but we also assist passengers to find their way around the airport. 

What’s the first question you get asked by passengers?

Can I really pet your dog? Or is your dog up for adoption? Or what is the PUP’s Program about? You get a whole lot of them but I think those are my top three.

What are some of the passenger comments you’ve heard in reaction to the PUP Program?

A lot of them love the fact that the program exists and think it’s a great idea. A lot of passengers are very grateful for the volunteer work we do. They like the fact that they can take their minds away for some time rather than focus on the long waits at the airport. It also gives them a chance to talk about their own pets.

Some PUP dogs have their own social media accounts and trading cards. Tell us about this.

Yes, we do. The trading card is a great way for the passengers to have a memento for the experience they just had at the airport petting a dog. It also helps the little ones that may still be afraid of dogs to take part in it. They love the cards once they get them and will wave to the dog from afar. On Instagram, we use the hashtag #LAXPUPS and that way passengers can see other members of the program in action. Some airport workers engage in a competition as to who can collect the most cards from all different dogs. It’s great to see how they all have fun with it.  PUPs not only un-stress the passengers but also the workers.   

Is it true that animals other than dogs are sometimes part of the program? (pigs/mini-horses )

As far as I know LAX only has dogs…. for now.

Can you give a couple of examples of how you and your pup made a difference to someone?

I have met a couple of families that were traveling to Los Angeles for their Make-A-Wish trip. In each case, there were two young girls that were super excited to meet a dog you can pet at the airport.  Not only were the kids excited to see Vinny but the parents were more than appreciative that we were there to share a moment with them.  It is one of those occasions that when you walk away you realize why you do what you do.    

When I go around the terminal I may have 2 to 3 different groups of people coming by to say hi and pet Vinny. Passengers many times love to pull out their phones to show me a picture of their dog.  Soon thereafter you see perfect strangers showing off their dogs to each other. The best part is when I walk away to continue my stroll around the terminal and I look back and still see the strangers talking to each other and sharing their stories. Vinny The Mediator made that happened. :)


 How has working in the program affected you personally?

I never thought of volunteering before Vinny came along. Not only does Vinny help un-stress passengers he helped me come out of my shell and participate in the program. Now that I have been doing this work for about two years I see that my attitude has changed outside the volunteer work as well. I am more apt to engage people in my normal daily life. I will engage strangers on a compliment or offer someone needing help. It is my experience that 98% percent of the people will welcome it and feel appreciated. 

What have you learned about people since becoming a volunteer?

I think the grand majority of people are super friendly and outgoing but live inside a shell that they want to come out of but do not know-how. The use of cell phones is not helping that cause. With the help of Vinny, I get to open those cocoons and free them up. I have also learned what people hate the most when they go on vacation, are leaving their own pets behind.

 At the end of the day, what do you and your pup do to relieve your stress?

By the end of the two-hour shift, you can tell that Vinny is pooped and ready for some relaxation. We usually get home and he gets to have his dinner along with some carrots and steamed broccoli. He loves Broccoli.  :)