British Columbia

Therapy dogs to comfort travellers at Vancouver International Airport

The Vancouver International Airport is partnering with St. John’s Ambulance to employ seven of their therapy dogs onsite in the arrival terminal every weekday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Head of UBC Okanagan's dog therapy program cites 'concerns' about employing therapy dogs in airports

Bailey is one of seven therapy dogs from St. John Ambulance that will greet passengers every weekday at the Vancouver International Airport. (Supplied/Vancouver Airport Authority)

Travellers at the Vancouver International Airport will have a new way to de-stress with the help of some therapy dogs.

The airport is partnering with St. John's Ambulance to employ seven of its therapy dogs in the arrival terminal every weekday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

"We know that traveling can sometimes be stressful," said Reg Krake, director of customer care for the Vancouver Airport Authority. 

"Having the ambassador dogs on site for our passengers gives them a new way to manage that anxiety and stress."

The YVR Ambassador dogs — Molly, Bailey, Mira, Norman, Grover, Kermode and Soda — will be sporting YVR leashes and bandanas from St. John's.

They'll be paired with handlers and YVR Green Coat volunteers at all times.  

Crake said the airport has seen "immediate and positive experiences" for travellers and airport employees since piloting the initiative in December.

Volunteer handlers with St. John Ambulance monitor the dogs for signs of stress. (Supplied/Vancouver Airport Authority)

Gerry Redmond, a volunteer dog handler, recounted a recent experience with a traveller at the airport.

"She shared with me that she had only flown once before," Redmond said. "It was a very happy occasion when she flew down east to her daughter's wedding."

The woman suddenly became emotional and Redmond asked what was wrong. "She said, 'Today, I'm flying to my daughter's funeral.'"

Redmond said her dog, Bailey, immediately began to show affection to the distraught woman.

"Bailey created a moment of joy in a situation that was terribly sad and stressful," Redmond said.

Stress on dogs? 

The use of therapy dogs has "flourished" in universities, hospitals and courtrooms, said John-Tyler Binfet, the director of UBC Okanagan's dog therapy program.

But there are concerns about employing therapy dogs in busy places like an airport.

"You can't control the number of people who approach a dog at any given time, and you don't know their prior canine experience. They could have different cultural perspectives on how to interact with a dog," said Binfet to On The Coast guest host Gloria Macarenko.

"Are dogs in the busy airport setting experiencing stress themselves? And is someone monitoring their well-being?"

Listen to the full interview below

Binfet, who also researches dog therapy, said studies show that seven to 10 minutes is the minimum to achieving stress reduction with a therapy dog.

"These airport travellers would have to stop traffic and spend at least 10 minutes in a focused way interacting with the dogs. And I don't know if that's possible," he said.

Handlers monitor stress

Sandy Gerber, director of marketing at St. John Ambulance, says it's up to passengers and handlers how much time to spend with the dogs.

"Based on conversations with our handlers, usually most passengers spend more than 10 minutes with them," Gerber said in an email.

Handlers also monitor their dogs for signs of stress, such as panting, she said.

The airport offers quiet areas for dogs to take a break. Shifts are capped at two hours for each dog, Gerber said. If there are signs of stress, the handler will end the dog's shift early.

The airport says its YVR Ambassador dogs are different from service dogs, who are trained extensively to work with people with disabilities.

It's asking travellers to ask a dog handler before interacting with a dog.

With files from CBC's On The Coast