Therapy dog program gets tails wagging at Winnipeg's airport

Just in time for the holiday rush, therapy dogs and their owners will be walking the halls of Winnipeg Richardson International Airport.

Volunteers and their dogs will offer comfort to anxious travellers

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      Therapy dogs and their owners are getting ready to walk the halls of Winnipeg's James Armstrong Richardson International Airport starting this Friday. Just in time for the holiday rush, dogs will be visiting with travellers helping to calm their fears of flying or relieve stress from travelling.

      The Winnipeg Airports Authority has partnered with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program to provide therapy dogs and their owners to visit the airport.
      Brent Fowler of St. John Ambulance says he is glad to see the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport become the fifth airport in Canada to take part in this program. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

      "We'll have our therapy dog teams in the airport on a regular basis providing comfort and visitation to the travellers in the airport. Whether it's young children who are nervous for the first time travelling or perhaps a passenger on a plane that's a little frustrated, they'll be able to visit with the dog and hopefully [get them to] relax because of it," said Brent Fowler of St. John Ambulance.

      The therapy dog program has been providing dogs to seniors' residences, care facilities and schools across the province since 1997. The program has 156 dog-and-owner teams in Manitoba, and 38 of them will be assigned to the Winnipeg Airport.

      The therapy teams will be rotating through shifts at the airport in both the arrivals and departures areas. Up to two teams will be at the airport at a time, starting with public areas and eventually working in the restricted and holding areas as well.
      Lisa Patterson with the Winnipeg Airports Authority says St. John Ambulance approached them in the summer with the idea of having therapy dog teams in the airports. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

      Lisa Patterson, the authority's manager of customer experience, says the service is aimed at people who might be anxious about travelling through a new airport or going to a new destination.

      "They're trained so they can sense when people are a little bit anxious and nervous. So a handler will approach someone who looks a little bit like they need some guidance and …talk to them, have them pet the dogs and hopefully they will be up and on their way," said Patterson.

      Volunteers like Barbara Polson and her dog Lincoln are looking forward to helping visitors de-stress between flights.
      St. John Ambulance volunteer, Barbara Polson, says the program is a positive experience for both the guests and her dog, Lincoln. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

      "It's just a positive experience. All of a sudden they are smiling, it's like looking at a baby I think, they just smile," said Polson.

      Polson says Lincoln loves the attention and he's really good with kids. She says most people, even if uncomfortable at first, warm up to him quickly.

      Winnipeg is the fifth airport in Canada to use therapy dogs. Halifax, Regina, Saskatoon and Thunder Bay already participate in the program.