Find flying ruff? Bella at Charlottetown Airport may be able to help

Charlottetown Airport has launched a project in conjunction with St. John Ambulance that will have a therapy dog visit the airport on Wednesdays.

'To have a dog come and surprise you, put a smile on your face. We know that that can help immensely'

Even staff look forward to Bella's weekly visits. (Travis Kingdon/CBC )

Next time you're at the Charlottetown Airport there's a chance you could make a new furry friend.

On Wednesday mornings, travellers at the airport will have a chance to meet — and pet — Bella, a therapy dog. 

It's a new program organized by St. John Ambulance and the airport with the hope that Bella, a golden retriever, will reduce the anxiety and stress of travellers. 

"We know that travelling can be a really stressful experience — whether it's anxiety, fear of flying, delays, cancellations, all those things," said Vanessa Smith, manager of marketing and communications with the Charlottetown Airport Authority.

"So, to have a dog come and surprise you, put a smile on your face. We know that that can help immensely in the travel process."

Bella is specifically trained to interact with humans. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

Pamela Smith, Bella's handler, will be roaming the terminal, baggage and gate areas of the airport. Smith approached the airport with the idea to introduce therapy dogs. 

"Airports aren't necessarily the most enjoyable place to be … and there's not a lot to do and I guess you're in more of a closed-in area, so it's another option of something to do," she said. 

The St. John Ambulance therapy dog program has more than 3,000 dogs across Canada that visit places like hospitals, schools, seniors' centres and airports.

'She soaks it all up'

The program officially launched Thursday, but Bella has already had three visits to the airport. So far, customers and staff are enjoying the experience. 

"I think it just puts a smile on their face and calms their nerves. It's a sense of, you know, home. Maybe they have a pet they're remembering. So, I think it's just a positive experience," Vanessa said. 

Pamela Smith and Bella visit the check-in area, boarding area and baggage claim on their visits. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

Some passengers are unaware of Bella's role and confuse her as a dog sniffing for contraband or a service dog that is not to be interfered with, said Pamela.

"That's kind of being worked out as well and explaining to people that this dog actually works for them and they're able to access her if they like to while we're here," she said. "As opposed to a service dog that's supposed to be respected and working for one individual."

And, Bella enjoys the experience as well. 

"She soaks it all up and she's quite taken by most of the people here. When I mention going to work she gets quite animated and excited," Pamela said. 

'Sense their need'

Pamela said she thinks Bella is an extremely empathetic dog and may be able to notice when someone is in need of a cuddle. 

"She tends to gravitate towards certain people. And I'm not sure sometimes whether that's just the love of dogs or whether she does sense their need," she said. 

All that attention can really tire a dog out. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

To be qualified as a therapy dog, Bella did special training with St. John Ambulance. But, Pamela said, she also got some extra training in special needs evaluation, which involves the elderly, children, how to work with equipment people with disabilities might use and how to work in closed-in spaces. 

Right now, Bella only visits the airport once a week, but the hope is to add more dogs and visits in the future.

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