By Marlene Petersen | Photography by Kelvin Andow
Long, drawn faces. Passengers slumped in chairs. Families squabbling. They’re common sights at any airport, including Minneapolis-St. Paul International (MSP).
Until Mimi enters the scene.
Then smiles emerge. Whispers circulate. Fussing quiets.
With her chocolate brown eyes, carefree expression and eager energy, Mimi brightens a room just by trotting into it. She’s an airport therapy dog at MSP and, for her, bringing joy is all in a day’s work.
A 5-year-old English Springer Spaniel, Mimi is a greeting-and-petting dog. She’s one of 46 therapy animals in the MSP Animal Ambassadors (MSPAA) program. Unlike police K-9s, service dogs or emotional support animals, the MSP Animal Ambassadors can be petted. In fact, it’s why they’re there.
On a typical day, Mimi and her owners, Helen and Mick Wooley, walk at least two miles during their two-hour volunteer shift, visiting with more than 130 travelers (not including those Mimi meets on the way in and out of the airport).
“I keep an eye open for people who look like they want to visit and then guide Mimi in their direction,” says Helen. “I love introducing her. She walks right up to people—young and old—and sits at their feet. They call her the ‘sweet little smiling dog.’”
“For people who like dogs and are not extremely allergic, these animals have a proven calming effect,” says Lynn Klonowski, volunteer coordinator for the MSPAA.
“Just as people soften with the smile of a stranger, dogs can lighten a heavy mood. Research shows that positive interactions with animals increase endorphins, oxytocin, prolactin and dopamine, the hormones associated with blood pressure regulation, pain relief, stress relief and joy.”
So, in late 2015, the Airport Foundation MSP, a nonprofit organization, established the MSPAA as part of its ongoing mission to enhance the experience of travelers. Under the direction of Travelers Assistance at the airport, the program sought to alleviate passenger (and staff) stress.
It was an undertaking several other airports—Los Angeles, Denver, San Antonio, San Francisco, Reno and Fort Lauderdale—had found successful. But in sponsoring the MSPAA, the Airport Foundation MSP wanted to offer something the others didn’t.
“Our program has set itself apart by offering petting stations,” says Lynn, referring to the colorful “Pet Me!” signs dotting the concourses at both terminals. Banners designate areas where passengers can gather to pet the therapy dogs.
“The ‘Pet Me!’ stations really draw folks in, as there is no question whether or not the canine can be petted. It’s also a time for teams to educate people on the nuances regarding service dog versus therapy dog versus emotional support dog.”
It’s where you’ll find Mimi several times a week, doing two of her favorite things: saying “hi” to people and performing tricks for treats.
Doggone hard work
But the Animal Ambassadors are more than just cuddly pets.
“A therapy dog is a specially trained animal that partners with its human handler to volunteer at a variety of facilities and events, bringing joy, comfort and companionship to those they meet,” says Lynn.
The amount of time each dog trains to become a therapy animal depends on the program through which they are trained. Mimi had already completed some obedience classes before she started therapy training. To become a certified therapy dog, Mimi had to demonstrate proficiency at 26 specific tasks, such as acclimating to wheelchairs and crutches, getting used to (and not chasing after) running children, and demonstrating the ability to be isolated from her handler/owner.
To be in the MSPAA, the participating canines must be registered with a National Registration Organization Therapy Animal Program, carry liability insurance, receive vaccinations and have experience working in a therapy setting. Their handlers are also required to pass through airport security screening to ensure traveler safety.
Just plane fun
Now, all the training and volunteer hours are paying off; the program is a smashing success.
“In August 2016, we started counting interactions the teams had with people at MSP,” says Lynn. “With 168 volunteer hours logged by the MSPAA teams in August, 11,840 interactions were recorded. Those numbers speak volumes for the favorable response at MSP.”
Made up of 27 different breeds ranging in size from the tiny Havanese to the hefty Great Dane, the animal ambassadors all have unique temperaments and skill sets but have one thing in common: the ability to render a smile.
Travelers can find the animal ambassadors at both MSP terminals seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., waiting patiently at their “Pet Me!” stations or strolling through the concourses with their yellow-vested handlers.
Marlene Petersen is a Twin Cities-based writer who would like to thank Helen, Mick and Mimi and all the volunteers—canine and human—in the Animal Ambassadors program for the hours of joy they bring.