By Alison Rentschler | Photography by Kelvin Andow
I meet Max near the gates and security entrance at the Rochester International Airport (RST). He stands out from the crowd, a large Long Haired German Shepherd. Max is a registered therapy dog, and he is with his handler, Victoria Cliby.
The team moves from traveler to traveler.
“Do you want to say hi?” Cliby talks to people and asks if they have a dog or if they’d like to pet Max.
“He’s the greeter,” she explains. Max takes it all in, welcoming everyone who would like to pet him.
I think one of Max’s favorite parts is when Cliby asks someone if they’d like to give Max a treat. He eats it right up. “He likes his work and he’s good at it.”
Max is one of the registered therapy dogs participating in the Caring Tails Pet Therapy Program at the Rochester International Airport, a new program that includes eight therapy dog teams, with plans to add more.
Tiana Rossow, marketing and communications manager at RST, had the idea to start a pet therapy program in Rochester after visiting other airports that had similar programs.
“In part, people have traveled here for medical issues, and are away from home,” she says. “Pet therapy can help relieve stress.”
She contacted the Alliance of Therapy Dogs about the idea and discovered they have a board member, Don Vaughan, in Kasson, Minn.
“We met, and he gave me the confidence we could set up the program here.” Rossow reached out to volunteers through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and several were interested in the program.
The therapy dogs are generally at the airport a few times a week, usually in the afternoons.
“I’d hoped for one visit a week in the early phases … It’s exceeded my expectations,” said Rossow. “I’ve been happy with seeing the reactions from passengers.”
Greeting the travelers
As we walk through the airport, one woman is video-chatting on her phone and introduces Max to her chatting partner, showing Max on the screen. “Hi Max!” says a young girl on the other end of the video chat.
Meeting Max renders smiles. Some take photos of him or talk about their dogs. Several comment on his beauty or ask about his breed or age.
“It’s amazing the conversations that happen … I see conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” says Rossow. “People’s faces light up, they start sharing stories of their dogs, or why they’re here.”
She’s satisfied with the program’s launch in Rochester.
“I’m really grateful for everyone … who has been involved and happy with how it’s been received over time. It’s already exceeded my expectations.”
Alison Rentschler is a writer and editor living in Rochester with her two dogs and cat.
Visit www.flyRST.com/CaringTails to meet the dogs and apply to volunteer.