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Paws for Passengers participants friend flyers

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

by Les Maier

By the time you read this, Eli, my highly gregarious Havanese, and I will probably have become certified as a Paws for Passengers therapy team to greet people at the Asheville Regional Airport (AVL). The Paws for Passengers program has been in operation there since 2017.

Personally, I have been involved in pet therapy since 1993. I am still actively doing therapy visits with five year old Eli and Annie, my 11 year old Shetland sheepdog. We have been to several nursing homes in Hendersonville since moving here in 2016, and have helped in many non-profit events. What I did not expect was to be the recipient of the comfort of a therapy dog myself, especially at the airport.

My daughter’s fiancé passed away in October of 2017 and my husband and I had to quickly arrange a trip to Chicago to be with her. We had had a sleepless night and were at AVL for a flight out in less than ideal shape. A therapy dog team (that just happened to include a lovely little Havanese) came and sat with us for quite a while as I explained our need for the sudden trip. I had known that therapy dogs helped folks, of course, but being on the receiving end gave me such calming relief then as well as a better understanding of just how much comfort a therapy dog and handler provide.

Several members of Hendersonville’s Canine Therapy Partners-WNC group are also current volunteers with the Paws for Passengers program at AVL, as I hope to be soon, and volunteered their comments.

Sarah McCuen wrote: "From the moment Cooper and I enter the airport building we are greeted by smiling employees, (housekeeping, security, airline crews), and the passengers waiting for their flights. They love every minute with our "furry ambassadors"!

Tom Hudgin wrote of his Border collie, Hope: “When I stepped into my clothes closet and reached for the blue “Paws for Passengers’ polo shirt, Hope wagged her tail excitedly and disappeared to retrieve her yellow vest which says ‘Pet Me – AVL Airport’”. (Note: Hope was rescued from an abandoned farm in Tennessee at age three and, after training, was certified as a therapy dog with Alliance of Therapy Dogs.)

Tom, like all Paws for Passengers volunteers, passed the rigid approval process for being a therapy dog team at an airport, including a challenging TSA exam, a satisfactory background check, passing a drug test and participating in a comprehensive orientation program. Now as active teams at the airport, they must pass through the initial ID checkpoint, including going through the metal detection and security screening just like all passengers. They next proceed to the boarding areas where anyone seeming nervous is greeted with Hope sitting in front of them and raising her paw to shake hands in welcome. Most often, the dogs become surrounded by children and adults who enjoy sitting with Hope and talking of their pets past and present. Later Hope, like most therapy dogs after a visit, goes home for a snooze after a job well done.

Following are a few quotes from passengers: “Thank you for allowing Jelly, the therapy dog, to mingle. I lost my sister three days ago and having Jelly to pet was a very calming, comforting thing. Thank you.”

“Comfort dog program is wonderful. Keep it up!”

“Paws for Passengers absolutely made our day! Being able to pet a sweet dog completely erased my anxiety of flying for the first time! Never change!”

David King, Guest Services & Sales Supervisor of the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority, said, “We have 25 teams with a variety of dogs. The passengers, the tenant employees, and staff love seeing them.”

Les Maier is a tester/observer for Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) and a founder/President of Canine Therapy Partners-WNC, which is comprised of Alliance of Therapy Dog-certified teams who serve throughout Henderson and surrounding counties. The group encourages more folks to become involved and provides information on pet therapy and pet information in general to members and like-minded pet lovers. Email to join the group or with regard to ATD testing.

Optional pull quote: “Comfort dog program is wonderful. Keep it up!”

Photo Captions: Les Maier and Eli

Tom Hudgin and Hope

Sarah McCuen and Cooper


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