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Airport Therapy Dogs Ease the Stress of Travel

Travel is only fun when you arrive.

Key points

  • The process of travel can be a source of stress.
  • Paws 4 Passengers uses therapy dogs in the Reno-Tahoe Airport to soothe stressed passengers.
  • Therapy dogs are different than service dogs.
Source: Image Courtesy of Sarah Hoggan DVM
Source: Image Courtesy of Sarah Hoggan DVM

Covid put travel on hold for years. During its peak, people would speak of airline travel longingly, recalling how fabulous it was to board a plane and in a matter of hours, wake up somewhere brand new.

Like most things, the magic eraser of time allowed us to fool ourselves into remembering airline travel much rosier than its actual reality. Visiting exotic locations and reuniting with family is fabulous. But spending time in an airport barely even rhymes with fabulous; it is strenuous. Strenuous in small ways like paying $10 for a coffee and $20 for a cocktail, and strenuous in large ways like hearing little kids incessantly cry, or ruminating with your own anxiety and a fear of flying.

Fortunately for every animal lover, the Reno-Tahoe International Airport has recognized how stressful air travel can be; and they have a team of canine ambassadors to help people throughout the airport feel just a little bit better.

The program is called Paws 4 Passengers: 36 therapy dogs, and their dedicated humans, roam the airport spreading smiles. They are allowed in all areas of the airport from security to boarding gates. For purposes of hygiene, they do not enter eating establishments.

Unlike service animals, these dogs are meant to be petted and showered with attention. Kodi, a friendly German Shepherd and one of P4P’s ambassadors, posed for photos wearing fuzzy bunny ears.

Even if you don’t want to engage in petting them, just seeing them walking around, wagging their tails, feels good. Paws 4 Passengers is Reno-based and Nevada’s only location. Fortunately, 22 other states, and three countries (Canada, Italy, and Mumbai), have programs that parallel Paws 4 Passengers.

While the smile generated from seeing a friendly dog in an unexpected place is obvious; Paws 4 Passengers presence in the airport is based on science. A 2012 study by Crotts and Zehrer documented the process of traveling to your destination is stressful. Contrary to that, a 2020 meta-analysis by El-Qushayri et al. showed that sharing your home with a dog or a cat, lowered your risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 19 percent.

Stress contributes to cardiovascular disease because it causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Those two factors put a strain on your heart. The presence of animals lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, thus reducing the strain on your heart. Paws 4 Passengers serves the purpose of not just bringing smiles, but literally trying to help the health of your heart.

As I stopped for a picture with Kodi instead of hearing a stressed-out toddler have a meltdown, I heard an excited little girl squeal, “Oh, doggie!” Another small child walking past with her hurried parents pointed out Kodi’s playful costume, “That dog is an Easter Bunny!”

Moments like that, are an unexpected joy, in a day that started as a marathon of stress. It is not an accidental design that airports have bars. A glass of wine can help you relax. Fortunately, now, some airports have dogs too!

Sarah Hoggan DVM
Sarah Hoggan DVM


Crotts, J. C., & Zehrer, A. (2012). An exploratory study of vacation stress. Tourism Analysis, 17(4), 547-552.

El-Qushayri AE., Kamel AMA, Faraj HA, et al. Association between pet ownership and cardiovascular risks and mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Cardiovasc Med (Hagerstown) 2020;21(5): 359–367. 10.2459/JCM.0000000000000920. Meta-analysis which shows that having pets reduced the risk of death and improved cardiovascular function.

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