In a first-of-its-kind venture in Asia, GVK CSIA (Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport) has initiated a pet therapy programme called ‘Comforting Angels’ in partnership with Animal Angels Therapy Centre (Pune) at the iconic Terminal 2 of the Mumbai airport. These wagging comforting pooches are employed to soothe, comfort and de-stress air travelers inside the departure terminal. Let’s find it out how.
Like any other happy Golden Retrievers, Goldie and Pepe lounge around in the house, looking out of the window, shooing off the pigeons, getting pampered by their pet parents, taking long naps, going for long walks and runs, playing with each other and so on. But come Friday evening and they spring up into action. They get groomed, they wear their jackets and they go off to work – at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. Then they are not just any other dogs, they are trained ‘therapy dogs’ who work at the international airport as ‘comfort dogs’.
Who are they?
Pepe is a four-year-old Golden Retriever, Sunshine is a two-year-old Golden Retriever and Goldie at eleven years is the senior most therapy dog in the Animal Angels squad. Since puppyhood they were trained by Aakash Lonkar and Minal Kavishwar, founders of Animal Angels, to work as therapy dogs. As therapy dogs, they are trained to be friendly and gentle to people, to accept petting from strangers, not to jump on people and to respond to human emotions. These dogs work with therapists and counselors and assist them in providing emotional support to those in need.
What they do?
Now you may wonder what therapy dogs would do in a place like a busy airport! Those of you who travel often would know how stressful traveling can be. Not everyone travels for leisure; some have to travel constantly for business; some travel for difficult personal reasons like a funeral of a loved one or medical emergency. And there are many who travel alone and have no one to talk to during long traveling or waiting hours at the airport. When flights get delayed or canceled travelers get stranded in the airport with virtually doing nothing. To add on to that, there always the stress of reaching the airport in time, going through tedious security checks, managing baggage, traveling with kids/senior citizens… all piles on to the already building up stress. Now imagine running to the airport trying reach in time, rushing through security check, waiting at the ever so boring immigration line, crossing on to the departure lounge, to be greeted by two gorgeous tail wagging Comforting Angels. It will instantly melt away all your stress. This is the role of these therapy dogs at the airport. They engage with travelers and ground staff to reduce their stress levels and to keep spreading happiness and love. We see travelers drop their baggage and get down on the floor to cuddle these dogs. There are so many travelers that we meet, who are visibly stressed before meeting the therapy dogs and in five minutes are visibly relaxed and less anxious.
Why so unique?
There have been instances where some passengers get overwhelmed on just seeing the dogs or on hugging them, that they start crying as a way of catharsis. Little kids who get cranky after all the lines and waiting enjoy their time with the ‘angels’. We have also had so many people telling us that this is the best thing that they have seen on any other international airport. Of course, we proudly echo their thoughts saying that we are the only airport in Asia and one of the few around the world to have ‘comfort dogs’ to reduce travel stress in passengers.
How they work?
Pepe, Goldie and Sunshine work in shifts at the airport, with two of them working at a time with three handlers/counselors. They enjoy their work and look forward to it every weekend – Friday to Sunday. But of course, their job is not easy. They have to withstand constant attention and touch from travelers. They have to go through the mandatory security check and have perfect gentleman like behaviour while being frisked. They have to get used to the trolleys, buggies, noises and announcements, crowds and security checks. They have to deal with high and low human emotions and be enthusiastic in greeting people. Since they are trained for all of this and have years of experience working in similar situations, they can perform well. When not working at the airport, they work in special schools and institutes with children with developmental disabilities.
What they do off-duty?
Though these dogs have to be on their perfect behaviour when at work, they are just like other normal dogs when at home. Sunshine being the youngest is also the naughtiest of the lot. She needs a lot of attention and will sometimes also hog attention if someone is petting Pepe or Goldie. She started her training when she was a two-month-old pup and it has been more than a year that she is working with us. She stays with one of our therapist and is like any other pet when she is at home. At work she is sharp, attentive, extremely loving and intuitive in responding to emotional needs in people. She is obsessed with the ball and has unique way of jumping on it like a Billy goat.
Pepe is like a true lady. She is very mature, graceful, loving and will initiate interaction even from those who are withdrawn. She has an ever smiling face and loves to play with soft toys. Pepe has been working as a therapy dog with Animal Angels since she was eight months old. She has also worked with children with developmental disabilities. She is very popular at the airport and a lot of frequent travelers ask for her is she’s not there at the airport on a break day. Goldie, our senior most therapy dog, is really the boss. She has years of experience working on all the pioneering Animal Therapy projects done in India by Animal Angels. She has worked with children with developmental disabilities, senior citizens, blast survivors, people with post trauma stress, etc. On work days, when we have to leave for work, she gets as excited to put on the jacket and get to work as out new puppy. She loves her work and does not like to be left back. She is very enthusiastic and loves to play and run. She has got the most heart melting eyes and she can sooth your mind by just cuddling up besides her. Goldie, Pepe and Sunshine are pioneers in their field and will set examples for other pets wanting to work as therapy animals and spread love and joy. Animal Angels Therapy Centre that heads and manages this project is proud to be associated with GVK CSIA to bring such simple joys to passengers. The programme has been a success at the airport and the passengers have been extremely appreciative of this ongoing adorable experience.
(For more info log on to: www.animalangels.org.in)