Travel can be anxiety-inducing even in the best circumstances, so with the added chaos and crowds of the holiday season, many of the six million Americans expected to travel by air this week will be in need of serious de-stressing.
To help its customers get to their destination more comfortably, United Airlines is sending 200 specially trained comfort dogs to airports in seven major cities from Dec. 21 to 23. Travelers passing through airports in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Denver, Newark, Washington D.C., Houston, and Chicago can greet and pet one of the comfort dogs from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m.
The airline first introduced its comfort-dog program, called United Paws, during last year’s holiday season in Chicago and Houston. Because of its success, the airline renewed and expanded the program this year.
"Research shows that just petting a dog releases oxytocin, the hormone associated with bonding and affection, and also decreases levels of stress, helps us breathe easier and lowers our blood pressure," says Dr. Walter Woolf, United's veterinary consultant.
In addition to airline-specific programs like United Paws, some airports offer the services of comfort dogs year-round. For example, last year Los Angeles International Airport launched the Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program, which places therapy dogs in busy areas of the airport. The dogs wear vests inviting travelers to pet them. Similar programs are available at other airports around the country, including Denver, Miami, and San Jose.
Other organizations are finding different ways to harness the de-stressing effects of animals. For example, in May, a university in England created a puppy room for students to visit during the week of final exams, and later this year, several American universities followed suit, offering therapy dog visits to stressed students.