Over the past several decades the use of therapy dogs has grown in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, schools and hospitals. But it's within the past 10 years that they've started to appear in airports. Last fall, the Portland International Jetport introduced a dog therapy program that has become popular with stressed travelers and workers.
It's fitting that the first ever therapy dog at the Portland International Jetport was a St. Bernard and that her name is Karma. Although Karma isn't performing the harrowing rescues of hapless travelers in the Swiss Alps that her breed is associated with, this St. Bernard performs her own kind of mini-rescues every week.
From the moment that Karma pads her big furry paws into the Jetport, she's a magnet for animal lovers whose faces light up as soon as they see her. A small group of women walking towards baggage claim stop in their tracks and run their hands through her soft, thick fur.
Karma is guided through the airport by her owner, James Cahan of Falmouth. Cahan volunteers his time to bring Karma here. He wears a purple Jetport polo, and Karma sports a leash and tag that identifies her as a therapy dog. Cahan says he got Karma certified at the suggestion of a friend. Her resume includes libraries and hospitals, and airport was added to the list after Cahan pitched the idea to Jetport officials. Karma was the first dog to report for duty, last September.
"She's so sweet and she has such a good temperament.”
Some days, Cahan says, he can barely walk a few steps- or finish a conversation - before Karma is suddenly pressed into service.
Nathaniel Harris is in the gate area waiting to catch a flight back home to New Jersey. As he squats down to hug Karma, he says his travel day has had a rough start.
"A front end loader decided to back into my rental car,” Harris says. “So I had to deal with that this morning. Because of that, I'm here five hours ahead of my flight, so this is actually helping."
Delayed flights, missed connections, and overall anxiety about flying can make airports stressful places.
That's why the Portland Jetport decided to take Cahan up on his suggestion to start a dog therapy program. It's an idea that was first launched at the San Jose Airport in California in the wake of 9/11 and that has spread to several dozen airports since, according to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Zachary Briggs, the manager of customer experience at the Portland Jetport, says the program is so popular that it has grown to nine dogs and counting, along with their human ambassadors.
"People kind of loosen up when they're around them, and then they start to engage with the ambassadors as well to kind of tell them where they're going or what might be going on,” says Briggs. “It's definitely helped to improve their travel experience through the Jetport."
Karma's fan base also extends to Jetport workers. Security agents call her by name. Restaurant staffers bring her treats from the kitchen. A cashier for one of the shops, Sue Corbeau, says that when she sees a therapy dog, her day instantly brightens.
"Because they’re happy to see you, they love you, they don’t even care who you are,” Corbeau says. “Ya know what I mean? Karma will come over, she doesn't care who you are, what you do, where you’ve been. They just love you."
Cahan says he's been surprised at how much joy Karma brings Jetport workers. And to travelers he hadn't thought about before – those catching flights for more sobering reasons, like military deployment or bereavement. He recalls the time when a woman signaled for him to bring Karma over to her.
"And this woman just collapsed in her fur, and she was spending a lot of time,” he says. “And, you know, I don’t ask any questions. That's not my business. But she told me that she had someone pass away and she was flying over and this was really helpful. And I really believe that. It’s enough in this world that you can add something to someone’s life. And, you know, that’s what she (Karma) does."
Karma relishes the attention she gets, calmly accepting the coos, the pats, the hugs.
But Cahan says all the love can also overwhelm her. So, after an hour, Karma's shift is over. But she'll be back in a week, providing comfort to whoever needs it.