PETS UNSTRESSING PASSENGERS
On an Italian December evening, while visiting my parents, I was browsing the LA Times to keep up with my second home's news and stumbled upon this article talking about the growing number (and importance) of therapy dogs in airports and for the first time heard of the PUPs program: Pets Unstressing Passengers. What?? How did I not know about the existence of this? I don't travel as much as I'd like to but I've done my rounds at LAX over the last 5 years - how long the program has been around - and never noticed any of the 80+ (numbers vary with availability and life cycles of these furry emotional saviors), any size (from Chihuahua to Wolfhound and all the way in between), red vested therapy dogs that welcome, say goodbye, or simply sit by passengers in transit at all terminals.
I immediately reached out to Heidi, director of the program and the luckiest city employee (I know she agrees with me), in the hope to go and snap some pictures of the dogs in action - I have always wanted to do a series about working dogs and thought this would be the perfect way to start. Thankfully she agreed with me and, together, we embarked on a few months of portrait sessions, intermitted with action shots.
What immediately came clear was the unspeakable power of these companions we've surrounded ourselves with for thousands of years: their presence alone is therapeutic. Therapy dogs have been used in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, prisons and court rooms to help reduce loneliness, anxiety, feelings of isolation, to help build self-esteem and confidence, and to provide comfort and support for kids and adults with mental illness, motor disorders, depression and other medical conditions.
When it comes to an airport, we often take for granted and associate the act of traveling with the idea of vacation and fun times, sometimes forgetting that airports are also many commuters' lounge, while waiting to embark on a work trip; they're a source of anxiety for people scared of flying, no matter the reason; they can be a forced stop for grieving individuals, sick kids on their way to receive treatment, or people forced to leave a country. In any of these instances, negative feelings and emotions are often rampant and the presence of, as well as petting a dog, could be the antidote to dealing with them. Research has shown how the mere act of petting a dog produces an automatic response of calm, relaxation and less physical pain symptoms, raising the levels of oxytocin, the "love hormone". What better place than an airport, particularly a busy one like Los Angeles International, to have such beneficial program!
The project is still ongoing and there are a few ideas I'm playing with, upon seeing the results, but I wanted to start sharing some of the shots and stories behind the dogs. And their wonderful owners/handlers/friends. Stay tuned for more!