PORTLAND, Maine — James Cahan of Falmouth stood on the public side of security screening at the Jetport on Tuesday, right next to an enormous beast. Nobody mistook his jowled, floofy canine for a guard dog. Almost everyone who passed went out of their way to pet, hug and make baby talk with his 3-year-old St. Bernard named Karma.
That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work. Karma is one of nine volunteer, certified therapy dogs in the Jetport’s ambassador program. The calm pooches roam the departure lounge, helping airline passengers deal with the stress associated with air travel.
“People who like dogs just kind of light up when they see her. I just hold the other end of the leash,” Cahan said. “We’ve met kids in the service just shipping out and other folks on bereavement travels. She doesn’t know any tricks but she does know how to make people feel better. They just dig their hands into her fur and it happens.”
Zach Briggs, Jetport customer experience manager, oversees the ambassador program. It began almost six years ago with just humans. It’s grown into a group of about 15 people volunteering their time, helping people find their way through the airport as well as answering questions about the area. They can even recommend local eateries.
In September, dogs were added to the program via a connection with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national organization providing testing, certification and insurance for people who volunteer with their dogs in places like nursing homes, schools and libraries.
“The dogs really ease people through this whole flying process,” Briggs said.
Portland is just one of an expanding number of North American airports inviting therapy dogs in to interact with their customers. Other cities on the growing list include Denver, Colorado; Edmonton, Alberta; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Los Angeles, California.
Multiple scientific studies published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research find petting a dog can lower blood pressure and harmful stress hormones such as cortisol. It can also elevate beneficial hormones such as oxytocin, which is associated with relaxation.
Not all travel is for pleasure. The dogs comfort folks traveling to funerals, as well as soldiers and sailors leaving home. They also support people stricken with anxiety over TSA security screenings.
Then, Briggs said, there’s always people with the plain old fear of flying — not to mention dreaded weather delays leading to missed connections at other airports.
One young traveler on Tuesday was nervous about flying and spent an extended amount of time with Bruin, a 158-pound gentle giant with distinguished gray whiskers.
“She was hugging him, laying on him, taking his picture,” said Cathy Woodhouse, Bruin’s owner.
Just down the concourse, Karma was on duty, too.
“She’s definitely doing her job. Almost everybody who has come by here has stopped to pet her,” said Sue Kohler of Standish who was waiting for a flight to Tampa. “And look at all the smiles on their faces.”
Individual dogs usually do hour-long shifts at the airport, then head home. Briggs said the goal is to someday have enough volunteer dogs and owners to always have a fuzzy canine on duty.
“It’s a growing program,” Briggs said. “We have no cap on the number of dogs.”
Follow BDN Portland on Facebook for the latest news in Greater Portland and southern Maine.