“Aww, they’re so cute,” says a traveler who passes some therapy dogs that strut like runway models along a United Airlines concourse with their pet parents at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.

The five pups, big and small, settle into a spot in a hallway. Passengers, rushing to make their flights, stop for a moment to pet these friendly, well-behaved canines whose purpose is to relieve their anxiety and lift their spirits.

Meredith Kelso and her son “are actually en route to see our dog." She adds as an afterthought, "And my husband.” She laughs. "We had a rough morning. We were in an airport for five or six hours this morning with a delay, so this is great.”

The pups and their owners are volunteers with a Washington dog therapy group, People Animals Love (PAL). They usually go to places like nursing homes. PAL partnered with a United Airlines program, started about a year ago, called United Paws, in which comfort dogs are brought to seven airports in the United States to help calm passengers during busy holidays.

'Warm and cuddly'

Sarah Weibel, who is traveling with her own tiny dog, thinks it is a good idea. “If you have someone who is nervous about flying, you’re going to calm them right down,” she explains.

Tired from his Switzerland flight, Jeffrey Ober is tickled to see the animals. “It’s really nice to see something warm and cuddly as you’re walking through the airport,” he says with a weary smile.

Juliette Gougeon, who arrived from England, immediately takes to a black Labrador. “Airports can be a very stressful environment when you’re running from a gate, from one place to another,” she says. “I think it’s quite nice to be able to stop on the way to pat a dog. It’s quite homey, actually.”

A youngster named Lexi, getting ready at Dulles In
A youngster named Lexi, getting ready at Dulles International Airport for a trip with her mother to Switzerland, takes time to make friends with Aslan, a Leonberger who works as a therapy dog with People Animals Love. (D. Block/VOA)

United flight attendant Matthew Smith, who crisscrosses the U.S. from Los Angeles, bonds with Aslan, a jumbo, golden-haired breed called a Leonberger. The patient dog, decked out with a pair of sunglasses, draws a lot of attention and a lot of photos. United Airlines is donating $1 for every photo of the dogs that is shared on social media (#UnitedPaws) to PAL and other dog therapy groups that participate in the program.

Aslan “always gets so many smiles, especially from parents,” says his owner, Jen O’Keefe. “It distracts the kids a little bit, especially when they’re waiting.”

Little Arya is trying to figure out the difference between petting and pulling dogs' fur. Her mom, Laila Bueckers, enjoys the distraction as they wait to board a flight to Germany. “When you’re traveling, it’s a very stressful environment, and if you’re a dog person, this is great.”

Good for pilots, too

Some pilots get a surprise visit at their office. “I was really stressed out until these dogs showed up,” says Doug Hidlay, who is thrilled to see them come in.

“There’s nothing better than having a friendly face and four legs flopping around the office,” adds Jim Frank.

Two boys waiting to catch a flight at Dulles Inter
Two boys waiting to catch a flight at Dulles International Airport get to know a People Animals Love therapy dog. (D. Block/VOA)

PAL volunteer Joan Braden says she and her pup also helped provide much needed emotional support for a traveling dog lover. “She had the same kind of dog, a goldendoodle, that she lost last month, and she started to cry. We sat and chatted awhile about her dog and how much she loved her dog, and I think it was a nice moment.” Braden says, her eyes misty.

After three hours of meet and greet, Katy Anadale’s dog, Lilly, is exhausted and sleeping in her arms. “She loved saying hi to everybody,” says Anadale. “I’m glad we could make a difference.”