SAN JOSE, Calif. — Henry James weaves between legs and roller bags at Mineta San Jose International Airport, but he’s in no rush. Around him, people scurry to their gates, but for the 4-year-old golden retriever, being calm is his job.
“Do you want to see him?” his owner Kyra Hubis asked two passengers waiting to board a plane home to Atlanta. “This is Henry James, he’s a therapy dog.”
Elliot Willard was at the airport with his sister-in-law, Ashley Willard, because his grandfather, who lived in San Jose, recently passed away. As they tousled Henry James’ long, shaggy fur, smiles spread across their faces. It was exactly the result hoped for. Every Monday, Henry James and Hubis walk the terminals to comfort passengers who may be stressed, grieving or feeling the jitters of flying.
Hubis, a retired critical care nurse for 30 years, runs the therapy dog program as a volunteer. She finds that many passengers are in need of a dog’s wagging tail, wet nose and unconditional love.
“Traveling is a stressful experience,” said Rosemary Barnes, the airport’s public information manager. “You may be going to a job interview. You may have lost a loved one. There are so many reasons that people come to airports.”
The program began after 9/11, when an airport pastor brought in her own dog to help soothe stressed and frightened passengers. The effort has since grown to include 11 volunteers who walk their therapy dogs — including a German shepherd, miniature schnauzer and bordeaux mastiff — up and down the terminals, a few hours a week. The program runs on donations, which pay for the uniforms of the furry counselors: red vests covered in patches embroidered with slogans like “Pet me I’m friendly.”
“We know from a whole body of research that blood rate, heart rate and respiratory rate decrease when a person interacts with an animal,” said Rebecca Johnson, researcher at the University of Missouri.
For people who like dogs and are not extremely allergic, these animals have a proven calming effect, said Johnson. Just as people soften with the smile of a stranger, dogs can lighten a heavy mood. “These dogs are going to be perpetually smiling and engaging people and making eye contact. That’s a positive force,” Johnson said.
Back in Terminal B, Joe Truckey of California’s Orange County reached down to pet Henry James. Truckey, whose leg was injured by a forklift when he was 18, has mingled with therapy dogs in the past.
At age 45, he had an operation on his leg that left him bed ridden in the hospital. Bored and anxious, the hospital’s therapy dogs helped to calm him. “They looked just like him,” said Truckey, as Henry James panted and wagged his long, fluffy tail.
Each dog must be tested and certified to be part of the program. The dogs must remain calm amid frenzied crowds, rolling wheelchairs and screaming children.
“They have to handle people touching them and people crying into them,” said Hubis, who has visited with grieving family members and nervous flyers.
Hubis only approaches people who are interested in visiting with a 90-pound energetic hound. She never asks people their names or where they are going, but often when passengers begin to pet Henry James, they open up about their lives.
After a half-hour of walking the gates and greeting at least two dozen people, including waddling toddlers, Hubis leads Henry James into the airport meditation room for a drink of water and a quick snack. By the time they leave two hours later, they might visit with more than a hundred passengers.
Los Angeles International Airport plans to start a similar program, modeled after the program run in San Jose, to make their passengers more comfortable. Miami International Airport has also implemented a therapy dog program.
“I’m a dog person, and I know if I were upset, I’d want a dog,” said Hubis, who is hoping to grow the program with more dogs walking the San Jose’s terminals more often.