These totally pawsome, completely adorable pets calm anxious travelers at Denver International Airport.
Charlie’s trading card says his pet peeve is Halloween skeletons. Barney’s card reads that his favorite place is “laying in the snow.” Devon’s card notes that his favorite treat is freeze-dried beef.
They’re a Goldendoodle, St. Bernard, and a Black Lab, respectively, and are just three of the more than 100 dogs (and one cat) that make up the Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS) at Denver International Airport. It’s the largest airport therapy animal program in the country and is made up entirely of volunteers. They (and their people, who dispense the trading cards) walk around the airport in four-hour shifts, dispensing cuddles for anxious travelers (or anyone who wants to give a belly rub), a job that is all the more important these days. While the program was suspended from March 2020 until May 2021, these days they’re back patrolling the terminals, looking for humans who could use some stress relief. We touched base with some of the CATS members to ask what it’s been like working in these unprecedented times. Here’s what they had to say.
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Jackson, 6, Goldendoodle
How did you get started doing this? What keeps you doing it?
“When I adopted Jackson I was walking through DIA with him in my arms and everyone passing by either smiled or wanted to say hello. I thought, ‘Wow dogs do wonders for people here in the airport.’ I was curious if DIA had a therapy dog program. After researching, I found the CATS program. We keep doing it because I love to watch the power Jackson has to make people feel happy. It makes me feel good to volunteer my time to an organization that truly makes a difference in the traveling and working experience at DIA. Jackson does the job so effortlessly and enjoys it, so we will be coming back until Jackson wants to retire.” — Owner Willis Wood
Trading card fact: His favorite place is any off-leash hiking trail.
Blue and Amelia, 6, Dachshunds
What does a typical day look like?
“On a typical day, we might go to the airport around 11 a.m. Our dogs have their antennas up. They see us put on the same tennis shoes and smell the scent from previous visits. When we pull out our uniforms and get everything ready, they follow us everywhere in the house until we are ready to go. Once we arrive at the parking lot, clear security, and get on the bus, they usually are a hit with fellow employees. We are quick to hand out cards and describe the program for those who are not aware. Upon reaching the airport and subsequent duty station like the B concourse, it is non-stop. The gamut of people will come up to the dogs wanting to pet them, love them, and find out more about the program. Often, they like to take a picture of them and are always inquisitive as to if there is a like program at other airports. It is a definite draw for the [DIA]. We are always watching out for any families traveling with small children, who look like they may have some time for a layover.“ — Owner Amelia Elaine-Lainey Kennedy
Trading card fact: Loves a snack called Moist n’ Meaty.
Halston, 6, Poodle
What is the best part about doing this?
“Bringing a smile to someone’s face and a giggle to a child is the best. There are really touching times as well such as being there when someone needs to decompress because something hasn’t gone right—missed a flight, traveling due to a death or illness in the family, anxiety to fly, etc. Halston gives them a momentary mental break and unconditional love that helps them to reset and relax. No day is the same, but there are always plenty of smiles and twinkling eyes when someone realizes that Halston is there to be pet and lessen their stress and boredom.” — Owner Gretchen Dirks
Trading card fact: His pet peeve is the vacuum cleaner
Toby, 5, St. Bernard/Great Pyrenees Mix
What’s the best part about doing this?
“There are so many best things in our work shift. The smiles he brings when people see him, or the excitement people get that they can actually pet him. One incident that truly touched us was when a flight attendant was heading out on her first flight in two years, not because of COVID, but she had just beaten cancer and was just returning to work. After sharing this with us, she knelt down, hugged Toby, and told him he was just what she needed as she was nervous, excited, and overall emotional. Her story made us tear up. Another time a young girl came running up to us, knelt in front of Toby, and just started crying. We quickly found out she had just lost her dog the day before and needed to have that dog bond before getting on her flight. We gave her Toby’s trading card and she told us she would have it forever as it was just what she needed to start healing from her loss.”
Trading card facts: He loves bacon and hiking in the mountains, but hates getting his teeth brushed.
Matilda, 7, Newfoundland
How do people react when they see your dog?
“My dog is a big, black Newfoundland. The most common remark we hear is, ‘I didn’t know they allow bears in the airport.’ Of course, five seconds later they are hugging Matilda and taking her picture.” — Owner Ronald Horn
Trading card fact: Her favorite place is riding in the car.
Jake, 9, Terrier/Poodle Mix
Do you think people hang onto the trading cards?
“There is just about a cult out there at the airport of people collecting as many as they can. All the folks manning the little kiosks in the concourses are always calling me over and telling me that they don’t have Jake’s card. They then show me all that they have collected on a door. TSA wants his card also for their break rooms, too. And when we did a tour of the DIA offices a year or so ago, we walked in and someone yelled, ‘CATS are here.’ Everyone came out of their cubicles to pet the dogs and get their cards. The traveling public really enjoys them also. It’s a great addition to the program.” — Owner Ron
Trading card fact: His pet peeve is rabbits in his backyard.
Xeli, 9, Domestic Shorthair Cat
How does it feel being the only cat in CATS?
“It’s quite an honor to be part of the CATS team with the only cat. She’s been to a few events with the CATS canine crew and they seem much more interested in her than she is in them. Her trading card is very sought after since it’s so unique. That being said, hopefully, someday we’ll have more cats!” — Owner Nathan Pensack-Rinehart
Trading card facts: Her favorite treat is catnip and her favorite place is atop her cat tree.