XNA starts therapy dog program, passengers react positively to pets

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 581 views 

Dirk and Beckett, who belong to Stephanie Ensley and Melissa Freeman, are two of the dogs in the new Runway Rovers program at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Photo courtesy Stephanie Ensley.

Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport recently established a therapy dog program to provide another layer of customer service at the Highfill-based airport.

So far, public reaction to the Runway Rovers program has been positive, said Roberto Sucre, special projects coordinator for XNA. People have said how the dogs have improved their day, and appreciated how the airport has become involved with its passengers.

Runway Rovers includes 10 volunteers along with 10 privately-owned dogs that are certified through a nationally recognized therapy dog association. This ensures the dogs are properly trained and their actions are covered under insurance. While the dogs are trained, they are not service or emotional support dogs.

“These dogs are there for people to pet,” Sucre said. “They don’t approach people. People have to approach them.”

Other airports such as Denver International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport and Tulsa International Airport have similar programs, and some have other animals, including pigs and miniature horses. But for now, the one here only includes dogs, with breeds such as Great Pyrenees, Golden Retriever and Beagle.

“It’s a very popular program at a lot of other airports,” airport director Kelly Johnson said. “We did it here informally a couple of years ago. We had a volunteer that had a therapy dog that she brought out with her. But we’ve gone ahead and formalized the program.”

When asked if one of the dogs were to bite someone, Johnson said the airport has an agreement in place with the pet owners, and insurance would cover the injury. “We haven’t heard of any instances of that. Their training is fairly extensive.”

The volunteers also are trained how to respond when finding unattended luggage and provide useful information for first-time flyers, said. The program is an extension of the airport’s existing volunteer program.

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