The joy of animal companionship and a warm, soothing interaction with them is scientifically proven to help in reducing stress levels among tense, timid individuals. With this discovery, dog therapy came into being and swiftly caught the interest of animal lovers across the globe.
The trend of turning to therapy by man’s best friend initially found popularity in the US and certain European nations. Internationally, even airports have begun to introduce therapy cells that help soothe frightened passengers’ nerves through guided animal interaction.
Travelers with special needs, such as persons suffering from autism also rely on therapy dogs to calm them as they go through flight procedures.
At MIAL, the airport that places supreme importance on the well-being of its passengers, animal-assisted therapy was introduced in September 2015 for travel anxiety-ridden passengers who required a stress-busting session with these beautiful, gentle animals.
These four-legged therapists help passengers shake off their jet-lag after long flights or cope with their fear of flying. Dog therapy in the form of ‘Comforting Angels’ at the Mumbai Airport offers its passengers a unique and fun way of loosening up, by interacting with the therapy dogs while they wait for their flights.
They not only de-stress travellers running on a tight schedule, but also help calm nervous first-time fliers before they board their planes. In all their activities, therapy dogs provide unconditional acceptance and love to those they are surrounded with.
The dogs that are chosen to be therapy dogs are specifically selected based on their temperament, and trained from a very young age to respond positively to an individual’s emotional needs.
Pepe, Sunshine and Pearl are all female golden retrievers selected and specifically trained for the task. The breeds chosen are those that are instinctively calm and patient even in new and unfamiliar situations, and not alarmed by the presence of too many new people.
They are trained to interact with people in different kinds of situations, and have outgoing natures to ensure that people open up to them. They are desensitized to new situations and persons, to ensure they behave in a calm manner and do not get excited and intimidate people.
The Comforting Angels of MIAL are coached at an animal therapy centre at Pune, where they learn to identify passengers who smell particularly anxious, nervous or upset. These therapy dogs then approach such passengers in their official jackets which read “Pet Me” and allow them to play with them as they let go of their worries and fears.
Comforting Angels is the first initiative of its kind in Asia. At present, there are three therapy dogs who work in rotation on weekend evenings at T2. Pepe, Sunshine and Pearl, along with their handlers, who are also trained in counseling, help get the passengers’ oxytocin levels up, be it bored business travelers, senior citizens, cranky toddlers, or their hassled parents.
The therapy dogs move freely around Terminal 2 with their handlers, and passengers are welcome to engage with them absolutely free of cost.
Playing fetch, rolling around on the ground, or even simply spending a few moments to cuddle these furry angels is a guaranteed stress-reliever. Even the most harried passengers do not fail to smile at the sight of these friendly faces.
That said, therapy dogs also serve in many other capacities, including helping people with learning difficulties, assisting medical professionals in providing mental and physical therapy to their clients, and by bringing comfort to people recovering from crisis.
Spending time with the canine squad also helps alleviate some of the physical and mental fatigue from travelling long distances. Passengers have come to enjoy the time they spend with these therapy dogs at MIAL so much that they often wish their flights were delayed even longer, only to spend some more time with these angels.
Keeping in mind that not everyone is a lover of animals; the airport management has limited the number of therapy dogs to two per shift, accompanied by three handlers.
These dogs approach the anxious individual with friendly tail-wagging, affectionate licks or offering a paw to shake, making it hard to resist their welcoming smiles and wagging tails, regardless of whether there is time to kill or not.
Also, as these therapy dogs are working dogs, maintaining their health and emotional quotient is very important. Their handlers ensure that the dogs are not stressed and overworked at any point of time.
A normal day’s routine for them starts with a long walk for half an hour followed by a good meal and rest. The Comforting Angels work in shifts and are rotated to keep them fresh and active. On a given day two out of three dogs come to the airport.
The therapy dogs can be found at the T2 terminal of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 5.30 – 7.30 pm at the domestic terminal, and from 8.00 – 11.00 pm at the international terminal.