- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — With two scheduled layovers on her daylong flight home to Nevada, Laura DePersia’s nerves were on edge as she waited inside Augusta Regional Airport’s terminal.

Then along came Gracie, Slider, Sally and Bob.

The four therapy dogs - a golden retriever, a boxer, a Scottish deerhound and an Australian shepherd - soon made her forget that her first flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, was delayed for nearly two hours.

While petting Gracie’s soft coat, DePersia said she could think only about her two golden retrievers - Katie, 12, and Hugger, 14 - who were waiting at home for her in Reno.

“This is a great start to my day,” said DePersia, 51, who also had a layover in Phoenix. “It makes me feel right at home.”

DePersia’s distraction from the stress of flying was exactly what Augusta airport officials were going for this month, when they announced they have joined with volunteers from Therapy Dogs Inc. to introduce a new canine ambassador program, Paws for Pax.

Six certified teams from the company’s local branch, Jae-Mar-S Academy of Obedience, will rotate each week, roaming the main terminal and gate area of the airport to spread happiness and entertainment to travelers who might feel tense about flying, said Marlene Stachowiak, a Therapy Dogs handler.

“Our overall goal is customer service,” said Gary LeTellier, the airport’s executive director. “We felt, what better way to enhance the customer experience than have friendly dogs walking around the terminal greeting people with wagging tails?”

Therapy dogs are often associated with providing relief for traumatic events, and they have been comforting patients in the Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army and Charlie Norwood VA medical centers since 1989.

Volunteers estimate that 20 airports nationwide have therapy dogs to ease air-travel worries heightened recently by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines 370 in March and the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July. Besides the fear of catastrophic events, about nine out of 10 travelers surveyed said air travel has become either more of or is as much of a hassle as in the past year, according to a study by the firm ResearchNow for the U.S. Travel Association.

Security lines and checked-bag fees are among the well-publicized headaches, but passengers’ No. 1 concern is flight delays or cancellations, according to a news release about the results of the online survey.

“We’ve found that the presence of therapy dogs is relaxing for people, including air travelers,” said Stachowiak, 76, who started participating in the program in 1964 in Europe and Central America. Her current dog is Slider, a 7-year-old boxer.

“Sometimes there’s a little longer wait than expected. Sometimes fliers feel so anxious they get here too early and I know from experience traveling with young children that anything is better than saying, ‘A little while longer, honey.’”

Stachowiak said each dog is owned by its handler, controlled by a leash at all times and goes through competition-obedience training and temperament, energy and sensitivity testing before being approved for therapy.

Some dogs are purebreds, but others are rescues, including Sally, a 9-year-old Scottish deerhound who loves treats, tracking and riding in the car.

Mike Quagliano, 67, of Evans, said he got Sally in 2005 from Augusta Animal Services. The 21-year Air Force veteran said Sally breezed through her training.

“I think it’s almost as exciting for her as it is for the passengers for her to come to the airport,” he said.

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Information from: The Augusta Chronicle , http://www.augustachronicle.com

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