There are several types of working dogs that you might spot while zipping through the airport, walking city streets, or even shopping in your local grocery store. Seeing eye dogs guide visually impaired persons as they go about their daily activities. Service dogs have the job of calming their human or keeping them safe during a seizure, PTSD, anxiety attack, or other medical issue. Detection dogs can sniff out drugs, explosives, blood, weapons, and more. These working dogs are highly trained, with very important jobs to do. Their jobs don’t allow for interruptions, distractions, or making new friends (humans or animals).
At the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), there is another type of working dog. A dog whose bright red vest reads “PET ME!” and whose job it is to destress and comfort passengers, bring smiles and joy to weary, frustrated travelers, and to stand, sit, or roll over for a gentle pet or a scratch behind the ears. These are the dogs of PUPs—the LAX Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program, whose mission is to provide “an overall enhanced customer experience, providing stress relief and comfort to passengers through interaction with pets.”
In 2008, animal lover and former humane educator Heidi Huebner joined the team at LAX, hired to focus on the airport’s existing volunteer program. One of the first things she pitched to leadership was having dogs inside the airport for passengers to interact with. In 2012, she got the green light to create the program, and in 2013 PUPs was launched at LAX.
Speaking at an airline conference that year, she announced the new program and encouraged other airports to develop a PUPs program of their own. Currently, 90 airports— both national and international—have picked up the program.
We had a chance to speak with Heidi to learn more about these amazing pets and the PUPs Program.
What is a typical day of an LAX PUP like?
All the pets in the program belong to wonderful and compassionate humans who commit to a volunteer schedule. A typical day for a PUP includes arriving at their assigned location to mingle, meet and interact with the airport’s customers. We then keep the volunteers up to date on where they are needed during their shift; for example, if there are delayed flights, we send our PUP over to help destress anyone who needs it.
How does a dog become a PUP at LAX?
To be considered, all potential PUPs must have certification from the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and go through volunteer orientation that includes a meet and greet with me. I personally meet each one of the PUP candidates, because I want to be 100% sure that it is a good fit. You can’t teach a dog to want to do this job. You can train them to have good manners, etc., but the right temperament is crucial. Not all dogs are okay in crowds, or with the noise and intermittent chaos that airport environments bring. So, it’s very important that when I meet a potential PUP candidate, they not only have excellent manners but also a calm and relaxed demeanor and a genuine enjoyment of their experience among the hustle and bustle.
What breeds and sizes of dogs fill the program?
We welcome ALL breeds! Currently our PUPs roster includes doodles, Chihuahuas, pit bull type dogs, an Irish wolfhound, a Bull mastiff, a golden retriever, and more! You name the breed, we welcome it.
As the Program Director of PUPs, do you have a favorite moment that you experience each day?
My favorite moment is watching a person see one of the PUPs dogs, and see their faces go from tense to excited to “ahhhh.” Seeing that moment of connection between our PUPs and the people within the airport really warms my heart. Even during this time of wearing masks, you can see the shift in their eyes and their cheeks rising to smile, and it just makes my day.
If you’re interested in becoming a PUPs volunteer, visit the website at lawa.org/groups-and-divisions/operations-and-emergency-management/guest-services/pups or email Heidi Huebner directly at HHUEBNER@lawa.org.