It’s a Sunday at 7a.m. and Janet Waltho has gone to her front closet to grab Tucker’s bag and leash. Tucker’s watching and, when he sees her grab the blue leash, the one that’s exclusively for pet therapy, he runs to the back door. He runs laps around Waltho and, when she opens the door, he leads the way to the car, leaping into the backseat.
It’s been three years since the black and tan Havanese Australian Terrier Cross has carried his adorable 15 pounds through the Edmonton International Airport, where he soothes travelers’ stresses as part of one of nine dog teams in YEG’s pet therapy program.
The program was shuttered earlier in the pandemic but as Waltho turns off the QE2, Tucker knows they are back. His soft bark gets louder as they approach the airport while he whips his head from side to side, alternating between looking out the window and at his owner.
The pet therapy program at the airport is a partnership with the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta, an organization that services many places beyond the airport including Ronald McDonald House Charities, the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, hospitals and seniors’ homes, among many others.
This time, Waltho returns not only as a volunteer but a team lead, training new volunteers over an extensive six- to nine-month period. The airport, Waltho says, is one of the more challenging places for dogs to volunteer just due to the sheer number and mix of people, the smells and noises and even the different textures of flooring ranging from carpeting to tile. It can be overwhelming, but she ensures volunteers and dogs take their time and become comfortable with the setting.
Tucker is more than comfortable. “He is the smallest dog on the airport team and he walks around like he’s a Great Dane. He owns the place,” says Waltho, who’s been volunteering with the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta since 2015.
Waltho’s first outing with Tucker was at the Glenrose Hospital where they encountered a young boy who was nonverbal with very limited mobility.
“I stopped beside him and put Tucker on my lap. And Tucker craned his neck to get underneath his hand and the boy’s eyes lit up.
“Tucker was clearly in an uncomfortable position but he didn’t care. The mom started crying, I started crying,” says Waltho.
“Here’s a dog with just a light in his eyes, knowing he was making someone happy and I was sold. It will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
It’s therapy for everyone: those who interact with the dogs, the staff at the facilities, the volunteers and even the animals themselves.
“When you are interacting with an animal, there is a decrease in stress hormones. So your cortisol levels, your adrenaline levels come down. And it increases things like oxytocin and dopamine — so, those happy hormones. It builds a relationship with that non-judgmental, instant trust relationship between you and an animal,” says Waltho. “Some of the things we see are patients in hospitals who don’t want to get up out of bed or walk the halls or take their medicine; and if you bring in the pet therapy animal, they are willing. It gives that sense of hope in people.”
At the airport, she sees kids having meltdowns that completely disappear upon seeing Tucker. People roll around on the floor with the dog, pilots enjoy some one-on-one time with Tucker and, one time, an airport staff member broke down crying upon revealing her dog had recently died. The experience with Tucker helped the staff member process her feelings and finish her shift.
Steve Maybee, vice president Operations and Infrastructure and Corporate Communications, at Edmonton International Airport, says the pet therapy program is one of several — including live music and partnerships to display local art — that he hopes will make waiting for a flight a little easier.
“Not everyone is going on a vacation to Mexico. Some people are seeing a sick loved one or going to a funeral somewhere or going to travel for some tough reason and they get to maybe see a dog or pet a dog and talk to him or her and it’s just nice and comforting,” he says.
The program has also brought a sense of community to the airport, says Maybee, as many of the volunteers and staff and dogs know each other.
“They aren’t doing it for any other reason but they love to share the joy of their dog,” says Maybee. “You can see it when people walk up and they start talking to the dog; their whole body, demeanour and their tone just change.”
Waltho has experienced first hand the incredible impact of pet therapy. She has Generalized Anxiety Disorder and prior to her work with Tucker, she would have regular panic attacks and crippling anxiety. She wouldn’t want to leave the house. She could not talk about it for fear of the stigma about something being “wrong” with her. But volunteering with Tucker has changed her perspective.
“Just being there and not thinking about what’s going to happen when we get home or what happened previous to us being there. I’m just present in the moment with him and that’s a gift,” says Waltho. As an HR professional, she’s often volunteered within the scope of her career, she says, but pet therapy is something just for her.
Now she has a young Labradoodle named Murphy that she hopes to begin training once he turns the required 24 months; that way when Tucker retires, she can continue with her passion. Tucker’s nowhere near that point yet, though — after their first visit back to the airport, Waltho had to convince the dog to leave after their two-hour shift.
“I had to drag him out of there. I really had to advocate for him and say, ‘Buddy you did a great job today and it’s time to go home.’ He was just so happy to be back,” she says.
This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Edify