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Canine Companions Soothe Sacramento International Airport Travelers

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Linda Vogel pets Max, a dog that is part of a program to relax and reduce stress for travelers at Sacramento International Airport on November 16, 2016.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Tis' the season for stressful air travel. That's why the Boarding Area Relaxation Corps, or "BARC," roams the departure gates to soothe stressed out travelers. 

Sacramento International Airport's Terminal B, under the foot of the red rabbit, is where we meet Jenniene Cheng and her black Labrador, Colbert.

"Colbert is pretty laid back," says Cheng.

Unlike his namesake this Colbert is known for his calm demeanor. When he's not at the airport he lets kids read to him at the library.

"He doesn't care if the kids lay on him or pull his ears or they can pet him pretty hard, and he doesn't really react to it," Cheng says. "He just goes with the flow."

Being "chill" is a crucial trait for the mission at Terminal B.

"We go gate to gate and visit with travelers and see if we can relax them a little bit, bring down their blood pressure," she says.

Colbert's BARC buddies include a 140-pound German Shepherd, a miniature schnauzer cross, a Lab-Golden cross and a Lab-Retriever.

They wear jackets emblazoned with the words "PET ME" so people know they can touch them -- unlike Sheriff's dogs screening for explosives.

Cheng says Colbert and friends know when a BARC shift is coming up -- they get a bath the night before.

"And then their ears are cleaned. Their teeth are cleaned," she says. "Sometimes he gets a mint because he has senior breath." 

The five dogs and their human counterparts head up the elevators in pairs -- escalators aren't safe for canine claws.

Airport spokesperson Laurie Slothower reached out to the volunteer group, Lend A Heart Lend A Hand Animal-Assisted Therapy, to start BARC here last year.

"If I could sum up passengers' response it would be something like: 'AWW,'"says Slothower. 

 

 

Slothower points out therapy dogs go through different training than service dogs. Not all dogs would do well with this noisy and confusing environment. And there are temptations.

"And I like to call it the garlic fries test. They have to be able to go past the Food Court and not be distracted by the wonderful, amazing smells," she says.

But before Colbert hits the food court he's gotta clear TSA -- just like the rest of us.

Colbert sits and stays while Cheng walks thru the metal detector solo. Once she turns around and says "come" then Colbert comes through.

His collar triggers the metal detector so he gets a "pet down" from the TSA officer. Then he's free to go.

Next, the BARC patrol crosses paths with a lady in purple named Linda Leman.

"We're going to Alaska," says Leman.

While Leman pets him, Colbert sits totally still. Next stop: a boarding area where two little girls are chasing each other while munching french fries.

"Do you want him to lay down for you?" Cheng asks the girls. "Do you want to pet?"

Colbert doesn't chase the little girls or jump on them. He doesn't even try to lick their salt-coated fingers when they pet him.

So next time you're stuck at the airport and your nerves are frayed -- try running your fingers through a friendly canine's fur.