Animal Angels: These 3 Dogs at Mum Airport are Trained to Hug You!
Three golden retrievers are ‘employees’ at Mumbai Airport – and they’re the best you could ever have!
Nearly a week back, Shantanu Dhar was waiting to board his flight to Manila from Terminal 2 of the GVK Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai, when he came across Pepe and Sunshine. “After clearing an hour-long immigration, I was starting my long walk towards the gate, when I saw these two cuties,” smiles this 35-year-old IT professional, based in Pune. The two cuddly golden retrievers were surrounded by a throng of dog lovers, and Dhar asked their caretaker if he could pet them.
“I spent a good 15-20 minutes with them and would have continued for much longer, if I had the time,” he says.
Usually, one associates airports with sniffer dogs accompanied by grave security personnel, whose presence rings security alarms in one’s head. However, these adorable canines are not there to spike your stress levels – rather, to assuage them. Part of an initiative called ‘Comforting Angels’ – a pet therapy programme started by the airport in partnership with Pune-based Animal Angels Foundation – this set of three dogs, Pepe, Sunshine and Pearl, promise to soothe, comfort and de-stress harried passengers inside the departure terminal.
We used to have another dog, Goldie, as well, for the first six months, but now she has retired.Aakash Lonkar, co-founder of Animal Angels Foundation
Lonkar co-founded the foundation with Minal Kavishwar in 2003.
The team has been working in the field of animal-assisted therapy for more than a decade now with special schools, old-age homes and hospitals.
Three ‘Huggable’ Golden Retrievers
Animal-assisted interventions have become increasingly popular across the world, with the therapist using the interaction to improve a person’s cognitive, social and emotional functioning. Lonkar and his team have used this successfully to help autistic and hyperactive children, those with speech impairment, cancer patients and people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Knowing the team’s expertise in the area, the airport authorities approached the foundation last year.
We have seen children as young as three to four months, people on wheelchairs, pilots and airline staff interact with the dogs. Even the ground staff – which works long odd hours – comes to destress with a hug.Aakash Lonkar
These comfort dogs have become so popular, that from this June onwards, it was decided that they be present at the domestic terminal as well. So, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, these furry angels can be seen at the domestic departure area between 5.30 pm and 8.30 pm – and at the international terminal between 8.30 pm and 11.30 pm.
There are only two dogs present at a time with three caretakers. And people are simply lining up for hugs!
A Hug to Relieve Emotional Baggage
Lonkar recalls an incident from last week, when a passenger was stranded at the airport as her flight to Bengaluru had been delayed by eight hours.
She was extremely frustrated and upset. When she saw the dogs, she spent a good one hour with them. At the end of the interaction, she felt so relieved and said, ‘This is exactly what I needed – I just wanted someone to give me company’.Aakash Lonkar
Pepe, Pearl and Sunshine come as a golden ray of comfort – especially to passengers who are travelling with a lot of emotional baggage.
“Some people come to India due to a death of the family member and are emotionally drained while going back to the country of their residence. So, a hug by the dogs is extremely comforting,” says Lonkar. Then there are business passengers, who have to shuttle from one city to another and are constantly pressed for time. A little bit of quiet time with the dogs comes as a welcome respite.
How Therapy Dogs are Chosen
Just like Pepe, Pearl and Sunshine, the Animal Angels Foundation has a team of 20 dogs in Mumbai and 20 in Pune.
“All of them have been volunteered by their families, who have been associated in some way or the other with the foundation,” says Lonkar. Before employing the canine as a therapy dog, a temperament test is conducted to see if he or she can work in a setting like the airport or a hospital, which is full of sights and smells that are 100 times more evident to a dog than to a human being.
For therapy, a dog should be positive, confident and outgoing. The families are trained to maintain the dog’s emotional state to such a level that it can remain calm, composed and patient in every setting.Aakash Lonkar
Those who have spent time with the trio at the airport are all praise for their behaviour. “They are very gentle and have a great temperament. You can see that they are well taken care of,” says Dhar. He cherishes his interaction with Sunshine the most.
Once I stopped petting her, she put her paw on my lap, as if to tell me that once you start a massage, you are not supposed to stop!Shantanu Dhar
(Avantika Bhuyan is a freelance journalist who loves to uncover the invisible India hiding in nooks and crannies across the country.)
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