San Diego

Don't Stress, Pet a Dog: Meet One of San Diego Airport's Volunteer Therapy Dog Teams

Unlike most dogs that you see working at the airport with a very clear “DO NOT PET” vest, this dog’s says “I’M FRIENDLY. PLEASE PET ME.”

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The holiday travel season can be, well, stressful thanks to the usual culprits like delayed flights and forgotten luggage, but the San Diego International Airport (SAN) has a four-legged solution to provide comfort.

“His name is Merlin,” Anne Riley, Merlin’s proud owner, explained to a traveler waiting at their gate. “Like the magician.”

Merlin is a large dog with a light-colored coat, pointed ears that are often half-perked and a long snout leading to a brown and black speckled, wet nose.

"He’s a German shepherd-Belgian malinois mix, which are often police dogs, but he’s too lazy for that,” Riley laughed, as Merlin sprawled out on the ground in front of her, eyes closed.

Merlin is a certified therapy dog through an organization called Love on a Leash. He and Riley volunteer together at the San Diego International Airport as one of the teams in their therapy dog program. According to Maragaret Hartnett, a customer relations manager at the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority who oversees the program, there are around 25 different dogs who volunteer at SAN.

“It’s a great feeling when we’re able to calm a nerve or make somebody feel good, make somebody’s day,” said Riley.

Merlin and Riley also have a third teammate, like all dog teams, who walks through the terminals with them. Her name is Barbara Nichols.

“My jacket, where her’s says ‘,’ mine says ‘airport information,” said Nichols. Nichols is an airport ambassador. While Riley is able to focus on Merlin and the people around him, Nichols is there to help answer any airport-related questions people might have.

“Where’s Starbucks? Where’s the bathroom? How do I get out of here,” said Nichols with a laugh, while she explained some of the frequent inquiries she gets. “Those are the types of questions that I help answer.”

Unlike most dogs that you see working at the airport with a very clear “DO NOT PET” vest, this dog’s says “I’M FRIENDLY. PLEASE PET ME.”

“He just is the best dog and really born to do this kind of work. He’s just gentle and kind,” said Riley.

The therapy dog program at SAN has been around for several years, since 2015. All dogs who volunteer must be certified therapy dogs. This also means they are often in high demand around San Diego. While they try to have dogs at the airport every day, Hartnett said their schedules are busy and they volunteer at places like hospitals and libraries, not just the airport.

But, Riley and Nichols said the airport is a special place to be for them.

“It’s kind of a wonderful thing to be able to talk to people and to be able to be able to connect with them through Merlin,” said Riley. “And for us to do that together, you know, it's like you’ve made a new friend, and every day you come to the airport you make about 100 new friends.”

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