The flight to Tokyo turned back 20 minutes after departing O’Hare. Mechanical problems.
The plane to Houghton, Michigan — No. 4 four on a list of worst airports in the country — never left at all, and the Dragon family of Estes Park, Colorado had to spend the night with friends while scrambling to get another flight, settling for one to Green Bay, only 230 miles south of where they were going. Eva Kornerup, 12, didn’t like the sandwich her mother had bought for her.
All those woes, just three out of the infinity of angst, delay, setback and inconvenience that is so much air travel in 2014, were softened, at least for a few moments for holiday travelers at O’Hare Airport over the past few days, thanks to the good offices of a septet of Golden Retrievers.
The dogs — which on Monday morning were Chloe, Adeena, Barnabas, Luther, Ruthie, Aaron and Tabby, a puppy in training — were there with Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, started in 2008 and centered in Addison. The group now operates in 16 states, with 80 dogs and 400 volunteers.
“Hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living,” said Richard Martin, executive director of K-9 Ministries. “We also do disaster response. Several of these dogs spent time in Sandy Hook, in Boston after the Marathon bombing, Napa after the earthquake. So they get around.”
The canine ministry was brought to O’Hare for four days, Saturday through Tuesday, by United Airlines.
“The holidays can be stressful for people,” explained Charles Hobart, a spokesman for United. “Airports are more full than they usually are. The comfort dogs offer the customer the chance to sit back and relax a little.”
The dogs certainly seemed relaxed. They generally laid on their sides, almost as if asleep, the “A-1 Comfort Position” which these dogs learn during eight weeks of training, the same training given dogs that act as comfort animals for people with psychological conditions.
Most harried air travelers Monday on the B concourse at O’Hare — pulling rolling bags, talking on cellphones — strode by without a glance. Others, particularly children, gave them longing looks but keep going. A few made a beeline, scratching the dogs under the chin, even falling to their knees and hugging them.
“It’s really nice to get to a place where you don’t expect to see animals, to be able to pet them,” said Chelsey Blackmon, 26, a New York video editor, who at first thought they were bomb-sniffing dogs, then realized there were just too many of them. “You feel a certain kind of warmth that animals provide. It’s really nice.”
“It’s medically proven petting a dog will lower your heart rate, lower your blood pressure,” Martin said.
Each dog was paired with a blue-shirted handler, mostly volunteers. The handlers gave out blue candy canes and encouraged passersby to pet the dogs, though sometimes no encouragement was necessary.
“When we see them coming, you know the dog lovers,” said Sue Kessler, a volunteer, holding Chloe.”They just turn and ‘awwww!’ They head right in like a magnet.” She said she one passenger who petted the dog returned and admitted that she had never touched a dog before. “We’ve had people going to Vietnam, China, all kinds of long flights. A woman, 30 hours in travel, said this was the best part of her day today.”
The dogs were particularly welcomed by travelers who are dog owners.
“We have a 90-pound lab mix at home,” said Matt Dragon, of Estes Park, Colorado, stranded at O’Hare due to a canceled flight, as his 14-month old daughter Iris, sat happily petting Ruthie and Luther. “She misses Louie.”
Iris Dragon, 14 months, has a dog at home. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times
“They come here, they may have just left their dog at the kennel,” Martin said. “They just smile. The dogs evoke such a positive feeling.”
Even seasoned travelers who seemed to have no stress whatsoever, like Markus Hugi and his son, Marlon, 14, drifted over. Residents of Barcelona, Spain, Hugi works as an aircraft designer in Switzerland. They had stopped in Chicago for a few days to look at the architecture and were now on their way to Las Vegas.
“We travel a lot,” Hugi said. Marlon sat quietly petting for a long time, as did Eva Kornerup, 12.
“It’s really sweet,” said her mother, pointing out that they had a golden retriever at home. “It feels very happy, and we don’t worry so much about the flight.”
“Oh God they’re so beautiful,” said Sue Truax, whose own dog, Dockers, had to be put down in August. She slid to the ground next to Chloe. “I love these dogs. If I could fit one in my backpack, I would. This is just a cool idea. I love it. Thanks, you guys. This is just too cool.”
Emilie Ross of Austin, Texas, enjoyed a visit Monday with a comfort dog at O’Hare. | Al Podgorski/Sun-Times