Several dogs training to be service animals roamed PIT's terminals in June. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

VIDEO: PIT an Ideal Training Ground for Service Dogs

Pittsburgh International Airport doubled as a classroom last week for four service dogs in training.

The animals and their volunteer handlers with Canine Partners for Life walked the terminals, went through the TSA security checkpoint and the concourses at the airport on June 14.

“These service dogs may end up providing assistance for future travelers, so we are thrilled to welcome Canine Partners and help familiarize the dogs with the airport environment,” said Elise Gomez, Manager of Customer Experience at PIT. “The sounds of baggage rolling on the tiles, overhead announcements, and being around a lot of people is a great test site for service dogs in training.”

Based in Cochranville, Pa., Canine Partners for Life is a nonprofit organization dedicated to training service dogs, home companion dogs, residential companion dogs and courthouse companion dogs to assist individuals who have a wide range of physical, developmental and cognitive disabilities.

“A lot of people with disabilities travel by air, a lot of the dogs are placed in other parts of the country and travel by air, so this experience is going to help,” said Susan Fleming, a volunteer with the program.

Each dog goes through a two-year customized and comprehensive training program. Most of the CPL puppies spend the first few weeks of their lives with their mothers before training with volunteers in community homes for the next two to six months.

The pups that visited PIT are getting ready to start their second year of training, led by professional trainers who customize each dog’s skills to match the needs of the person who will use the animal as a service pet.

“The visit to the airport was an incredible training opportunity for the puppies,” said Tonya DiPilla, Associate Director of Development and Communications, Canine Partners for Life.

“It’s important to introduce our dogs to as many different environments as possible during their training. Many of our dogs fly on airplanes so being able to introduce the puppies to an airport at a young age will help ensure they are confident and comfortable in that environment in the future.

“The dogs in our program can become full-service dogs to help individuals with physical disabilities or medical alert dogs to assist individuals with seizures, cardiac syncope conditions or diabetes,” said DiPilla. “Some CPL dogs are also placed as home companion dogs. These dogs bring comfort and joy to their recipients within the context of the home environment.”

The dogs that visited the airport are currently in the Prison Puppy Raising Program. Between the ages of 6 and 14 months, the puppies live in cells with the inmates and accompany them throughout the facility, DiPilla said.

The puppies enjoy outside play time and exercise in play yards. Staff at the facilities, along with Canine Partners for Life volunteers, also help train the puppies on important public socialization skills. The organization holds inmates to the same standards as its community puppy raisers, and inmates are required to submit monthly reports and attend trainings.

“It’s an incredible program that is a win-win for everyone involved,” said DiPilla. “We are able to train more dogs thanks to the support of the PPRP and having this program in the correctional facilities help the inmates learn skills they can use later in life. It also changes the entire culture of the facility and brings something positive to their lives and way for them to give back to society.”

While they are not classified as service dogs, Pittsburgh International Airport already has a certified therapy dog program called PIT PAWS (Pups Alleviating Worry and Stress). PIT PAWS allows passengers to interact with friendly, trained and certified therapy dogs to help decompress and provide a few minutes of relaxation before flying. The team currently consists of 23 dogs and their handlers.

All PIT PAWS volunteer teams are registered by Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national organization that registers, insures, and supports members who are involved in volunteer animal-assisted activities.

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