Columbus International Airport Deploys Therapy Dogs to Calm, Comfort Stressed Passengers

Delivering canine comfort to harried travelers

Suzanne Goldsmith
Columbus Monthly
Hermi Barrera-Harmon gives Kali a pat as her mother, Stephanie Harmon (standing) and Kali’s owner, Debby Drake (seated at left), look on.

It’s early afternoon on the Monday after Thanksgiving, and Mike and Toni Kanzigg are seated near gate B35 at John Glenn Columbus International Airport waiting for their return flight to Orlando when Debby Drake approaches gingerly. Close at her side is her dog Kali, a stocky white terrier mix with brown spots, perky ears and a paw print bandanna around her neck. Kali looks at the couple with an air of quiet expectation, her tail slowly wagging, and Toni leans forward. “You are a nice doggie.” 

“She reminds me of my sister’s dog,” says a woman sitting with her husband opposite the Kanziggs. “And she sheds like my sister’s dog, too,” she chuckles, glancing at Kali’s fur-covered “Therapy Dog” vest. The couples, seemingly strangers until now, begin telling each other about their pets, past and present, as Hermi Barrera-Harmon toddles up to the dog and begins patting her on the head. The 4-year-old has been stalking Kali through the airport. 

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“She saw her in the security line,” says her mother, Stephanie Harmon. “She kept saying, ‘Can I ask if that puppy is nice or mean?’ She was almost crying, she wanted to get to her so badly.” 

Drake puts an elastic band with two bows on Kali’s head, and everyone starts snapping photos. Drake looks on proudly. “Want to see her roll over?” She gives the child a baseball-style card with Kali’s picture, credentials and stats. “Fav Toy: Piggy. Nickname: Wigglebutt.” 

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Kali is one of 10 certified therapy dogs in a new program at the Columbus airport, playfully dubbed Paw Force One. The dogs and their volunteer handlers roam the concourses with the goal of bringing canine love to stressed-out, bored or lonely travelers. With science backing the idea that dogs can make people feel better, therapy dogs are now sometimes found in schools, courtrooms, nursing homes and elsewhere. Paw Force One, says Sarah McQuaide, a communications and marketing manager for Columbus Regional Airport Authority, was launched by the airport’s customer experience team. “Their whole goal is to delight passengers,” McQuaide says. 

Kali, 5, spent her first two years in a rural shelter before Drake adopted her. The dog got her training through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and completed the AKC Canine Good Citizen training course, Drake says. She and Drake volunteer at a range of assignments, including a hospital and at Ohio State, calming anxieties during student move-in day. 

During an hour of walking around concourse B meeting passengers, Kali calmly accepts hugs and pats. She licks a couple of faces and face masks but stolidly ignores bags of chips and disregards a smaller dog that yaps at her. 

Kali is always excited for her two-hour, bimonthly shifts at the airport, says Drake, a graphic artist who works for Battelle. “This is her thing. When we’re driving up to the airport, she’s raring to go and her tail is banging against the door.” 

“I just love spending time with her, and I love to watch people being happy with her and enjoying her like I do,” Drake says.  

This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.