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Buffalo Airport has gone to the dogs, and people are thrilled

Jake is the center of attention whenever he stops by the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

He's not a star on the Buffalo Bills. And he's not the head of airport operations for the NFTA.

He's a 68-pound golden retriever.

And as Jake makes his rounds, as part of the airport's therapy dog program, he's a fur-covered magnet pulling in weary travelers, busy airline employees and anyone else who needs a boost.

"He loves it. He loves the attention he gets," said owner Allan Monaco, 76, a retired Moog manufacturing engineer, who calls volunteering with Jake the "best job in the world."

Juan Carlos Godinez, left, and Samantha Koelemeyer, right, pet therapy dog Jake in the administrative offices at the Buffalo International International Airport. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Jake, owned by Monaco, is one of more than 60 therapy dogs who visit the airport through the SPCA Serving Erie County's Paws For Love program.

Airports can be tense places, for everyone from the travelers and the people waiting to pick them up to the airline employees and Transportation Security Administration agents. That's where Jake and his canine compatriots can help.

Therapy dogs serve college campuses, schools, hospitals and nursing homes across the region. But the airport dogs are carefully screened to make sure they can handle the crowds, noises, traveling service pets and everything else they encounter in this environment.

To see the therapy dogs in action at the airport is to realize how soothing it is to pet a dog.

"We could all use more Jakes in our life," Gregory Gray, a snowbird from Orchard Park who was flying back to his winter home in Florida, said Thursday after nuzzling Jake.

The therapy dog program started at the airport about four years ago when local volunteers noticed that other airports had started offering the service. Debbie Braun, the head of the SPCA's Paws For Love program, said she had seen an article about therapy dogs at the airport in San Jose, Calif., and she thought this could work in Buffalo.

"It's a great stress reliever," Braun said. "I would say animals don't judge people."

Braun, a reluctant flyer herself, researched her idea and brought it to the attention of Bev Halligan, customer service superintendent for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority at the airport. Halligan ran the idea by her boss, William Vanacek, the NFTA's director of aviation.

"He was an easy sell," Halligan said.

Therapy dogs starting going to the airport in November 2013, and Braun said Buffalo was one of the first half-dozen airports in the country to offer this service.

Not every therapy dog can handle working there, Braun said. The airport is busier than most volunteer locations, the travelers and restaurants generate an array of distracting smells for the dogs, more and more air travelers have their own service pets and the hard floor is slippery and reflects light in a way that can disorient dogs.

Owners have to go through a further clearance process if they want to work in the area past the security checkpoint, as Jake does.

Jake, and Monaco, who lives in Depew, volunteer at the airport twice a week, and more often if needed during busy periods of travel or storm-related delays. Monaco wears an ID badge held by a lanyard covered in dog bones and paw prints. Jake, who is 6, wears a fluorescent green-yellow vest with his name printed on it and a pair of pilot's wings pinned to it.

"I had a pilot give me those. He said, 'I could use a guy like this in the cockpit. It gets stressful up there,' " Monaco said.

On Thursday, airline, TSA, NFTA and restaurant workers greeted them by name and took a moment to nuzzle Jake or pet his head.

"He's like the mayor of the airport," said Carla Pudlewski, a bartender at Queen City Kitchen.

Jake didn't even flinch as a woman passed by with a service dog in her arms. But whenever he came to a spot where a friendly airport employee has given him a treat in the past, he slowed expectantly.

Monaco said Jake gained 8 or 9 pounds in the first year they volunteered at the airport, because of those freely offered snacks.

"He had to go to Weight Watchers," Halligan quipped.

Now, Monaco brings some of Jake's dry dog food and rations it out to him piece by piece, fooling the dog into thinking he's getting extra snacks.

As Monaco approached the Frontier Airlines gate, where passengers waited to catch a flight to Fort Myers, Fla., he asked for their attention and launched into his spiel about Jake and what they're doing. He begged them not to feed Jake, and urged anyone who is allergic to, or afraid of, dogs to signal their disinterest to him.

Monaco hands out business cards with Jake's name and picture to children.

At one point, Nicole Burgio brought her sons, Camden, 2½, and Arlo, 3 months, over to Jake. Camden rubbed Jake's fur and then grabbed his baby brother's hand so that Arlo could feel it, too. "Such a good big brother," mom said.

Ontario residents Bryan Inglis and his fiancée, Cathy Ferri, swiftly became fans.

"Jake's a gentleman," Inglis said.

He isn't the only therapy dog who brightens up the airport. Darlene Vogel regularly brings Gibbs, her 5-year-old golden doodle. Gibbs and Vogel have met visitors from all over the world, business travelers, professional athletes and numerous pilots and flight attendants.

"He just loves the people," said Vogel, a Lancaster retiree. "A lot of people thank me for what we do."

Mikko, however, might be the smallest of the airport therapy dogs, and he's probably the only one who has his own Facebook page, "Mikko's Journey."

The 1-year-old Pomeranian weighs just 3.9 pounds, according to owner Jackie Gallagher.

"Many people, they'll look at me and think I'm carrying a stuffed animal at first," the Colden resident said. "'Oh, it moved.'"

The first day Gallagher and Mikko volunteered at the airport, last August, she said she saw a traveler who was crying. The woman came over to Gallagher and asked if she could pick Mikko up.

"She sat down and held him, and she stood up and said, 'I am petrified of flying,' and she kissed him and off she went," Gallagher recalled. "And she seemed totally different than the person who came through the door."

The airport therapy dogs regularly make these connections.

"I think a therapy dog has to be extremely loving," Gallagher said. "They almost can sense that a person needs something."

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