EVERETT — The would-be travelers ranged in age from 20 weeks to 14 months. Their matching green vests identified them as they arrived to a room at Paine Field with a security checkpoint. Though others in the room talked and laughed, they sat calmly on the floor. They were on the job.
That’s because the travelers were seeing-eye puppies in training.
On June 24, they gathered at the airport not for a flight, but for a Guide Dogs for the Blind training outing. It was a learning experience for the dogs, their handlers and Transportation Security Administration agents.
Groups raising puppies in Snohomish County, Mount Vernon and Seqium participated.
Volunteers take in the future service dogs and give them basic training. They send the dogs back for more training when they’re about 14 months old.
Rebecca Minelga, co-lead of the Snohomish County puppy raising club, told attendees the event was important because some trainers don’t travel with their dog. The outing allows the pups to learn a skill they’ll need later.
Minelga briefed TSA agents on key points to keep in mind when a service dog handler comes through security: communication and patience.
“Instructions like ‘over there’ aren’t really helpful to someone who has low vision,” Minelga explained. “Instructions like ‘turn to the right, take three steps forward and then stop’ are really great tools for helping them understand and navigate their way through what is a very confusing space.”
Other tips included approaching the dog from the side instead of straight on and being aware of hidden compartments in dogs’ vests.
After this, it was time to practice. The group went back out and lined up before the checkpoint. The handlers set items on the security belt and approached the metal detector.
TSA agents patted down dogs at the other end.
Melanie Dugan, a first-time puppy raiser, came to the event with Fresco, a 5-month-old yellow lab.
When it comes time for him to take a real flight, she said, he’ll be “ready and able to do it without any anxiety.”
The training helps everyone, said Angelique Lynch, a transportation security manager at the event.
Though TSA agents are already trained to deal with guide dogs coming through checkpoints, “live training is always beneficial,” she said.
Travelers can also arrange for a passenger support specialist to meet them at security and walk them through the process. Those specialists are available through the TSA Cares program.
Minelga, who led the outing, has raised 12 puppies in 17 years. Her latest dog is 8-month-old Streudel.
Outings like this one are important, Minelga said, because “these puppies are going to be doing this for the rest of their lives.”
New experiences “build resilience,” she said. “So even if they come across something later on in life that they’ve never seen before, they have all these other experiences to rely on. To resiliently know ‘this is new, it might even be a little scary. But I’ve gotten through everything up to this point. I’ve got this.’ ”