Puppy power


Feeling stressed about air travel with the tight timelines and long security lines? Sometimes comfort walks in on four paws.

Now that people are flying more often as pandemic travel restrictions have lessened, passengers at the newly expanded Hilton Head Island Airport have had the pleasant surprise of being greeted by Zoara, a golden retriever who wears a vest that reads: "Please Pet Me."

Zoara2The mere act of petting a dog is known to provide myriad benefits and based on the feedback, has enhanced the airport experience. Nothing rivals unbridled affection from man’s (and woman’s) best friend.

The Island Lutheran Comfort Dog ministry started in January 2015 under the leadership of Phil Burden and a dog named Sasha. Phil and Sasha have retired but the church received Zoara in October 2019 from Lutheran Church Charities, said Rachelle Jeffery of Zoara Comfort Dog.

Zoara, a 5-year-old American Kennel Club Golden Retriever, has more than 2,000 hours of training. 

“She is passive and gentle when working with the public,” said Jeffery, who started out as Zoara’s caregiver and later took over the ministry when Phil retired.

 “A dog is an effective communicator because they help people feel safe, they are nonjudgmental and demonstrate unconditional love,” she said. “The dog is a bridge that allows us to bring comfort, help, and hope to those hurting and in need in the community and surrounding areas.”

Zoara3Jon Rembold, C.M., Airports Director, says the idea of having a comfort dog visit the Hilton Head Airport came about two years ago when he was approached about bringing a comfort dog into the airport. 

“In this case, the dog was Sasha. Well, I'm a life-long dog person and I loved the idea immediately,” he said. “At the time, Sasha's “parents” described the training, certifications, and mission of a comfort dog and that alone amazed me. We were graced several times by Sasha's visits.”

In addition to visiting the airport, Zoara visits Hilton Head High School to bring a calming influence to the seniors before annual testing. 

She visits residents in nursing homes who are lonely or miss their former pets. Her calm nature has eased fears of dogs in children that she visits in local after-school programs. Zoara was called to Bluffton High School this year to bring comfort to grieving students and staff after three boys were injured, one fatally.

The team also makes visits to doctors’ offices, preschools and senior living places. 

zoara airport4“We are looking forward to Parris Island and local hospitals opening up after COVID so we can visit them again soon,” Jeffery said.

Her team will also deploy in crisis or disaster situations when requested, Jeffery said. 

“A comfort dog has a unique way of just putting someone at ease. Zoara is so incredibly approachable that you just can't help going up to pet her,” Jeffery said. 

“A friendly face in the form of a sweet, innocent dog works wonders in putting people at ease. Perhaps they are reminded of their dog whom they are going home to. Perhaps they had a dog as a child. Overall, a comfort dog has a way of reducing the stress of the travel experience and literally helping people to relax a bit...and smile.”

To request a visit with Zoara Comfort Dog, find Zoara Comfort Dog on Facebook or visit islandlutheran.org/index.php/en/zoara-comfort-dog