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A young girl connects with one of the dogs in the Canine Airport Therapy Squad at Denver International Airport. The program, begun by Metropolitan State University of Denver alumni Mark Inzana and Lisa Dittberner, helps travelers cope with flying-related stress.

Dogs of CATS treat travelers

Ironically named program, founded by alumni, helps calm anxious flyers at DIA.

March 28, 2018

By Doug McPherson

Airplanes aren’t the only things rising at Denver International Airport. Spirits are soaring too, thanks to Metropolitan State University of Denver alumni Mark Inzana (2005 B.S. in aviation management) and Lisa Dittberner (2008 B.S. in behavioral science).

When DIA CEO Kim Day decided to start a program in 2015 that would allow dogs to wander through the airport to lessen travelers’ stress, Inzana and Dittberner made it a reality. It has since become a model of success for airport pet-therapy programs across the country.

“Looking back on the process, it took a significant amount of communication, stakeholder involvement, planning and diligence,” Inzana says. “For this program to be sustainable, there were many boxes that had to be checked so that it wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan.”

No worries of that happening. With over 100 dogs, the program has grown into the largest airport therapy-dog program in the United States. And it continues to grow.

It’s called the Canine Airport Therapy Squad and features volunteer pet owners who share their time and pets to delight travelers with friendly wags and furry cuddles.

Travelers often break out in smiles when they encounter dogs in the CATS program at DIA. With over 100 dogs, the program is the largest airport therapy-dog program in the U.S.

It’s not bad work for the dogs. Dittberner says the dogs “beg their handlers to come to the airport because they get so much love.”

Inzana says that when Virgin America launched its service at DIA, Nelson, a gorgeous and lovable Newfoundland, came out to take part in the festivities.

“When he arrived at the event, I noticed his nose was all red and raw-looking so I asked what had happened,” Inzana says. “They told me he’d already run into the Virgin America flight attendants, who had all made a point of kissing him on the nose.”

The dogs ask for it – they all wear distinctive blue plaid vests that read, “Pet Me.”

Dittberner’s favorite story is about a black-and-white Saint Berdoodle named Big Oreo.

“We call him double-stuffed because we have another Oreo in our program who is much smaller,” she says. “Anyway, Big Oreo loves girls and often seeks them out, and somehow or other, he always ends up getting his picture taken with girls. Actually, all the dogs truly win the hearts of our customers every single day.”

Inzana says every time he sees a pet and a passenger together, it makes him think about how much he appreciates the volunteers.

“And it’s hard not to smile as you see their dogs making such a difference with our customers,” he says.

CATS participant Uno enjoys a hug at DIA.

CATS has earned DIA untold amounts of free publicity.

“The interest and goodwill generated by this program continues to be off the charts,” Inzana says.

He adds that working on CATS reminded him of the importance of teamwork.

“This program has certainly reinforced the lesson that I rarely accomplish anything without relying on others,” Inzana says. “I think back to group projects that I did at Metro and the importance that each person played in the success. Accountability and ownership are traits that any student starting their career needs to embrace.”

Dittberner echoes Inzana about being able to work with others – a lesson she also learned at MSU Denver.

“I’ve learned how to work with people from various backgrounds,” she says. “My degree was in behavioral science, which includes socioeconomics, psychology and political science. It’s important to be aware that people handle situations differently. Several factors contribute to what makes a person their unique being, and it’s important to recognize and identify those factors so all can work toward a common goal.”

Dittberner is now at work on another volunteer program geared specifically toward college students who spend time at DIA helping travelers with their needs and questions. For more information, contact Dittberner via email.