Airport training helps service dogs, TSA agents

- It's not something you see every day at the airport:  A parade of pooches and their owners, walking single-file under the watchful eye of their trainer, Clarke Inghram.

Once a month, the CEO and master trainer of Inghram's Sit 'N Stay Dog Academy brings his clients to Tampa International Airport to teach them how to navigate the ins and outs of flying with a service dog.

"The crowd. The people. The noise. the hustle, the bustle. Elevators. We call it situation training," he explained.  "Once a dog has practiced something, once they've been trained and they practice it four or five times, they've pretty much got the routine down."

It's invaluable experience for Joe Boisvert and his medical alert dog, Shooter.

"I have a lot of anxiety issues and I sometimes stop breathing. So he's trained to go get my wife. He's trained to stay with me. And he will howl until someone gives us attention," Boisvert said.

Boisvert travels with Shooter quite a bit by car. But he won't fly until he and his dog are completely comfortable at the airport, including Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening.

Inghram and a number of TSA agents will spend the next hour or so helping owners walk their dogs through the metal detector, which goes off again and again. The agents pat them down too; it's part of the process.

"It actually prepares us so we can screen them properly as well, and we can create calm on the checkpoint," offered TSA agent Vanessa Valdez.

The TSA's federal security director for the greater Tampa Bay area, Lee Kair, says he's not aware of any other airport that does this kind of regular training airside.  Kair says it's valuable for his agents too, and helps keep the lines moving.

"When you have somebody who doesn't know how to go through the process, it does slow things down, so having people train and understand how to get through makes it go much, much faster," he said.

It can take a few passes to get it right, but Clarke says that's a vital part of the training.  "They don't want to mess up. And I tell them we all make mistakes. Mistakes are good. That's how we get better."

The training extends to baggage too, where the dogs are tested on their stay command and recall, to make sure they can find their owner no matter what.

Just about every breed was represented the night we watched -- from pit mixes to Labrador retrievers; big dogs and small.  Bettyann Steen's less-than-4-pound Maltese, Sweetie, is also a medical alert dog.

"She alerts me when I'm having COPD attacks or diabetic attacks," she said.  "Most heroes don't look like heroes, but she is one."

They're heroes that serve their humans 24/7, even when they fly.

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