Esther and Holly are celebrities at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. They can’t walk more than a few steps before someone stops them and asks for a selfie. Esther and Holly often ask for belly rubs in return.
The English Labrador retrievers are part of the Airport’s Canine Crew, a group of certified therapy dogs who volunteer at CLT with their handlers.
Kneeling beside Esther, the brown lab, is 18-year-old Ella Typrin. The high school senior has a wide smile and is quick to start conversations with travelers. She asks, “Would you like to pet her?” Everyone replies with a resounding “Yes!”
You can see people’s shoulders release the stress of traveling when they spot the dogs in the terminal. It is impossible to frown when Holly, the black lab, nuzzles her nose into your hand for a pet, her tail wagging non-stop. That’s her job, to make people smile and pause for a moment of pure, unadulterated puppy love.
Ella knows how powerful that puppy love can be. When she was just 10 years old, a close mentor died by suicide. Since then, several teens at Ella’s school have also taken their own lives. During those troubling times, Ella found solace with her beloved dogs.
There’s science behind that comfort she found.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine found petting a dog lowers the stress hormone cortisol and increases levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. In fact, a whopping 84% of post-traumatic stress disorder patients who were paired with a service dog reported a significant reduction in symptoms.
Ella and her family decided they wanted to share their dogs’ healing powers with others. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she took it on as a special project for her school’s International Baccalaureate program. Ella completed the process of getting Esther and Holly certified as therapy dogs and established a non-profit called the Healing Puppy Project.
At first, Ella, her mother and her sisters brought the dogs to retirement homes and schools. Esther and Holly are particularly skilled at inducing smiles. When Ella turned 18, she became eligible to join her mom, Shelley, volunteering at CLT. As soon as the teen’s ID badge was ready, the mother-daughter duo brought Esther and Holly to the terminal.
When they are at CLT, the Typrins and their dogs are always surrounded by a crowd of passengers, Airport workers, pilots and flight attendants. Everyone walks away feeling happier and less stressed.
During one particularly moving encounter Ella had with a traveler, a military veteran arrived at CLT distraught. Something happened on the woman’s flight that triggered her PTSD and she was unable to get on her connecting flight. When the woman saw Esther and Holly, Ella could see the traveler’s body language change, the stress melting away and a look of relief on her face. After chatting and before the woman walked away, the traveler said, “You have no idea what this meant to me” and started crying.
Those interactions are healing for Ella. Seeing her dogs bring joy to other people is helping her overcome her own feelings of stress and sadness. Her Healing Puppy Project has been so much more than a school assignment; it has changed her life and helped her feel better prepared for college in the fall. Her mom, Shelley couldn’t be prouder of everything she has accomplished.
Ella, Shelley, Esther and Holly are proud to be part of the Airport’s volunteer Canine Crew. From Pugs to Great Danes, the registered, professional therapy dogs and their humans provide comfort and support to travelers. For more information about the Canine Crew, visit the CLT website.