A Once-Timid Chihuahua Finds Her Place as an Airport Therapy Dog

Maria Miller had no idea that Penelope would become fan-favorite around the departures terminals of one of the busiest airports in America.
By: Diana Bocco
Penelope the airport therapy dog

When Maria Miller first brought Penelope into her home as a short-term foster, she had no idea that the tiny, terrified Chihuahua mix would soon become a permanent addition, not to mention a fan-favorite around the departures terminals of one of the busiest airports in America.

Penelope was abandoned with five young puppies at a high-kill shelter in Bakersfield, California. Fortunately, she was only there for a few days before Michelson Found Animals Adopt & Shop animal shelter stepped in to rescue her and her puppies.

“She was selected for fostering because her little mammary glands were full and she needed to be monitored for mastitis [an inflammation of breast tissue],” says Donna Casamento, chief program officer of the Adopt & Shop stores and shelter programs. “She was also quite timid and socially challenged and our team knew that [Miller] had the patience and skills to help Penelope.”

In addition, while shelter staff do their best they can for the animals in their care, a shelter environment can be very loud and very stressful for timid animals, Casamento says.

“Owner-surrender animals, like Penelope, are especially susceptible to becoming fearful in a shelter because it can be such an abrupt change from the more predictable comfort of a home environment,” she adds.

Penelope at home

Since Penelope’s puppies were at adoption age, Miller only had to bring Penelope home, which was fine because Miller didn’t think she would fall “too” in love with the scared little pup.

“Even though my husband and I were looking to adopt a dog, Penelope did not fit what we were looking for,” says Miller. “We wanted a male dog of Asian breed/mix and at least 45 to 50 pounds in size.”

Miller only expected Penelope to stay with her family for about two weeks, and she anticipated the dog’s visit to be quick, easy and worry free.

“Boy was I wrong! Three days in my husband had already bought her a dress,” Miller says. “Penelope ended up staying with us for about a month [which] ended up benefiting both her and us because it gave her time to recover from her painful infection, which allowed her darling personality to shine, while giving us the opportunity to fall in love with a ten-pound Chihuahua.”

Penelope never left.

Eight months after the Millers officially adopted Penelope, Miller was approached by the head of LAX PUPs, a program that uses therapy dogs to comfort passengers with anxiety before they board their flight. The program was looking to add some smaller dogs to the mix, Miller says, and Penelope’s ability to have strangers approach and pet her without an issue piqued their interest.

Considering Penelope’s history of shyness, Miller was doubtful at first.

“Penelope probably came from a hoarder where she had little, if any at all, experience with the outside world,” says Miller. “Penelope was fearful of taking a walk, cars driving past, dogs coming up to great her, or a nice person reaching down to say hello.”

It took lots of work and endless hours of positive reinforcement to get Penelope to the point where someone would invite her to be part of a therapy program. But of course, she turned out to be a natural.

To become involved with the program – which has spread to 52-plus airports across the country – dogs must pass several tests, including being comfortable being touched on their paws, head, tail and face.

Penelope at airport

“They must also pass a terminal test where the dog is walked through a loud terminal past moving golf carts, suitcases, door alarms, over-head announcements, children crying and items being dropped on the ground,” Miller adds. “If the dog passes this test, they are required to visit two assisted living communities where they are tested again; at the assisted living communities they must be comfortable sitting on residence beds and walking past walkers, wheel chairs and oxygen tanks.”

Dogs working at the airport must also become certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

“Penelope passed all of her test with flying colors which made me extremely proud, given how shut down she was when I met her,” Miller says. “The purpose of PUPs is to provide a little TLC and stress relief for the nervous flyer, stressed out traveler, nurses caring for the very sick, patients missing their dogs or even students during exam week.”

 When Penelope isn’t working, she’s always at her owner’s side and enjoys going on walks with other doggie friends. And as much as she helps the travelers of LAX, it’s Miller she’s given the most to.

“My dog of 19 years passed away three-and-a-half years ago, which shattered my heart,” Miller says. “Penelope has been the best Band-Aid ever. We look forward to each day and the excitement that it brings.”