Heeling Friends dogs easing the stress of airport travel
Steamboat Springs — Meet Bingo.
Bingo is a nearly 11-year-old golden retriever and she has years of training under her collar to make your life a little bit more enjoyable, or “lower the blood pressure,” as her owner Jim Stimson says.
Twice per month for the past six years, Bingo and Stimson have been visiting patients and employees at Yampa Valley Medical Center as part of the volunteer-based nonprofit, Heeling Friends. Bingo and company also are part of the READ program, which helps ease the pressure for youngsters reading aloud in public-speaking situations.
But Bingo and Stimson are trying something new these days, inspired by a news story about healing dogs lowering the hustle and bustle stress that can come with braving the airport. Stimson took the article to Heeling Friends’ board of directors, and with the OK from Yampa Valley Regional Airport Assistant Manager Dean Smith, Bingo is collecting some pets and dishing out licks for travelers during the busiest time of year.
“I didn’t even hardly get (the proposal to Smith) out of my mouth,” Stimson said. “I said, ‘Hi, this is Jim Stimson with Heeling Friends would you be…’ and he immediately said, ‘Yes!’”
From the time she was a puppy, Stimson said Bingo basically was born to please, but her certification to link up with Heeling Friends didn’t come without some training. When Bingo was 5, she enrolled in healing school with three nights of training along with a daylong class.
Dogs who undergo training are put through courses ranging from stress management situations to learning to sit still for long periods of time. Bingo passed with flying colors.
“I’ve never really had to train her to do anything,” Stimson said. “Part of the training in this program is they had to sit and stay for a couple of minutes. I never taught her how to do that, but she knew I wanted her to do it so she did.”
On Sunday, as rounds of tourists from across the country boarded their planes to head home or unloaded to enjoy the New Year’s week in Steamboat, Bingo trotted around the airport as Stimson explained her back story to eager petters.
Bingo and Stimson are just one of 30 dog/volunteer combinations at Heeling Friends. It’s a club founded in 1998 by a retired emergency department nurse at Yampa Valley Medical Center, and each February it does a new round of recruiting, trying to expand its number of healers frequenting hospital, school and airport hallways. Newcomers always are welcome to give it a shot.
Right now, only four pairs of volunteers and their trained pets are working the airport, which started with a “trial run” a few days before Christmas.
“On the really busy days like we had Saturday and Sunday, I’ve found stuff like this kind of calms people down when we have those in-and-out days,” Smith said.
Based on her loving interactions with complete strangers, travelers usually don’t see past Bingo’s graying coat to the stress she has gone through herself as of late.
Bingo is a two-time cancer survivor with the only noticeable remnant from her treatment being her missing right eye. She’s old and only getting older, Stimson said, and he fears the cancer will return within a year.
She’s energized for about a few hours on her visits before her aging legs begin to wear. Stimson estimates she gets touched by hospital patients and employees about 70 times on an average round. Her impact is felt just about everywhere she goes.
“We’ve had three or four pretty intensely positive visits at the hospital with people who were dying,” Stimson said. “It’s amazing to see what they can do. Absolutely amazing.”
Bingo perks up with every outstretched hand, but she’s not the only one soaking in the moment.
“Initially my wife made me do it,” Stimson said. “This dog is so friendly and so well suited for it. I have two part-time jobs and my wife said I need more stuff to do, why don’t you do this? It’s been very rewarding for me.”
This year, a handful of Moffat County High School graduates are setting out to carry on the family tradition. From business to education, these students plan to follow in the footsteps their parents and in some cases, grandparents and great-grandparents.