Seeing a canine passenger on mass transit is not uncommon, but the reasons why a dog might catch the train or hop a bus are varied (remember Eclipse, the Seattle Lab mix that uses the bus, often on her own, to get to the dog park?). Most public transit pooches are working —as K-9 officers or service animals. In the Philadelphia region, other animals — in approved carriers only—are permitted to ride the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) buses, trains and trolleys. However, a new pilot program underway by SEPTA allows registered therapy dogs volunteering at two Philadelphia hospitals to use two designated bus routes to travel to their sites.
The Therapy Dog Pilot Program launched in early February, allowing registered therapy dogs for The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) and their handlers to use SEPTA’s Route 40 and 42 buses to travel to the hospital campuses in West Philadelphia. Dogs are identified with therapy dog bandanas and the handlers, in addition to paying their fares, must show their hospital volunteer identification.
“There are several volunteers who have regularly taken advantage of riding the bus with their dogs since the pilot began,” said Cynthia Hayes, SEPTA’s manager, customer advocacy. “We’ve gotten positive feedback regarding the warm welcome the dogs and handlers have received when they board the buses. Our operators have enjoyed having the four-legged passengers along for the ride.”
SEPTA is working with CHOP and HUP on the pilot because those institutions require their therapy dogs to undergo additional physical and behavioral screenings from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “The therapy dogs go through rigorous training and screening processes before they volunteer at our hospital,” said Lisa Serad, program coordinator for the Gerald B. Shreiber Pet Therapy Program at CHOP. “We know that our volunteers are well-prepared for their bus trips.”
CHOP and HUP are hoping that a successful pilot program will help them attract more therapy dog volunteers. “Some of our current volunteers live in downtown Philadelphia,” said Serad. “If they don’t have a car, they need to take a taxi to the hospital for their assignments. The bus is much more cost effective and convenient. We know that there are many potential volunteers who would join our therapy dog program if they were able to use public transit.”
SEPTA’s pet therapy pilot runs through September. “At that time, we will evaluate the program and determine if we will continue it,” said Kim Scott Heinle, SEPTA assistant GM, customer service. “Animal therapy can make a great difference in the recovery or treatment of patients. If SEPTA can help the hospitals expand their programs by allowing therapy dogs and their handlers to ride our vehicles, then we are on board with doing what we can to make the pilot work.”
In addition to having SEPTA’s assistance with their pet therapy programs, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania hospitals have the support of State Sen. Andy Dinniman, who represents nearby Chester County, Pa. Dinniman has introduced a bill to the Pennsylvania Senate that will allow registered therapy dogs to ride mass transit. Dinniman applauds the steps SEPTA has already taken. “SEPTA's pilot project recognizes the value of therapy dogs as well as their handlers' need to sometimes use public transit to get to and from hospitals, senior centers, schools and other places," he said. "And, what SEPTA is trying out on Bus Routes 40 and 42, I am trying to do statewide with my Senate Bill 640, which would make sure registered therapy dogs and their handlers have the right to use public transportation across the Commonwealth."