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Travelers with guide dogs learn how to navigate airport security

Blue, a guide dog owned by Peter Coughlin

Blue, a guide dog owned by Peter Coughlin of Brightwaters, looks on beside Peter and his wife, Dorothy, who are sitting next to Carolyn Giambalvo of Lindenhurst and her guide dog, Kia, left, at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Harried travelers may be annoyed by airport security, but getting through the metal detectors can be challenging for travelers who need to bring their guide dogs with them.

The federal Transportation Security Administration works with groups that provide service dogs to help familiarize travelers and their dogs with security procedures through practice sessions at airports.

On Tuesday, six guide dogs and their human handlers took turns undergoing practice security screenings at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma.

Pairs of people and dogs, including Carolyn Giambalvo of Lindenhurst and her dog Kia, executed a carefully coordinated ballet to smoothly pass through security.

Giambalvo walked first through a metal detector while Kia waited patiently on the other side until she was called to join her handler, then ran joyfully through the detector.

"It's a great opportunity," Giambalvo said of the practice session. She noted that while this was Kia's first trip to MacArthur, the dog's powerful memory means she will be able to easily navigate the airport on future visits. "The dog has a great memory and she'll remember," Giambalvo said.

"It's a wonderful win-win situation," said Karen Greis, consumer services manager for Smithtown-based organizations the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind and America's VetDogs, as she watched the practice screenings. Not only do the dogs learn how to navigate the airport, the travelers learn what to expect from security screeners, and the TSA staff also get a chance to practice working with travelers with disabilities, Greis said.

"We're looking to take the stress out of traveling. We'll walk you through the process," said TSA manager Joe Modica to the assembled group of travelers. "The main thing is you should communicate your needs to us."

Philip Scholz of Mount Sinai said he has flown to Europe with a previous guide dog, and with his new partner, Ryder, has taken one flight from MacArthur to Baltimore. "I love traveling. I would love to go back to Europe," said Scholz, who has limited vision due to a genetic condition and relies on Ryder for guidance. "He is happy as a clam to be out with me," Scholz said, as Ryder lay quietly at his feet. "He loves his job."

Peter Coughlin of Brightwaters also enjoys traveling to Florida with his guide dog, Blue, who knows the Southwest Airlines flight to Palm Beach so well that upon boarding the plane, "he goes right to the seat" without prompting, Coughlin said.

One challenge of security screening guide dogs is that most of them wear harnesses and leashes with metal components, which can trigger the security detectors. Just like humans, dogs that trigger the alarm then receive further scrutiny from TSA officers.

Peggy Kirsch, a service dog instructor, took 1 1/2-year-old Ralphie through security as part of his training for his upcoming placement with a new client, and the pair set off the metal detector alarm. "We had to have a pat-down," she said. "I'd say he rather enjoyed it."

For more information on navigating airport security with guide dogs, contact the TSA at 855-787-2227.

Advice on handling guide dogs

Guide dogs are very attuned to their handlers, according to the Guide Dog Foundation and America's VetDogs.

If you see a guide dog or service animal at the airport, they should be considered "on duty" when out in public with their handlers and should not be disturbed.

Petting, feeding, maintaining eye contact or otherwise distracting guide dog can be dangerous for the handlers and could disrupt the dog's training.

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