The airport has welcomed a growing team of trained pets since the program was launched in 2013.
Last month, my family and I found ourselves wandering San Francisco International Airport in search of activities to fill a four and a half hour delay on our flight to Chicago when we came across a Pride event, held fittingly at the Harvey Milk Terminal. A golden retriever named Brixton was nestled between drag queens, and he was decked out in Pride attire from head to toe: rainbow sombrero, rainbow sunglasses, rainbow bandana and rainbow armbands.
Beneath the bandana, Brixton wore a vest embroidered with the words “Pet Me!” Brixton is a member of the SFO Wag Brigade, selected for his temperament and ability to adjust to various environments through the Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) program at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Brixton and around 20 other dogs, a Flemish Giant rabbit, a cat and even a pig are available for hugs and pictures around the airport. The human volunteers distribute Wag Brigade collectible trading cards, personalized for each animal.
As SFO air travel is approaching pre-pandemic levels – 14.9 million travelers are expected between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which represents about 85% of summer travel levels in 2019, according to an SFO press release – and extreme weather events have led to increased cancellations and delays at airports this summer, the Wag Brigade is there to “shift the mood,” said Jennifer Kazarian, the program’s founder and a member of SFO’s customer care team.
“Most of them are like celebrities walking in the airport. You can see people’s heads spinning and taking double takes,” Kazarian said. But once travelers actually approach the animals, “they bring strangers together…because dogs are something they have in common.”
Meeting Luna and Noodles
Upon exiting security on a Wednesday morning in late June, I met Luna, a 2-year-old, 10-pound Italian greyhound wearing a ruffled, leopard-print skirt. Luna is the first Italian greyhound in the SPCA’s program. Her enthusiastic demeanor is an outlier for the generally shy and aloof breed, said Leslie Kim, Luna’s owner and San Francisco resident. Luna also competes in dog sports, with a personal record of 8.26 seconds for the 100-yard dash, a time that dogs much bigger than her have trouble running, Kim said.
Soon after we were joined by Noodles, a 3-year-old, 98-pound goldendoodle. San Carlos resident Sharon Spina is Noodles’ owner and described her dog as Will Ferrell from “Elf” reincarnated, with a superpower of big fluffy hugs.
I followed the dogs and their owners, who are volunteers with full-time jobs, Kim as a personal trainer and Spina at a logistics company, as they made their way through Terminals 2 and 3. Dozens of separate interactions included a group of teen girls traveling to Disneyland, a couple with three dogs going to Vancouver and a family en-route to Washington, D.C., who didn’t own a dog but really wanted one. All were stuck at the airport due to delayed or canceled flights, but they immediately cheered up after a visit from the dogs. Even a crying baby who didn’t have much experience with dogs, her mother said, stopped crying and smiled as she pet Luna.
The science and history behind therapy animals
Pointing to the interaction between Luna and the baby, Kazarian said there is evidence that interactions with animals lead to better moods.
“Petting a dog is proven to increase endorphins and make people happy. When one person is happy, they smile, and when one person smiles, everybody starts to smile,” Kazarian said. The Wag Brigade is especially meaningful for those who have recently lost pets and airport employees who can’t have pets due to the travel demands of their jobs, she said.
Research from UCLA Health shows that the body’s response to petting a dog has positive health implications for immunity, physical pain, blood pressure and heart health. Petting an animal releases serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, all hormones that play a role in elevating mood.
The history of animal assisted therapy (AAT) dates back over 12,000 years, when a human skeleton holding a puppy was found in Northern Israel. In Belgium, animals were incorporated into treatment for individuals with disabilities as early as the ninth century, according to UCLA research. The SPCA founded the oldest humane society-based AAT program in 1981, according to its website.
AAT animals are different from service animals and emotional support animals, according to the American Kennel Club. Service animals are individually trained, task-oriented and work with people with disabilities. Emotional support animals are not necessarily trained but also work with an individual who goes through a mental health screening prior to being approved. And therapy animals, like the ones in the Wag Brigade, volunteer with many people in many different settings and are trained to be comfortable in each environment.
The first airport AAT program started at San Jose Mineta International Airport after 9/11. Kathryn Liebschutz, an airport chaplain, brought her trained therapy dog to work to alleviate travelers’ increased air travel anxiety. Los Angeles International Airport became the second airport to launch an AAT program, called Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP), in April 2013. Kazarian was tasked with creating a similar structure at SFO, and her 6-pound Yorkie, Dino, became the first member of the Wag Brigade in December 2013. At its maximum, the Wag Brigade has staffed 36 to 38 animals, but the priority is “quality over quantity,” Kazarian said.
LiLou, a pig named after her owner’s favorite movie character in “The Fifth Element,” became the first pig trained through the SPCA program in 2016. Her owner adopted her as a piglet, and she lives in a high-rise apartment in San Francisco. Kazarian said that there is a big crowd when LiLou comes glammed up with fancy outfits and painted nails as she plays the piano and demonstrates her favorite tricks.
How the Wag Brigade works
To join AAT, animals must be at least 1 year old, with a certification from at least one obedience course. They also must go through a behavior screening, and dogs must attain their Canine Good Citizen certification. If they are approved for AAT, they have to volunteer through SPCA for six months to a year before auditioning for the Wag Brigade. Volunteering locations include hospitals, schools and reading programs. Less than 10% of animal applicants make it onto the Wag Brigade because of the unpredictability of airports and prevalence of food, Kazarian said.
After animals are accepted into SFO’s program, Kazarian gives them a tour around the executive offices. The next visit, the animals do a shorter session pre-security to make sure they are still comfortable in the airport setting. Kazarian stays with them and trains them for the next few visits. From there, once the animals are off on their own, Kazarian is available for any questions and accompanies them as requested, with check-ins every six weeks, she said.
“Usually with the schools or hospitals they visit, they are seeing children and patients on a regular basis,” Kazarian said. “But in an airport, there is a lot of fast-paced turnover…no two days of interactions will ever be the same.”
Animals work a two-hour shift, which is equivalent to an eight-hour human shift, according to Kazarian. She doesn’t post a schedule because the animals are often stopped by travelers along the security process, and it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact place and time to meet them.
“I get requests through Instagram, saying ‘I’m in Terminal One. Can you bring the rabbit or the cat over right now?’” she said. “But they’re pets. They live with their humans and they come to the airport to volunteer. People get confused.”
‘He was meant for this job’
The animals love their job, said Kim, Luna’s owner. But training Luna as a therapy dog “happened randomly.”
When Luna was 2 months old, Kim sprained her ankle. It was during the holidays, and she was worried that no one would be around to help her with the dog.
“But Luna just laid there with her head on my elevated foot and calmed down completely,” Kim said. “That’s when I was thinking, ‘I wonder if you would be a good therapy dog.’”
Soon after, Kim started the AAT training process.
Spina, Noodles’ owner, saw how good he was with the children at a nearby elementary school, who would shower him with hugs and kisses.
“He loves kids and people,” Spina said. “He was meant for this job.”
Noodles is always a few steps ahead of Spina, greeting a new traveler with his tail wagging. A traveler whose flight to Mexico City was delayed offered to take him with her as he calmed down and laid at her feet after being showered with hugs. Noodles, who also volunteers at colleges and hospitals, has a hard time making it out of the airport because of all of the people he “meets and greets,” Spina said.
The bonds within the Wag Brigade extend past its meet-and-greets in the airport, with barbecues outside the terminals, dog birthday parties and quarterly “yappy hours” for those who are curious about joining the program.
“Our volunteers have all become friends with each other..it’s like a family,” Kazarian said. “It’s a really special program…The (volunteers) are all here to make people happy, and it’s a win-win for them because it’s a positive experience when they come to the airport.”
For more information on the Wag Brigade, including how to follow members on Instagram, visit SFO’s website.