Let’s do a quick word-association exercise: When you see the word “airport,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it “layover”? “Carry-on”? “Delay”? Chances are, if you’re a frequent flier, one of the top concepts on your list will be “stress.”
For the past six years, San Francisco International Airport has partnered with the SF SPCA to create the “Wag Brigade,” a program through which certified therapy animals roam SFO terminals, interacting with passengers to relieve preflight anxieties. Well-behaved and child-friendly, the animals all have bold personalities, said Jennifer Kazarian, guest services manager at the airport. Each goes through extensive training, including a canine good-citizen test.
Except they’re not all canines.
The brigade consists of 22 dogs, yes, but one of the stars is LiLou, a 5-year-old Juliana pig. One look at LiLou’s Instagram is enough to see why: With her captain’s hat, bright-red hoofs and vest that says “Pet Me!,” she’s a favorite among airport guests.
“She’s like an A-list celebrity walking through the airport,” Kazarian said. “She attracts a lot of attention.”
In addition to being hypoallergenic, LiLou can do tricks like her four-pawed companions, including playing a toy piano. The reaction to seeing her, from passengers and some of the dogs, is often bewilderment. Kazarian said some fliers will walk backward on moving walkways to chase LiLou down.
The animals of the Wag Brigade — which also includes George the Morkie (a Maltese-Yorkie mix), Jagger D’Wagger the goldendoodle, and Wrigley, a 150-pound Newdle (Newfoundland and poodle) — work once a week as a team with their trained owners, in two-hour shifts. When they’re past security, they stay at the terminals for no more than 90 minutes to ensure they get proper breaks after their hundreds of interactions.
The Wag Brigade was spun off from a similar program at Los Angeles International Airport, called Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP), and similar efforts have been introduced in at least 50 airports across the country. Although dogs are the most represented from the animal kingdom, there are notable standouts, even beyond LiLou. The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, for instance, enlists the help of miniature horses.
The programs focus on the animals’ de-stressing abilities, but there has been another unexpected benefit: The interactions give travelers a chance to engage with their fellow humans, too.
“To be able to connect with somebody and have a conversation at a stressful point in time is unexpected and super positive,” said Kazarian, who called the program “extremely successful” and fun (including for her).
As travel enters its peak season, SFO is planning to set up photo stations for passengers as they meet with the animals. For those who will be away from pets at home, maybe the Wag Brigade will help.
“It’s a win-win for the dogs,” Kazarian said. “They come to the airport, they get petted on, they get loved on, and we get to relieve stress for our guests at the same time.”