These airport programs pass the sniff test.
It’s no secret that the best part of a vacation isn’t the airport. From the TSA strip search and jostling for space in overhead compartments to flight delays and missed connections, the joy of travel often doesn’t start until you’ve reached your destination.
To help alleviate the stress of travel, there’s an innovative trend taking off in North American airports: therapy dog programs. Studies show petting a dog can lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety, so registered therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers circulate in waiting areas in case anyone wants to pet a dog. (Spoiler alert: They usually do.) So if you’re an animal lover or just dog tired, here are 12 airports in North America where you can find canine comfort.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): “Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP)”
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
There were only a few airports with therapy dog programs when Heidi Huebner, director of volunteers at Los Angeles International Airport, spoke about the success of LAX’s PUP program to the American Association of Airport Executives in 2013—and offered to help any other airport execs who might be interested in following suit. Since then, over 50 airports have introduced therapy dog programs. Meanwhile, the PUP program in Los Angeles has continued to grow and now boasts 80 dogs. The majority are “rescues” from animal shelters and all are registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
INSIDER TIPFor tips on where and when to find therapy dogs in LAX on your travel day, check the airport’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL): “FLL AmbassaDogs”
WHERE: Broward County, Florida
The 11 “AmbassaDogs” who roam throughout the airport in Fort Lauderdale might be very different, but handlers say they share a love of the job. For example, a Yorkshire Terrier named Tiffany rides around in a stroller. A Pointer named Chuck leans in for hugs or kisses. A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Berte rolls around on the floor. A German Shepherd named Sammy does a sort of tap dance because he can’t contain his excitement. While the dogs entertain travelers, handlers distribute trading cards, coloring books and crayons.
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Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF): “Paws for Love”
WHERE: Buffalo, New York
About 60 teams from the SPCA Serving Erie County Paws for Love program visit the airport in Buffalo, where winter weather can definitely lead to delays and cancellations. In fact, teams work extra shifts whenever storms cause problems. Some volunteers drive over an hour because sharing their dogs with the public is so rewarding, whether offering a pleasant distraction to vacationers or business travelers glued to their phones, autistic children who are afraid to fly, or people traveling to or from funerals.
INSIDER TIPPaws for Love dogs will meet families traveling with children with disabilities when they first arrive and stay with them until they board by request.
Edmonton International Airport (EIA): Pet Therapy at EIA
WHERE: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
EIA was the first airport in Canada to introduce a pet therapy program, and because it proved so successful, organizers in Edmonton have helped other Canadian airports start similar programs. Volunteers from the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta reportedly meet many frequent fliers with the goal of petting all 11 therapy dogs and collecting their trading cards.
INSIDER TIPThe best place to find a therapy dog at EIA is in the Domestic/International boarding lounge between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily or on Thursday evenings.
Sacramento International Airport (SAC): “Boarding Area Relaxation Corp (BARC)”
WHERE: Sacramento, California
While the 33 therapy dogs roaming the airport in Sacramento may work under the acronym BARC, they’re trained not to bark in public. They also have to pass the informal “garlic fries test”—there’s absolutely no begging allowed, even if travelers are eating something tasty. Instead, they stick to their jobs: wearing vests that say “PET ME” and trying to get past the TSA checkpoints even when mobbed by passengers eager to comply. The dogs and their handlers—all volunteers from the nonprofit Lend a Heart Animal Assisted Therapy—visit on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. and sometimes more often, particularly during holidays.
Denver International Airport (DEN): “Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS)”
WHERE: Denver, Colorado
There is in fact one therapy cat on the CATS team—as well as 97 dogs, making the therapy animal program at Denver one of the largest in America. Volunteers and their pets circulate in all three concourses seven days a week meeting people and handing out trading cards that share each therapy dog’s “pet peeve” and “favorite treat.” CATS teams also support special airport events like Special Olympics Colorado’s Plane Pull and community fundraisers like PetAid Colorado’s “Mutts & Models.”
INSIDER TIPCheck DIA’s Facebook and Twitter pages to see when and where dogs are scheduled to be on your travel day.
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San Antonio International Airport (SAT): “Pups & Planes”
WHERE: San Antonio, Texas
Soon after “Pups & Planes” began in San Antonio in 2013, a Doberman Pinscher named Travis insisted on greeting a lady sitting alone in a boarding area. The woman spent about 45 minutes petting Travis and repeatedly telling the dog, “Yes–everything is going to be okay.” Eventually she explained that her beloved dog had recently died, but after meeting Travis, she felt she would recover from her grief. Now 11 therapy dog teams visit passengers in both terminals as well as the ticketing and baggage claim areas.
INSIDER TIPNonprofits like Make-a-Wish Foundation and Honor Flight Network can coordinate with the airport to schedule “Pups & Planes” visits at SAT.
Vancouver International Airport (YVR): “The Less Airport Stress Initiative (LASI)”
Like their namesake Lassie, the seven LASI dogs shine when being helpful. Though the program launched in 2017, these canine ambassadors have already made a big impression on staff and travelers at the busy Vancouver airport, even helping one crying passenger overcome her fear of flying (at least, enough to get on the plane). Molly, Bailey, Mira, Grover, Kermoda, Soda, and Norman are practically celebrities now; check out #BigNorm on social media to see photos of pilots and passengers posing with the popular Newfoundland.
INSIDER TIPLook for the dogs Mondays through Fridays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. They’ll be wearing bandanas from St. John Ambulance and walking with YVR Green Coat Volunteers.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP): “MSP Animal Ambassadors”
WHERE: Twin Cities, Minnesota
Since its inception in 2015, MSP Animal Ambassadors quickly swelled to 75 therapy dogs. With so many teams, there’s a wide variety of breeds represented, including Toy Poodles, Great Danes, Golden Retrievers, Pomeranians, Old English Sheepdogs, Labradoodles, and Portuguese Water Dogs. Whether you’re from Minneapolis-St. Paul or just passing through, there should be a dog to remind you of the one waiting for you at home.
INSIDER TIPMSP Animal Ambassadors visit both terminals, but more dogs visit Terminal 1 simply because it’s bigger. Try to spot them in the north rotunda of the airport mall near Ike’s Food & Cocktails or at the entrance to concourses C and D. Fittingly, you also might spot them near the Snoopy statue in the center of the airport mall, as well as near the entrances to the F and G concourses.
San Francisco International Airport (SFO): “Wag Brigade”
WHERE: San Francisco, California
The Wag Brigade was an instant hit when it launched in December of 2013, just in time for the busy holiday travel season. The 20 participating animals have all been certified for the job by the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) through the nonprofit’s Animal Assisted Therapy Program. At the end of 2016, the 19 therapy dog teams welcomed their first non-canine member: Lilou, a Juliana pig who quickly became a favorite with travelers on social media. Renowned chimpanzee expert and anthropologist Jane Goodall met LiLou when she was traveling through San Francisco and later blogged about the special encounter.
Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO): “Paws 4 Passengers”
WHERE: Reno, Nevada
Founded in 2013 by a retired pilot, Paws 4 Passengers now has 25 teams—and a waitlist to join. The dogs range from Pugs, Chihuahuas, and Corgis to Mastiffs, German Shepherds, and mixes. Though they usually wear a uniform vest that says “Pet Me,” they dress in costumes on Halloween and as angels or Santa Claus on Christmas. When thousands of people descend on Reno to head to Burning Man, the dogs wear tie-dyed hats and vests as a shout-out to the free-spirited festival.
Gerald R. Ford International Airport (GRR): “Gentle Fur in Action (GFIA)”
WHERE: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Grand Rapids is by no means a major travel hub, but that doesn’t mean travelers can’t be stressed. So 11 therapy dog teams visit passengers during peak busy periods (usually late afternoons and evenings) with particular attention paid to families with children. The GFIA dogs have brought smiles to many people, including a bride-to-be whose luggage was lost on the way to her wedding, a 90-year-old traveling alone, and soldiers deploying overseas.
INSIDER TIPVisits with dogs for travelers with special needs can often be arranged by advance request.