SFO’s Wag Brigade founder welcomes back her troupe of therapy animals.Jennifer Kazarian realizes the paradox she’s brought to her workplace. In an institution built on rules and protocol, visitors are often baffled when a vivacious goldendoodle — or a pig with painted toenails — parades through San Francisco International Airport wearing a “pet me” vest. Once people get it, however, there’s usually a ripple effect, says Kazarian, founder of Wag Brigade, a program that dispatches trained therapy animals to SFO’s terminals to help make the travel experience more enjoyable — and hopefully, less stressful. “You walk into the airport; everybody’s buried in their laptops and phones. Even families aren’t talking to each other,” she explains. “You walk in with a dog, and everybody looks up. Someone smiles, and smiles are contagious. Strangers start talking to each other and start interacting.”
Like many things, those moments of joy and interaction were absent during the height of the pandemic. Fortunately for Kazarian and her four-legged volunteers, the Wag Brigade has returned after a 20-month pause — boosting spirits throughout the terminals and offsetting Kazarian’s other role as a key problem-solver on the airport’s customer care team, which has fielded 22,000 COVID-related queries since March 2020. The hiatus was the program’s first since launching in 2013 in a partnership with the San Francisco SPCA, which provides Animal Assisted Therapy certification and additional training, a process that takes up to a year and a half. The animals who end up in the Wag Brigade are truly the “unicorns” of therapy animals, Kazarian says: “They have superfriendly personalities and they’re very gentle.” They also possess extreme willpower when it comes to roughhousing and resisting treats.
Much has been written about the Wag Brigade over the years, but Kazarian tends to stay out of the spotlight. Instead, she focuses on the well-being of its members. During the long stretch without in-person interaction, she scheduled Zoom check-ins with the animals and their owners and stayed connected to Wag Brigade fans through social media and virtual events. Most of the team members were faring well, albeit bored, during the time off — Bombay, an English chocolate Lab, reportedly spent his time wishing that his human roommates would leave the house once in a while; and Tristan, a Muppet-like French bulldog, worked on perfecting his napping skills. But Kazarian also received sad news: Three dogs died. One retired. And one moved with his owner to Southern California.
“Just like [us], their lives have changed,” she notes. “It’s been 20 months. If we’re talking dog years, that’s seven years per year for a dog, so they’ve been off 12 to 13 years.” And so, she’s rolling out the program again slowly and cautiously, requiring Wag Brigade members to be recertified by the SF SPCA and their human handlers to be fully vaccinated. Additionally, no petting is permitted at the airport without the use of hand sanitizer before and after the experience.
In mid-October, Tristan, who is partially paralyzed and uses a pair of wheels to get around, made a triumphant return to the airport. Then came Brixton, a favorite of kids and college students. And Jagger D’Wagger, a beach-loving social butterfly. As for LiLou, who has the distinction of racking up nearly 27,000 Instagram followers and being the world’s first therapy pig plus a personal pal of Jane Goodall (the animal behavior expert arranged to meet LiLou upon flying into SFO a few years ago), she’s on track to return soon. According to her owner, Tatyana Danilova, LiLou’s been busy practicing tricks (perfecting her figure eight and playing the toy piano with her snout and hoof ) and has colorful new harnesses and bows to show off. Both LiLou and Danilova, whose employer grants time off for the twohour SFO visits, are anxious to return. “I used to travel for work, and I know how stressful travel can be,” says Danilova. “I absolutely notice the difference in people’s expressions, people’s energy and attitudes when they get to interact with us.”
While LiLou isn’t crazy about canine company, she joins the dogs at airport events and the Yappy Hours that Kazarian schedules for members and newcomers interested in volunteering. The word “volunteer” is key to the program’s success and the reason Kazarian rejects offers for corporate partnerships from pet food and supply companies — and prohibits the animals’ handlers from accepting money from people at the airport, a gesture that is fairly common. Operating costs for the program are low, with only Kazarian’s salary (she devotes about half of her work time to the program) and a budget for vests, treats and swag, including the popular Wag Brigade collectible trading cards handlers distribute.
But perhaps the best mementos are the keepsake photos of travelers with the animals, often posing in selfies or the photo booths Kazarian sets up for special events. Samantha Colden of Sydney, Australia, has snapshots from separate trips that show her beaming alongside Chedda Cheese, who later retired, and Prancer, who is still on the team. And though she hasn’t been to SFO in a few years, she stays in touch with Kazarian, whom she praises for going “above and beyond” in her job. In an email, Colden recounts: “I’m a nervous flyer, and once, when we had an especially late flight back to Oz, Jennifer arranged for a member of the Wag Brigade to come to the terminal to meet me. I’ll never forget it.”
Christopher Birch, Kazarian’s supervisor, recalls asking her to explore the feasibility of setting up an animal therapy program nearly a decade ago. “She had a vision from the get-go,” he says. “I would call Jennifer very compassionate because she has been exposed to enough of what people have experienced in the terminals. She’s familiar with the stresses and anxieties people feel when they travel — a big part of her job [is] to listen to that. … She got an opportunity when we started this program to focus on something that was entirely positive and provide some balance.”
After delving into her research, including a look at Mineta San Jose International Airport, which introduced its animal therapy program shortly after 9/11, she volunteered her own dog, a Yorkie named Dino, to go through the certification process and become the first member of the brigade. Since then, 56 animals have participated, including a brief stint by Coco, a 110- pound mini-horse. Toby, the mellow goldendoodle who also volunteers at homeless shelters and mental health facilities, has been with the program since its inception. And soon, the Wag Brigade will welcome its first feline, Duke.
“The Wag Brigade excites me, inspires me and lights me up. … Just being around dogs makes us want to be better people,” says Kazarian, who is regularly contacted by other airports looking to create similar programs. She will go out of her way to fulfill special requests from passengers requesting a Wag Brigade visit through customer care to help alleviate anxiety or brighten a travel experience for a sick child, but she wants people to know that the therapy animals are truly there for everyone — from airport staff and flight crews to travelers passing through. “We meet a lot of people who start crying while interacting with the animals. We also hear things like: ‘You don’t know how much I needed this right now’ or ‘You don’t know how much this means to me,’’’ Kazarian shares. “I have had people come back from a two-week vacation in Hawaii who will say, ‘This is the best thing that’s happened to me.’”
Kazarian is looking forward to the return of her full team — and those contagious smiles. “You’ve just flown 12 hours and you get off a flight and you’re walking along and all of a sudden you spy a pig in a pilot outfit and a pink tutu with painted toenails wearing a Wag Brigade vest playing a little piano,” says Kazarian. “You’ve heard San Francisco is quirky but never imagined seeing something like this.”