Passport? Check. Tickets? Check. Big wet tongue across the face? If you’re at SFO, you can check that, too.
Weary travelers at San Francisco International Airport can now while away time at the terminal by cavorting with black Labs, Saint Bernards, terriers and other specially trained therapy dogs.
The dogs, introduced by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in early December, are meant to cheer the homesick, the aggravated, the fuming and the just plain bored. Accompanied by their owners, the pups trot through the airport wearing vests reading “Pet Me” in hopes of meeting new friends and experiencing many fascinating new smells.
“How cute! I’ve never seen dogs in an airport before. Of course you just can’t resist,” said Jenny Cornett, who arrived at SFO recently from Sonora, Texas, to be greeted by Jenna, a fluffy white cocker spaniel mix in a Santa collar. “Oh my gosh, she’s adorable.”
Jenna was a blur of tail-wagging when Cornett reached down to scratch the 15-pound pooch. Then Cornett went to retrieve her luggage, and Jenna trotted on happily to the next traveler.
SFO is not the first airport to let the dogs in. Airports in Los Angeles, Florida and Buffalo, N.Y., also have dogs. So does San Jose. But San Francisco is the only place you’ll meet Jenna – who, according to her owner, will “steal your heart and give it back full of love.”
Jenna (full name: Lady Jenna Barbara, after the Bush daughters) is one of about a dozen certified therapy dogs to work at SFO. A few days a week, Fabio Giuntarelli, a San Francisco real estate agent, brings the 6-year-old rescue pup to the airport for a few hours of sniffing, petting and slobbery kisses. She also visits nursing homes and hospitals, with a special affinity for Alzheimer’s patients.
“I started volunteering 30 years ago with AIDS groups. Now I do this,” said Giuntarelli, a native of Italy. “I love to give back, and this way I can do it with my best friend.”
In all, the San Francisco SPCA has about 250 pets enrolled in its therapy programs. They visit everyone from the developmentally disabled to college students studying for finals. Each pooch has to meet a certain temperament: mellow, calm in crowds, well trained, and without the slightest aggression toward people or other dogs.
Any breed, even scary-looking ones, can be a therapy dog. In fact, successful candidates don’t even need to be dogs. Cats, birds and rabbits are also part of the program.
But at the airport, dogs seem to be the preferred pet. SFO sees about 4 million travelers file through its corridors around the holiday season, and everyone appears to speak the universal language of belly rubs.
“We’re from overseas. We don’t have dogs in airports,” said Laura Doremi, who lives in Perth, Australia, and said she misses her bulldog and Lab back home. With Doremi’s permission, Jenna jumped on her lap and the pair shared some extensive ear-scratching time. “She’s very cute.”
Respite from stress
In the three weeks or so since the program started, it’s been smooth sailing, said airport spokesman Doug Yakel. No dogfights, no allergy attacks, no chewing of luggage. Only puppy love.
“We’re always looking for new ways to surprise and delight our travelers,” he said. “We try to make the terminal environment as enjoyable as possible.”
A pair of American Airlines ticket agents were so excited to see Jenna that they sprinted across the corridor to greet her during a break from work.
“Oh, she’s so sweet. She is the sweetest!” said Sue Van Sweden, who took numerous pictures of Jenna and gave her treats. “It can get crazy round here. Anything that calms people’s frazzled nerves. … We’re all dog lovers here.”
Carolyn Jones is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org