(USA Today) LOS ANGELES -- Claire Arno and her two children missed their flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Stuck waiting at Los Angeles International Airport for the next flight to New York, Arno is looking for ways to entertain Piper, 4, and Marius, 6.
Along come Hazel, Rosalie and Kai. The three dogs — a pointer mix, a Chihuahua/terrier mix and a long-haired Dalmatian — command as much attention as Gwyneth Paltrow would sauntering through LAX.
Arno's kids rush over to pet the dogs. Other travelers snap photos of or take selfies with them. The dogs' owners call them the "pup-arazzi."
"It's absolutely nice to run into them," Arno says as she watches her kids play with the pooches at Delta Airlines Terminal 5. "I think it calms the kids down. It's a little bit of home at the airport."
That's exactly what LAX officials had in mind when they started the Pets Unstressing Passengers, or PUP, program last year. Thirty trained dogs have been employed to relax and entertain stressed-out travelers. Wearing red vests that instruct people to "pet me," the dogs wander LAX's terminals with their owners, providing comfort and airport information.
For frazzled travelers, "this is a breath of fresh air and fun for them," Heidi Huebner, director of volunteers for the PUP program at LAX.
Dogs are celebrities
About 20 airports across the USA and Canada — including Miami International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, Mineta San Jose International Airport and Edmonton International Airport — have therapy dogs.
Air travel can be particularly stressful these days. The mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines 370 in March and now the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week have travelers on edge.
Even when passengers aren't worried about catastrophic events, they're dealing with a traveling experience that has deteriorated in other ways.
About nine out of 10 travelers recently surveyed by the firm ResearchNow for the U.S. Travel Association said that in the past year, air travel has become either more of or is as much of a hassle.
Flight delays and cancellations are the biggest complaints, but long security lines and checked-bag fees also are frequent gripes, according to the online survey of 1,031 business and leisure travelers from Feb. 5 to Feb. 12.
"We know air travel can sometimes be hairy due to Mother Nature, delays," and other stressful events says Tara Hernandez, marketing and communications manager at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., which has six therapy dogs in its Gentle Fur in Action program. "What we have tried to establish with our … program is a sense of comfort, a way to ease anxiety and stress."
At LAX, Hazel, Kai and Rosalie are doing their best.
"When she puts that vest on, she knows she has to work," says Lou Friedman, a retiree who owns Hazel with his wife, Barbara.
The work beats Hazel's previous life, though. The Friedmans rescued the 9-year-old pointer mix from a shelter. When they found her, she was so afraid of people that she insisted on sleeping in a closet.
She eventually let her guard down, and she and her owners now dedicate a few hours a week to helping others in distress. Hazel's favorite way to make a traveler chuckle is to lie on her back and wiggle around.
Perfect for the job
Like other airport therapy dogs, Hazel had to be trained before she was hired.
At LAX, the pups must have worked with a dog therapy organization for at least a year. They have to be at least 2 years old. And they have to be registered with Therapy Dogs Inc.,which evaluates people and pets who are involved in volunteer animal-assisted activities. The pets usually visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other venues before getting the airport gig.
They then go through classroom training at LAX, which includes a walk-through with Huebner to ensure they are the right fit. Owners are fingerprinted and badged for security reasons.
Other airports have similarly stringent requirements. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport requires dogs and their owners to go through four evaluation visits.
The LAX dogs typically are available for a few hours a day every day of the week. Each dog works until he or she gets tired. "When the dogs are done, they're done," says Norm Zareski, who owns 10-year-old Rosalie.
On a recent Friday, Hazel, Kai and Rosalie enthusiastically take a stroll. They intend to get through all of Terminal 5 but make it only a few feet past security.
"A lot of times, they don't make it past this area," Huebner says. "It's quality, not quantity."
They are canine celebrities at LAX, a place used to playing host to many human celebrities. The pups even have business cards that tell travelers what their favorite treats and lounging spots are. Hazel's favorite treat is cooked egg yolks. Kai likes bell peppers. Rosalie's favorite place to lounge is on "any lap."
The dogs attract children mostly, but they also often help the adult traveler who's just having a bad day.
"You can tell. You see it on their faces," Zareski says.
Megan Moroney has been up since 3 a.m. She's heading to a friend's wedding in San Jose. She was packing until midnight and then had to work a morning shift at a coffee shop before heading to the airport.
She's exhausted, but when she spots the dogs, she heads straight to them.
"This is the greatest thing you can bring to an airport because everyone is stressed out or bored," she says. "I just saw them and feel rejuvenated and excited. I feel peacefully happy."