Furry Good Neighbors at San Jose Airport Spread Cheer


Kyra Hubis and Henry James at Mineta San Jose International Airport.

“Henry is in the house!”

The shout out rises from jubilant TSA agents on many Monday mornings at Mineta San Jose International Airport, in San Jose, Calif., as regular visitor Henry James makes his way through security into Terminal B.

With a big smile—and a wagging tail—Henry signals his mutual excitement at seeing his fans. The 5-year-old golden retriever is on his way to his volunteer job as one of the airport’s 13 certified therapy dogs, greeting nervous, frazzled and even distraught passengers, and reducing employees’ stress levels. San Jose is reportedly the first airport to use therapy dogs, and inspired up to a dozen other U.S. airports to launch similar all-volunteer programs in the last two years.

“He loves to go. When we get to the airport his tail starts wagging,” says Henry’s owner, Kyra Hubis, a retired nursing educator who volunteers her time as the airport’s therapy dog program coordinator. Henry and Hubis have been on the job spreading cheer and calming jittery nerves most Monday mornings for three years. She likes to tell the passengers they meet, “Fly on a Monday, and when you buy your ticket you get a therapy dog!”

About a dozen other dogs of various breeds and their owners—all volunteers—are also in the program working other shifts throughout the week. The dogs are certified through the New Jersey-based group, Therapy Dogs International (TDI), one of dozens of such certifying organizations.

“It’s just a joy to see how the passengers relate to it,” says Rosemary Barnes, the airport’s public information manager. People’s faces light up when they see one of the dogs wandering through the terminal. Some are on their way to or from traumatic or stressful events. “It gets people to focus on something other than what they’re doing.”

It was a traumatic day, Sept. 11, 2001, when the first certified therapy dog went to work at San Jose airport. One of the airport’s volunteers asked officials if she could bring her Great Dane named Orion to calm distraught passengers stranded by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Orion was later joined by a dalmatian named Dolly and a golden retriever named Goldie. Now 14-years-old, Goldie still visits with owner Linda Smith a couple of times a month.

Not all dogs can be therapy dogs, according to Hubis. They must have a calm and friendly temperament, and be able to tolerate loud noises, small children pulling at them, or people running by. They also must be able to ignore tempting distractions like food lying on the ground.

The dogs go through a comprehensive training process, starting with earning Canine Good Citizen certification through the American Kennel Association, and culminating in testing through a therapy dog organization. The volunteers pay for the testing, membership in TDI, and annual vet visits. They must carry $1 million in insurance, available through the organization. In addition, they go through fingerprinting and airport security clearances.

Despite the costs involved, Hubis says they volunteers gladly pay it.

“Everybody who has a therapy dog that I know of is an absolute nut case over dogs,” she laughs. “We’re all completely gaga over our dogs, and we’re happy to share them. The dogs do good work, really good beneficial work.”

Once inside the terminal, Hubis leads Henry through each gate’s seating area, looking for people who might need cheering up. She introduces people to Henry, telling them he’s a therapy dog there just for them. Most people say, “Yes, yes, yes,” Hubis says. Only one person in three years has complained to her that dogs don’t belong in airports, a point Hubis says is moot, since dogs are already in airports as travelers or service dogs.

Small crowds often gather around Henry to pet him, take his photo, and ask Hubis questions. When small children approach, Henry patiently puts up with little hands that tug on his fur, or point near his face.

“Kids in the airport love him,” Hubis says. “Little kids are crawling all over him, lying on the floor with him, scratching his belly, and he eats it up.”

Some people get a kick out of seeing a friendly dog, and some are genuinely in need of the healing a four-legged therapist like Henry an bring. Like the time a woman on her way to visit her seriously ill mother wrapped her arms around the sympathetic dog’s neck and sobbed into his fur for 10 minutes.

One encounter still brings tears to Hubis’ eyes. She and Henry stopped to interact with some soldiers outside the USO on their way to being deployed. One of the soldiers pet Henry, looked straight into his eyes, and said simply, “Buddy, you watch the house while we’re gone.”

Smith, a retired airport employee, recalls the time Goldie spontaneously walked up to a man walking through the terminal. “He reached down to pet her and he said, ‘She knew I needed comforting. My mother just died.’”

It’s not uncommon for people to approach volunteers, sometimes with tears in their eyes, sharing about a beloved dog they recently lost or had to give up due to circumstances. The volunteers listen with a sympathetic ear, while the dogs enjoy the pets and hugs.

San Jose’s therapy dog program operated for many years without much fanfare, but other airports are now taking notice. Officials at Los Angeles International Airport reached out asking for advice before launching their own Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program on April 15, 2013. PUP coordinator and Director of Volunteers, Heidi Huebner, says they have 30 certified dogs and their owners participating, and she expects the program to grow.

“This program has made a huge impact on the passengers’ experience when traveling through LAX,” she says. “You can feel the stress level drop, strangers start smiling and talking to each other. People say, ‘This is just what I needed,’ and give the dogs and volunteers a hug.”

About a year before LAX, Miami International Airport welcomed its first and only “K-9 Ambassador” team, golden retriever Casey and owner Liz Miller. The two have their own fan club webpage on the airport’s site, and they received “Volunteer Ambassadors of the Year” awards in April 2013.


On one recent Monday Hubis and Henry were on the job again, greeting passengers and comforting those who needed it.

“See that golden retriever over there?” an airport employee asked the elderly gentleman she was pushing in a wheelchair to his gate. “He’s like the best therapy dog ever. He brightens everyone’s day!”

Hubis and Henry are both happy to be of service.

“It’s been so rewarding, it’s really good,” she says. “I love it and he loves it.”