Alaskan Malamute and airport therapy dog Harley and his owner, Niel Chisholm, are scaling new heights. Joanne Bednall reports...
Every time Niel Chisholm and his striking dog, Harley, walk into Aberdeen International Airport, heads turn. But it’s not just the Alaskan Malamute’s eight-stone presence and teddy bear-like good looks that demand attention. Seven-year-old Harley is the UK’s first airport therapy dog, helping to calm nervous flyers and ease the nerves of frustrated and stressed-out passengers.
A more common sight in America — Denver, for example, boasts one of the country’s largest airport animal therapy programmes, with 100 dogs and one cat — it is a concept yet to take off this side of the pond. In fact, according to Niel, the public’s initial reaction tends to be one of surprise. “People’s jaws hit the deck when they see him,” laughs 52-year-old Niel, a full-time carer from near Cowdenbeath, Fife.
“On one occasion, we were waiting to meet a family with an autistic child arriving on a flight from Dubai. The other passengers were so convinced Harley was a sniffer dog that they offered him their bags to inspect.
“Of course, Harley obliged — he was looking for food, not contraband!” Harley also raises a few eyebrows at airport security, where staff are required to frisk him, just like any other passenger.
“The first time Harley went through the metal detector, his harness triggered the alarm,” recalls Niel. “Now he bypasses the scanner and stands while a security guard pats him down. He still causes plenty of amusement though!”
Yet Harley’s successful rise from rescue to airport therapy dog almost didn’t get off the ground at all.
Five years ago, Niel and his wife, Carol, were searching for a companion for their other Alaskan Malamute, Storm, after she’d battled her way back from a life-threatening autoimmune illness, and they’d suddenly and unexpectedly lost their seven-year-old Labrador, Kenzie.
As luck would have it, a two-year-old dog was due to come into Alaskan Malamute Club UK Rescue, but he was 450 miles away in London — and hadn’t yet been assessed.
“I saw a picture of Harley’s face and said ‘yes’ straight away,” explains Niel, who loaded Storm into the car and headed south on the 16-hour round trip.
“We dived in feet first, but as soon as we met Harley, he was all over us like a rash and was so friendly. His family had an autistic child and were divorcing, so it must have been challenging coping with a 58kg dog, too.
“Although Harley was much bigger and broader than Storm, I fell in love with him immediately.”
However, despite separating the two dogs in the car, Harley and Storm spent much of the return journey displaying their displeasure towards each other.
“I started to wonder if we were doing the right thing,” says Niel. Back home in Fife, Storm attacked Harley on a regular basis, but always came off worse.
“Then one day, Harley caught Storm above her eye, which cost us £150 in vet’s bills, and we decided he had to go. Handing him back to the breed rescue was heartbreaking,” recalls Niel.
“Six weeks later, Carol said to me: ‘You want him back, don’t you?’ I nodded. We gave him a second chance. “After 11 months of perseverance, Harley and Storm started to respect each other’s boundaries and get along, until we lost Storm to cancer in July 2018.”
It’s taken Niel two years to build a close bond with ‘laid-back, calm, and patient’ Harley, who passed his Pets As Therapy (PAT) assessment in 2015, and was an immediate hit with local care-home residents. It was while researching therapy dogs that Aberdeen International Airport duty manager Fraser Bain stumbled across Harley’s canine CV.
“Fraser got in touch with the idea of using a therapy dog at the airport to try to put nervous passengers at ease,” says Niel, who despite living two-and-a-half hours away, agreed to give it a go.
“I didn’t really know what to expect that first day in spring 2018. But it turned out to be a complete and utter success and I was so proud of Harley. For me, meeting a woman in a wheelchair in the departure lounge summed up what it was all about. Harley gave her kisses, and she said it had made her day.”
Harley’s calming influence was also called upon to help support a young girl whose family was emigrating to Australia. Harley and Niel escorted the party from check-in, through security, to the plane.
“The girl was very quiet but her family said that Harley had really helped her,” continues Niel, who hopes the pilot project will be made permanent and rolled out to other airports. Although Harley loves the attention, meeting people can be very tiring for him, so Niel ensures his dog has regular toilet breaks and access to water, while restricting their monthly visits to no more than four hours.
“Harley likes to be kept busy — it’s a day out for him,” says Niel. “If ever his tail drops, or he starts backing away, I’ll know he’s not enjoying it. But this has never happened. “Once, when a group of schoolchildren descended on him, he was as good as gold. I use situations like this to educate people around dogs, and explain more about the breed. A lot think he’s a Husky!
“Ninety-nine per cent of passengers seem happy to see Harley and most have a smile on their faces, but there’s the odd person who side-steps us. I always make eye contact with people first and never approach them unless they instigate it.”
Niel admitted that Harley’s sheer size can be intimidating, especially for very young children, but it is his teddy bear-like appearance that makes him irresistible to those needing a cuddle.
“Speaking to, and stroking, a dog diverts people’s attention away from their fear of flying, helps to relieve tension and anxiety, and is a break from the stresses of an airport,” adds Niel. “Travellers appear calmer and less stressed when they’re concentrating on something as simple as giving a dog a biscuit.
“It’s strange that although Harley takes everything in his stride — even standing next to the noisy engines on a plane — he hates the hand dryer in the toilet!”
The airport's view
Aberdeen International Airport duty manager Fraser Bain has been impressed at how much Harley and Niel have helped to improve both passenger and staff experience.
“Having an airport therapy dog as a distraction and stress-reliever, in what can be a daunting environment, has really taken off,” explains Fraser, who is keen to expand the project. “Although we have no hard facts or figures to gauge Harley’s success, just seeing people smile is enough for us.”