Everyone is taught that angels have two feathered wings. But here in Barnsley, they have four furry paws – plus a wet nose, thick fluffy coat and piercing blue and amber eyes.
They may not be able to fly, but four Siberian Huskies glide across the floor to greet us with a powerfully calming aura much greater than you could ever imagine
They’re far from human and yet nothing like a dog. Yes, they have four legs, a tail and a snout but the resemblance stops there. They’re free-thinking spirits that are teaching people across the country about humanity, helping them to stay paws-itive along whatever journey lies ahead.
Since 2017, Stormy, Thunder, Thor and Binny Boo have been working as registered therapy dogs; benevolent guardians that have touched the hearts of hundreds of people across the country living with dementia, bereavement, loneliness, autism, cancer, sensory-impairment, end of life, mental health and so much more.
The huskies have learnt to sense a person’s emotional needs and provide comfort, support and unconditional love when people need it the most. It’s hard to feel sad when a giant fluffy dog walks in the room.
As we meet the dogs and their owner, Adrian Ashworth, at his home in Pogmoor, our interview is spent either gawping in awe and amazement as the dogs do their tricks, grinning so wide at their tales – and tails – that our cheeks hurt, or stifling a tear at the admirable and remarkable work these precious animal do so selflessly for others.
Thunder took a special liking to Cheryl and sat at her feet throughout our stay, perhaps sensing she needed a little comfort as the huskies reminded her of her own dog, big teddy bear Nelson, a Japanese Akita who sadly crossed the rainbow bridge a few years ago.
Although most owners would say their pets are special, Adrian first noticed his dogs were exceptionally different when they were still puppies.
Adrian has always had dogs and had a timber wolf husky hybrid before getting Stormy as a 12-week-old puppy nine years ago. When she was four, Adrian bred Stormy and hand-delivered her litter of five puppies.
“The intention was to just keep the one girl – Indigo as she was first called. But Thunder looked at me with these eyes that said I was his dad and that was it, he was staying. We sadly lost one puppy, sold one to a friend and kept the other three.
“I am their dad. I used to sleep with them in their pen when they were really young puppies and even now if I lie on the kitchen floor at 3am then all three pups still come and lie with me,” Adrian says.
When the puppies were around a year old, Adrian noticed Thunder would want to be near his father, Alan. Thunder would try to lick Alan’s temples, sit at his feet and was constantly checking on him. Then the other three dogs would gather around him.
As an accountant, Alan would help his son with his books for his IT company. But they started not to balance which Adrian thought was out of character for his methodical dad who was never a penny out.
Then he started forgetting passwords and other important information which is when Adrian knew something wasn’t quite right.
“Not long after, Dad was diagnosed with dementia but we knew that before the doctor confirmed it – Thunder had picked up on it before any of us had.”
Inspired by Thunder’s instinctive notion, Adrian began working with BIADS – Barnsley Independent Alzheimer’s and Dementia Support – to offer dog therapy to their members.
Here, Adrian was able to train all four dogs in what he calls a ‘fluffover’ where people with dementia are encouraged to pat and stroke the dogs to improve their wellbeing.
Although animal-assisted therapy is a relatively new concept, Florence Nightingale in her Notes on Nursing wrote about the benefits an animal companion could bring to the sick, particularly those with chronic conditions.
The atmosphere changes in the room when a dog arrives – never mind four – and this can bring much-needed distraction from any symptoms or issues a person may be burdened with.
Stroking a dog lowers blood pressure and the heart rate. It can also increase serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain which improves mood and relieves stress and anxiety.
The huskies also provide sensory stimulation, particularly for those with dementia.
“Someone with dementia may not remember what they last ate, but they can remember the fluffy dogs,” Adrian says.
Since starting out over two years ago, Adrian now works with around 800 care homes across the country to offer husky therapy to the elderly and those with dementia.
He has also worked with each dog to develop its own therapeutic specialism to extend their service to more and more people from age three to 103.
Stormy is the oldest of the pack and, as the mum, she is trained to work with children with cancer. She’s very placid and soft natured and loves a tummy rub. Stormy is the only dog to have bi-coloured eyes, one icy blue and the other fiery orange, which the children are fascinated by.
“She was going to be a Cadaver search dog but she pre-empts commands and thinks she knows better about what people want and need which sadly isn’t a good trait in a search environment.”
Indigo is now called Binny Boo after a child called it her and it stuck. She’s the alpha and most definitely in charge. The two boys have a floppy left ear from where Stormy would drag them round as pups – but BB wouldn’t allow her mum to do the same to her.
She has similar markings to Stormy with the same dark fur around her head. But she has these piercing blue eyes that seem to look into your soul. She is a bereavement dog and provides solace in times of grief.
Next up is Thor, the most playful of the awesome foursome, who works with people with developmental disorders such as autism and down’s syndrome. Thor Paws is a calming influence on everyone he meets and a real gentle giant who just loves to be cuddled.
Finishing off the fluffy line-up is Thunder, the champion boy who works with a wide range of emotional and behavioural disorders plus end of life patients.
In his role in palliative care, Thunder is allowed on the bed to lie next to a patient. His breathing changes and slows down which helps a person forget about the worries or pain for a moment.
“He’s like a human in the way that he feels emotions like we would, particularly if one of the end of life patients passes away. We’ve been there for seven people leaving this earth which can be draining for both man and dog.
“Thunder understands what has happened and we usually have a cry in the van afterwards. When we come home, he wants to be alone for a good few hours then he comes into my office for a cuddle before going to see the other dogs.”
He is a therapy dog for a school in Wakefield which Adrian visits with Thunder once a week to see the 600 children.
Thunder is also the only dog prescribed in a medical care package by the NHS and local CCG. He is currently written into 27-year-old Ben Fyfield’s medical notes as part of his physiotherapy treatment. Ben suffers with a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome as well as cerebral palsy and scoliosis.
“He doesn’t use his left arm usually, but he does to stroke Thunder. It’s physio without Ben even realising it. His speech is limited but he can say Thunder Dog and his face lights up when we visit. They’ve built up such a strong connection over the last year which is fantastic to see,” Adrian says.
Thunder was even asked to lead a funeral procession late last year.
All four dogs work really hard to make people smile throughout the week. However, due to the vast amount of work he can participate in, Thunder alone pays for all four dogs’ food and healthcare bills.
But Therapy Huskies is of course a team effort and, as a collective, the furry four might make five care home visits for a fluffover, two private visits either at Adrian’s home or elsewhere, three end of life visits plus a trip to the school in Wakefield all in a week’s work.
Their work takes them across the country and Adrian is getting enquiries to help other conditions such as anxiety or learning disabilities.
“When people ask if we can help, all I say is let’s give it a go and see what happens. There has only ever been one person who Thunder refused to go to and it was at a mental violence unit. No matter how hard I tried, he just wouldn’t go near him and the man seemed fine to me. But it turned out he was a murderer so if that doesn’t tell you that dogs look inside a person then I don’t know what does.”
The huskies love unconditionally without expecting anything in return. There are no ulterior motives, just a need to please.
But for Adrian, the dogs are his babies and he knows when they’ve had enough.
“I joke that they’ve got an in-built alarm clock as they always squeak when an hour has passed and that’s when I know it’s time to go home.”
Adrian also needs to be mindful of temperatures as most clinical or care settings can be warm, which isn’t ideal for a husky with a double coat made for cold climates.
As very intelligent animals, huskies can be difficult to train. But a lot of the training Adrian has done is tailored around real life scenarios; however, some situations cannot be recreated such as death or mental health problems.
Most pet dogs are trained to give a paw, but the Therapy Huskies are not. This is because their claws may cause skin tears on the elderly or those with fragile skin.
“They know they’re not allowed and they don’t want to if you ask them to do it, but they do because they just want to please.”
Due to the nature of their work and the vulnerable people they meet, the dogs are on a very strict diet and hygiene regime for disease control.
They cannot have raw food due to the risk of passing on salmonella so they eat a combination of frozen chicken and steak along with cooked ham and grated cheese. They also have a dry mix imported from Italy that contains all the right vitamins.
Before meeting anyone, the dogs have an antibacterial spray applied to their mouths and each dog has its own deodorant.
Caring for one dog takes up a lot of time for the average household but looking after four huskies is a full-time job in itself. They need to be walked for 12 to 15 miles a day, usually spread out over five walks, with each day starting around 5am. Before we arrived to meet them at 9.15am one Thursday morning, they had already had two of their five walks covering around four miles.
However, they are never allowed off the lead due to their heritage as working dogs. Huskies originate from the indigenous Chukchi people who used the dogs to pull sleds during the winter where they would be fed frozen fish and blubber. As the summer months arrived, they would be unclipped to go in search of food.
These instincts can still be found today and being unclipped from the lead may result in a husky running off.
Despite their majestic and striking presence and resemblance to a wolf, they are not a fearful breed of dog. They can be hyper yet calm and would play all day given the chance.
“Even those people who are terrified of dogs usually end up hugging them by the time our sessions end.”
With the life expectancy of a husky around 14, Adrian is realistic of the dogs’ future capabilities. Their wellbeing is just as important as the people they help. At the beginning, he set a ten-year plan, not wanting the dogs to be working in their old age.
Stormy is now nine and slowing down on her duties, while her pups are now five so Adrian is keen to work on his own attributes to give his initiative longevity.
Adrian currently works as a freelance photographer which he has done since 2009 and manages the dogs’ diaries around his bookings. However, he would love to be able to devote his full-time efforts to Therapy Huskies in the future is it can be financially sustainable.
He is starting a counselling course at Barnsley College to improve on the professional aspect of Therapy Huskies.
“We meet such a varied mix of people and their families that sometimes I come out of the sessions wondering if I said the right thing. Having the correct knowledge behind me means I can hopefully create a counselling room at home where people can talk to me if they wish, or the dogs if they don’t.”
Although they aren’t a registered charity, the amount they do charge for their services covers transport costs as well as the dogs’ living costs and any medical bills and insurance. Adrian has used his savings to cover a lot of the costs and tries to help anyone, regardless of their financial situation.
People even stop him in the street to give him money for the dogs after hearing what they do and many people have chosen to donate or fundraise to keep Therapy Huskies going.
“The one thing this journey has taught me is that we moan about mortgages, debts, relationships and fallouts but they are all insignificant compared to some of the people out there with real or complex issues.
“Thunder works with a lady in her 50s who has Huntington’s disease, is bed ridden, non-verbal and has no family or friends. Yet that visit from us sparks a flicker inside her and her eyes light up.”
In honour of the remarkable work that Therapy Huskies does, Adrian and the awesome foursome were recently nominated for the Proud of Barnsley Exceptional Achievement award which they won back in November.
The dogs have brought pleasure to so many people’s lives, but they have also brought joy to Adrian’s personal life, too.
Through his work with Therapy Huskies, Adrian met his wife Claire who came up from Peterborough with her dad who has dementia. Claire still works full-time but she has devoted her spare time to Therapy Huskies and helps out at weekends and with training.
They married in 2018 with Thunder as best man and all four dogs at the ceremony in Barnsley.
“They were all howling their heads off in church but the vicar was very understanding – they are God’s creatures after all.”
For more information about Therapy Huskies and to see more pictures of the fluffy foursome, see their Facebook page.