Nelson the Newfoundland had a nose for the saddest among us.
When he noticed the glassy-eyed woman sitting in a concourse at Denver International Airport, his owner, Ron Horn, thought it might be best to leave her alone. She didn't appear up to company. Nelson had a different idea.
"He almost forced me to walk to the woman," says Horn. "She slid out of her chair onto the ground, wrapped her arms around Nelson and wept for 20 minutes. They called her plane and she got up and said thank you so much for bringing him. I don’t know how I would have made it through this time."
She was trying to get home to a loved one she feared might die before she arrived.
Nelson and Horn weren't just any random dog and owner duo strolling through the international travel hub. Nelson was special. He was the first dog to go solo on the concourse in DIA's Canine Airport Therapy Squad. The therapy program, known as CATS, turned five this year.
DIA officials started the program in 2015 for the same reasons such program exists around the country: The four-footed creatures bring people joy and comfort.
"Flying can be stressful sometimes," says Volunteer Program Manager Karla Grahn. "Dogs bring out the best in people. They relax people. They bring a smile. Dogs know when somebody needs a little extra love."
With more than 100 dogs in the program, CATS is the largest of its kind in the country. More than 45 different breeds seek to bring joy to travelers, including Newfoundlands, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and mixed breeds.
And there's one more special thing about CATS: Xeli, its one therapy cat, might be the only therapy cat in the country, says Emily Williams, DIA spokeswoman.
"She’s a low-key cat," Williams says. "She walks around the concourse and gets carried around on shoulders. She’s very sweet."
Weekly visits allowed Horn to spend quality time with his beloved Nelson, who died earlier this year, and to meet a variety of interesting travelers.
"One day we met Sir Richard Branson," Horn says of the Virgin Group founder. "He patted Nelson on the head a number of times. From that time on, we called him Sir Nelson. If a knight touched him, he must be knighted."
Before the pandemic, Horn brought Matilda, a 6-year-old Newfoundland to the airport. He remembers the day a United Airlines manager asked him to take her to a gate that was having a stressful delay. They showed up and passengers were surly. But then a 16-month-old girl, who had zero in the way of good dog manners, came and threw her arms around the giant Newfoundland.
"She began an anatomy lesson," says Horn. "This is her nose, this is her arm, this is her tail. I looked around and all the surliness was gone. Everybody loved this little girl and huge black dog hugging. Matilda loves children. She was in pig heaven."
Therapy dogs must go through a rigorous process of interviews and testing before they can work the concourse. Animals and their owners are trained, registered, certified and insured by certified therapy organizations, and are required to undergo annual re-certifications. Each CATS team also must have therapy experience at another facility before working at DIA. Human volunteers go through airport security background checks, fingerprinting and security testing.
"It's a different environment at an airport," says Grahn. "It's high-energy. There are moving things, escalators, carousels. We see how they interact."