​Niall Harbison: I made my dying dogs a promise I could never break

Niall Harbison strokes his dog
Niall Harbison strokes his dog

Co. Tyrone-born former chef and media entrepreneur Niall Harbison, 43, is on a mission to help the world’s street dogs after an encounter in Thailand saved his life. With the help of volunteers, he feeds 800 dogs a day in Koh Samui. He has written a book, Hope, to tell their story…

Niall Harbison's mission to save street dogs:

Finding a "forever home" for street dogs is like winning the lottery: if one leaves for a new home, another dog can come in and be saved. I’m genuinely not sad because I know the alternative for them is death. My book, Hope, will help the cause of the dogs by spreading the word about their plight – it could rally a lot of people to get behind the mission. I’ve got 18 dogs living with me in Koh Samui, Thailand. One had an ear cut off in an operation and there are three puppies, another dog with cancer and some old dogs. They are all looking for homes and some of them are on their way to homes.

Niall Harbison cuddles his dog
Finding a "forever home" for street dogs is like winning the lottery (Ryan Dunbar)

I’ve always loved dogs; I had three myself but I started feeding the dogs on the streets. Then I realised I had to go back the next day, because I thought: "They're waiting for me and they’ll build up a dependence on me." It wasn’t just food they needed; they also required medicine and trips to the vets. I quickly ended up feeding around 80 dogs every day; that was a year ago. Now I’m up to 800 every day, with a team of volunteers, and we sterilise 200 dogs each month. It mushroomed into a huge project.

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I’ve just buried two of my dogs, Tina and Snoop. When they were dying, I said to them: "I'll continue this work – I’m not going to let you down." I told Tina about the hospital I'm going to build in her name, and then to Snoop – who was with me for a long time, through my depression and drinking – I said: "I'll see you in the future. I won’t be back drinking. I will fulfil the mission in your name." I promised it to them and that’s not a promise I could ever break.

Niall Harbison in Thailand with his dogs
Some days you do save a dog’s life (Ryan Dunbar)

Making changes in all the dogs' names is the most important part. The hospital is for Tina and it’s a wonderful legacy because she’s a street dog who was going to die on her own. Now, there is going to be a hospital that does dozens of operations on dogs every week. Tina was a dog on a really short chain who had been used to have loads of puppies. When we got her out, she was blossoming and she was such a character. Even though she only got six months of pure joy in her life, she made a huge impression.

I wish I could bottle the feeling and give it to dog lovers around the world

Some days you do save a dog’s life. When you go to sleep at night, that makes you feel incredibly good. It’s a huge problem to tackle. I’m only at the tip of the iceberg, but it’s so satisfying. I wish I could bottle the feeling and give it to dog lovers around the world...

Niall Harbison's book Hope
Hope is out now, published by HarperCollins, priced £18.99 (Harper Collins/Amazon)

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Photography: Ryan Dunbar

Hope is out now, published by HarperCollins, priced £18.99. All funds from the book are going to build Tina's hospital.

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