By Liz Palika
April 10, 2014
Sisko was born on a ranch in the mountains of Arizona east of Tucson. Paul and I brought him home when he was about six months old. Poor little dude: Suburbia was overwhelming for Sisko. Our neighborhood was noisy compared to the ranch he grew up on, and there were sights and sounds and smells new to him. He tends to be cautious by nature, but at times he was just plain frightened.
So I set out to gradually and carefully introduce him to his new world. The days we had puppy classes at Kindred Spirits Dog Training, I brought him even though technically he was too old. I figured the socialization with happy puppies would be good for him. He was wary and often worried, but he did OK. I also gave the driver of the trash truck some treats to give Sisko because that truck was huge, stinky, and noisy. The neighbor who drove a loud Harley gave him treats, too. Gradually, over several weeks, with many short, upbeat drives and walks all over northern San Diego county, he began to trust me and relax.
Then, just a few months after Sisko joined our household, my husband died. It was chaos again, and Sisko’s newly won confidence was shaken. And a year after that Riker, my oldest Aussie passed away. Poor Sisko. Thankfully, however, Bashir has been a rock and Sisko was able to lean heavily on Bashir’s confidence. The three of us made it through those tough times without Paul.
I began teaching Sisko therapy dog work as a means to keep his brain busy. I was entering him in every class I could to build his confidence and to challenge him, so he had already been having fun in non-competitive agility, trick training, stockdog work (he’s an Australian shepherd) and obedience training. But since most of my dogs have been therapy dogs, I started teaching him those skills knowing full well that he might not have the confidence (or desire) to be a therapy dog. But he did well, and we began visiting. Initially, I kept the visits short and if Sisko began showing signs of stress we would leave. However, he quickly learned what was expected of him and soon was visiting for an hour at a time.
Sisko will be four years old on April 12, and for lack of a better term, he’s blossoming. He looks forward to our Monday morning therapy visits. He knows which people enjoy him at the facility we visit, and he knows how to find their rooms. For some, he will lean up against their wheelchair so they can reach him. For others he puts his front paws on the side of the bed and offers them his head to be pet. Some people want to snuggle with him in bed and he knows how to jump up carefully and position himself so they can hug him. Out on the street he doesn’t pay any attention to strangers at all, but should he spot someone in a wheelchair, he makes a beeline for that person. If he could verbalize it, he’d say, “This person needs me!”
I see Sisko’s change in confidence around Bones, too. I had told my friends that Bones, with his bold character, would probably overshadow Sisko before Bones was grown up, and for a while that’s the way it appeared. However, in the last few months, as Bones (now a year and a half) was growing from puppyhood to adulthood, Sisko made a change. He became bolder during playtimes. When things get rowdy instead of leaving the play and watching from the sidelines as he used to do, Sisko began controlling some of the play. Instead of giving up his toys as he did, he is no longer allowing Bones to steal them.
A four years old, my shy and formerly fearful boy is coming into his own. He still has that natural caution and always will have it. But when something startles him now he doesn’t panic, and he is willing to investigate the thing that startled him. He works as a demo dog in my classes, plays hard with Bones, respects Bashir (as he should), loves his therapy dog work, and is a happy dog. And he makes me smile.
Both photos of Sisko; by Liz Palika