CHAPTER 4: SHASTA, THERAPY DOG
When the Flagstaff breeder brought out the litter of puppies, one of them ran right up to Vicki and Don. “He was so sweet and gentle,” said Vicki. “We knew he was the one for you.” And so they brought him home to Sedona, where they were living at the time. I was still teaching high school, so I first saw him when I flew down on Easter break. He was a little over two months old. I carried him around the house, slept with him, and watched him play with Vicki and Don’s four dogs. They were so gentle with him. Shadow, their Great Dane, patiently let Shasta follow him around, and Christie, their yellow lab, slept in the exercise pen with him to keep him company.
The next time I saw Shasta, he was six months old. I was in Tahoe on summer break, and Vicki brought him up to me, perfectly trained. So Numa, Vicki’s Ridgeback, Josie, Don’s Shepherd, Christie, Shadow, Aspen, and Shasta hiked the Tahoe trails with us. Although Vicki and Don had them all under control, it was still quite a sight for other hikers when they came around a corner and saw six big dogs coming their way.
Shasta kept Aspen on his toes, and they had many adventures together. Every morning they swam in the local pond and fetched balls, Shasta’s favorite activity. But without a buddy, it was time to find Shasta something meaningful to do. And that turned out to be dog therapy. I downloaded the requirements for the Good Canine Citizen test, and we practiced the skills he would need to have to pass the test. I took him over to the Village at Squaw where we worked on polite greetings with a variety of people and other dogs. We practiced long sits and stays, and I often disappeared around the corner so he would learn not to be anxious if I were not right there. In 2013 he passed the Good Canine Citizen test in Truckee. The six months he spent training with Vicki and Don in Sedona had a lot to do with it. That summer we began visiting patients in the Tahoe-Truckee Hospital. It was heartwarming to see the joy on patients’ faces when they saw Shasta coming in the room and when I let them pet him and give him a treat.
Back in Marin I enrolled Shasta in the Share classes at Marin Humane, which certified him to be a reading dog in schools and libraries. Every week for the next four years, children read to him in third and fifth grade classes at one elementary school, a first grade class at another, and in a local library. Sometimes the older children read stories they had written themselves. As an English teacher, I enjoyed this as much as Shasta and the children did. “If you don’t know a certain word,” I told the younger children, “just look at the pictures and make it up. Shasta won’t care.” They liked being able to read without being graded or criticized. I often asked the older children to tell Shasta who their favorite character was or predict what would happen next. We also presented a “Play it Safe with Dogs” lesson to kindergartners. I explained how to properly approach and pet a dog, and each child had a turn to practice with Shasta. Even the most fearful children eventually gave it a try. Our last therapy work before Shasta got ill was providing stress relief during finals at Marin Catholic High School, where I worked, and at the College of Marin. We sat in the library while students came by, sat on the floor and petted him in between exams. I remember one student exclaiming, “OMG, I really needed this!”
In 2017 Shasta developed nasal cavity cancer. It was difficult, painful, and heartbreaking. We tried chemotherapy for a while, but it wasn’t working. We knew he was in pain. It was at that point that I called Shasta’s breeder, who had relocated to Oregon, and asked her to let me know when she would have a litter of puppies available.
That litter arrived in June. She told me she had a male puppy for me, a cousin of Shasta’s. Vicki drove up to Oregon with me to pick him up while Don stayed back in Tahoe with the rest of the dogs. Sequoia was ten weeks old when we brought him home. Shasta was nine. They spent about a month together before it became evident that it was time to call the vet.
That last morning Mike and I took him on our usual two mile walk to the local pond and back. He trotted along, swam in the pond, fetched the ball and rolled around on the grass. He was happy doing what he loved best, and he made a lot of children happy.