For 10 or 12 years, I was actively involved in Akita rescue. Temperament testing, transporting, donating, fostering dogs. A few of those dogs turned me into a foster failure. Nikka was one of these.
I got a call from a rescue contact, saying that there was an adult female in a shelter in upstate New York. Could I go and do a temperament test? Of course. A few days later I made the trek.
When I first saw this long coated pinto girl, she was playing with a giant exercise ball in a large yard. She looked happy and content to be in an area with a few other dogs. She passed the temperament test with little difficulty. She was nervous, but I felt that she had a sound, stable temperament under the fear. The dog was also clearly from a puppy mill, not a reputable breeder.
Nikka’s backstory angered me. Her owner’s house had caught fire. She and another dog — a Saint Bernard who had been collected by a Saint rescue organization – had been left behind tied to trees as the house burned and fire companies fought the blaze.
I took her with me that day, ostensibly to foster.
The nervousness she had exhibited during her assessment showed up in full force when she was in the house. The first few days she was terrified of us. When any us walked into the room where she was, she’d push up against the wall, and would flee by darting around the perimeter. Fortunately we had a dog door into a safely fenced yard, so no one had to stress her further by trying to leash her up.
I can’t imagine how traumatized she had been due to the fire. It took her a few days to realize that no one was going to hurt her. Within a few weeks she had accepted that we were actually OK, and she began to warm up to her new human companions.
The house we lived in was fairly isolated – down a long steep driveway on a seasonal road. She didn’t see many – if any – strangers. We also had a big, friendly, stable rescued male, Kuro, who she began to emulate. It turns out that it was the perfect environment in which Nikka could regain confidence. Quiet, with a predictable routine and a buddy she could bond with.
(In general, Nikka did not like to be photographed. She often took a pose like this when she saw a camera)
Throughout, we let her decide when she was ready to take the next step toward becoming social. We didn’t try to coax or jolly her into coming to us or allowing us to approach her. Nikka was given the ability to decide what her tolerance level for us was each step of the way.
Niks loved car rides. I’d take her into town when I ran errands. At first I’d just let her stay in the car while I shopped. Eventually, I’d hold the door open and ask her if she wanted to venture forth. For a long time her response was ‘nah, I’ll just hang here, thanks.’
The first few times she did venture out of the auto, she immediately turned & darted back in. That was fine with me. If that’s all she could tolerate, that’s all she had to do. Slowly, over the course of a few months, she’d walk further and further away from the vehicle – to start, a few feet, then a few yards, then a couple of dozen yards. Each time she needed to turn back to return to the safety of the car, we turned back. I was careful to allow her to decide what her comfort level was.
Four months from our first car ride, Nikka walked around an entire city block! She was thrilled and proud of herself and exhausted. That was a turning point for her. She would willingly take walks from the car after that.
It was around that time that her previous owner contacted the shelter and demanded that they return his dogs to him. Yes, her previous owner waited six months before he tried to reclaim his pets. I haven’t named the shelter or the director because of this: the director told him that ‘the whereabouts of the dogs are unknown.’ Good.
About same the period, the rescue group informed me that there was a potential home available for Nikka. She was still shy around strangers, though would warm up to people quickly. None of us could imagine letting this smart, sweet, easy, well-behaved girl leave our home. Foster failures, and proud of it.
Nikka’s rehab continued. We continued to make her own decisions as to what she was capable of in terms of socialization. It took her nearly a year before she would approach a stranger without trepidation, and another year before she would confidently walk to up a new person.
Nikka was a wonderful dog. Clever, funny, kind, gentle, well-mannered. People she met loved her. Two of her biggest fans – Emma and David – would make arrangements like a favorite aunt and uncle to take her on outings, which she loved. A highlight of her life: she was the ring bearer at their wedding!
Kuro, our big male Akita, turned out to be her dog BFF and boon companion. They were a bonded pair. As I mentioned, The Big K did a lot to help Nikka get over her initial worries, and acted as a wonderful role model for her.
In turn, Nikka showed other fosters, as well as my deaf puppy Kiyo (now 7 1/2) how to behave politely.
I miss her. Niks always be the easiest dog I’ve ever had. She was happy and cheerful till the end of her long life with us. One of our favorite games was this. I’d say “Niks…. do you want to have…… (she’d look up, smiling and happy with anticipation) F-U-N?” She’d prance about and bark enthusiastically, having figured out the spelling of ‘fun.’ (yah, a few I tried to fake her out by spelling something else. She never fell for it. How smart is that?)
The day that Nikka had to be euthanized, I called a few people who were particular friends of hers. Within an hour, our yard was filled with people, and more were zooming up. Cars were parked at crazy angles on the grass as people sprang out of their vehicles, leaving engines running and doors yawning open. Those I had told had spread the word, and nearly two dozen others had arrived on our doorstep to say good-bye. A fitting tribute for my wonderful friend.
At the time Nikka moved in, I knew very little about dog training. Our dogs could take loose leash walks and had manners, but that’s the extend of my ‘training.’ In rehabbing her, I went on instinct. We were fortunate enough to have the environment, resources and time to allow Niks to acclimate to her new life and surroundings at her own pace. Fundamentally she had a stable temperament. The approach we took — where she made the decisions – worked for all of us. We were lucky to have her grace our lives. (You are, and always will be forever in my heart, Niks.
My darling girl, her last winter. Miss you, Princess Baby Angel.