Christmas came a day early for Kiki.
On Christmas Eve, the 16-year-old sophomore at Billings Senior High School brought home Zarah, a Bichon Frise puppy that was born on Oct. 29. The impossibly cute little dog won’t be just a pet, though. She will also be Kiki’s emotional support and service dog, mainly helping Kiki deal with chronic depression and “really bad anxiety.”
“So if I’m in a court hearing or whatever, I won’t flip out,” Kiki said. “She calms me down.”
Kiki needs more calm in her life, most of which has been tumultuous, to put it mildly. She was born with spina bifida, with her legs crossed over and fused at the thighs. After years of physical therapy, her legs were amputated when she was 12. She has lived with several different families, sometimes in trying circumstances. She is with a Billings family now, whom I won’t name, for a variety of good reasons.
Zarah was a gift from Ann Jackson-Eaton and her husband, Derek, who are friends with Kiki’s family. Ann said it really wasn’t her idea to give Kiki a dog. That decision was made for them by Poppy, Zarah’s mother.
Last August, Ann and Derek were at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.’s Garage Pub for a fundraiser for the Billings Tennis Association, and Kiki was there with her family, too.
Ann had brought Poppy along, she said, and as soon as they arrived, “Popppy made a beeline for Kiki. She put her paws on her wheelchair and just stared at her. For two hours she stayed with that child. She would not leave her.”
Kiki knew something important was going on.
“I’m actually used to dogs jumping up on my chair and sitting in my lap,” she said. “But she just stayed there and stayed there and stayed there.”
Ann had bought Poppy a couple of years earlier from an East Coast pet store where her nephew was working. She was back visiting her father when she drove her nephew to work, looked around the store and decided she had to have Poppy.
Bichon Frises are often bred as therapy dogs for autistic children. Ann said Poppy had touched so many people that she and Derek had talked about breeding her, to allow others to experience what they had with her. It was the chance encounter with Kiki that finally pushed them to actually do it.
Ann took Poppy to Minnesota, where she had found a breeder with a Bichon Frise of the same type and temperament as Poppy. Poppy had four babies on Oct. 29, the same day Kiki was baptized at Faith Chapel.
Ann thought she should stay home with the newborn puppies, but she was able to watch a live stream of the service and baptism on her computer. It’s probably a good thing she stayed home, she said, because she was sobbing with joy the whole time.
A few days later, Kiki made her choice—first selecting a little blond puppy. That dog was already spoken for, so she picked another.
“That was a good thing because I think Zarah and I really fit,” Kiki said.
She came up with “Zarah” while going through a list of dog names. It actually appeared as Azarah on the list, but Kiki was told that for training purposes, a dog would respond to commands more quickly if its name had no more than two syllables.
The puppies all stayed at Ann and Derek’s house until Saturday, when Zarah went home with Kiki. But Kiki has spent time with Zarah at least once a week since was born, getting to know her and feeding, bathing and grooming her.
She and Zarah have also met once with Lori Hansen, a dog trainer in the Heights who happens to use a wheelchair herself. At their first meeting, Lori told Kiki what she could expect when she begins training Zarah in earnest, a process that will probably take at least two years, and will start when Zarah is a little older.
What will Zarah be taught to do?
“Whatever Kiki needs her to do—that’s what she’s going to get,” Lori said.
At a minimum she will learn to offer emotional support and and will be taught to pick up and fetch items for Kiki. Zarah will also help her recover from the additional surgeries she will need in the future.
Many trainers work with the dogs separate from their owners, Lori said, but she’s learned that it’s better to have the owner involved in the process from the start.
“If people are involved with training their own dog, they’re going to stay with that,” she said. Kiki is the youngest person she has ever tried to help with training, and she’s excited by the challenge.
Lori said she envied Kiki in one regard—that she can get down from her wheelchair and play on the floor with her dog. Kiki is strong and agile with just her arms, able to walk on her hands with ease, do push-ups and perform other feats.
It will take time and patience to train Zarah, Lori said, but she thinks Kiki is ready to make the commitment, and she has strong support from her family, which includes a daughter in eighth grade.
“I just feel good about her family,” Lori said. “I know they’re going to be very involved.”