Remembering Sasha

Memorial gathering pays tribute to man's longtime service dog

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Sasha needed someone who could share her. That person was Harry Kiick, and he couldn't be more grateful.

Kiick insists that Sasha, a service dog, chose him. At a support group for people affected by epilepsy in 2002, Sasha walked up to him and wouldn't leave his side. When Kiick tried to leave, she blocked the door, he said. A trainer suggested that Sasha pair up with Kiick, who lives with an uncontrolled seizure disorder. He agreed.

Kiick and Sasha formed an uncommon bond during nearly 12 years together. In the weeks since Sasha died Feb. 24, Kiick has seen the bond she also formed with the community. On Friday, dozens of people packed into the chapel at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center for a memorial service. The gathering shared stories, laughter and tears remembering the dog they came to know in different ways.

"It's just amazing, the outpouring for her," Kiick said earlier this week. "I never knew, although I've seen it for 12 years."

Kiick and Sasha have been a fixture at the hospital as volunteers. They've also attended countless meetings for C-Tran, where Kiick serves on multiple committees. They've also served in many ways as members — both of them, according to Pastor Fitz Neal — at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver.

Kiick had never worked with a service dog before Sasha, a German shepherd mix. They learned from each other, he said, creating a dynamic that went beyond a simple working relationship.

"Our relationship was very different from many service dogs and their partners," Kiick said. "We became friends first, and everything else came later. And the friendship stood."

Always watchful, Sasha protected Kiick when he needed it most. Kiick recounted numerous times when Sasha used her body to catch him and break his fall when a strong seizure struck suddenly. Often, she'd detect a seizure coming on even before Kiick would. In those cases, she would guide him to a safe place or make sure he was ready, perhaps sitting down.

But Kiick also allowed Sasha to be social, to be a dog. She'd play. She'd offer a friendly greeting to other people. At a C-Tran board meeting, for example, she might plop down at a board member's feet. And Sasha had a knack for knowing when someone was feeling down and needed a lift, others said Friday.

During the past six months, Sasha had been in declining health. She struggled with eye, liver and joint problems, as many 14-year-old dogs do. Her condition allowed Kiick to act as her caretaker, giving back some of what she had given him over more than a decade.

"The truth is, I didn't mind," Kiick said.

News of Sasha's death rippled across several circles of the community. At C-Tran headquarters, her passing was noted on a whiteboard seen by many drivers. Some of them came to know Sasha well, and what the relationship between a service animal and partner could look like, said C-Tran passenger services manager Walt Gordon.

"You saw the love that man had for his dog, and the love that dog had for him," Gordon said.

The night before Sasha died, she lay on Kiick's bed, as she often did. At one point, she jumped off the bed and walked away. Kiick heard her get a drink of water.

Instead of returning to Kiick's bed, Sasha went to her own bed in the living room. She went to sleep and never woke up.

Kiick found her in her bed early the next morning, a Monday. He knew she had passed away. Kiick sat with her for a little while.

"That was the last unselfish thing she ever did," Kiick said. "She went in the most peaceful way possible."