Going to an Italian language school in Siena is an experience like no other. Every day I walk by centuries-old buildings and churches, I learn about the famous Palio horse race and, of course, I enjoy the fine culinary delights of Senese cooking and Tuscan wine.
And I get to hang out with Sharik.
Sharik (Sha-reek) is a five-year-old Samoyed who is also enjoying Siena with his owners Daniela and Thomas Klingele, from Switzerland. A Samoyed is a dog breed from Siberia that were once reindeer herders. They are smart, gentle and very independent. Sharik is a big guy. He is also a great big fluffy bundle of joy. And if dogs could be rock stars, he’d have his own fan club by now, making a tidy sum in royalties from all the photo requests he gets every day. (I have suggested we do a calendar.)
Daniela says when they’re out and about in Siena, sometimes they get stopped as many as 20 times, mostly by tourists asking if they can take a photo. She finally had to start saying no, for a few good reasons: they couldn’t walk anywhere, everyone wants to pet him and it becomes tedious for Sharik. She sees it in his eyes, she says, and can tell when it’s too much.
We’re lucky; we get to see him every day. Upon arrival at the school, Sharik makes his rounds to greet everybody and then plops down on the floor for the duration of the morning lesson. He waits patiently while we review verbs, idioms and that all-time favorite, prepositions. Sometimes he heaves a big sigh. I’m with ya buddy. Italian prepositions! Arrgh!
Then it’s time for the coffee break. Remember: this is Italy. A coffee break literally means we leave the building and go to the bar for a cappuccino. And Sharik comes with us. Remember: this is Italy. Dogs are allowed inside cafes and restaurants.
He’s always welcomed. But there’s another side to Sharik, which is what makes him really special. He is a therapy dog for disabled children.
Daniela takes him to a children’s hospital once a week to work with them. These are children in wheelchairs who can or can’t move, who can or can’t speak. But when Sharik enters the room, everything changes. They’re in a circle and sing a song that an instructor wrote about Sharik. Then he’ll go one by one and reach out a paw. That’s when you see it: the light in their eyes, Daniela says. It takes everything they’ve got to throw a rubber ball, which Sharik then fetches and brings back to them. That’s the stimulation they need. They reach out. Daniela says each child is different, each has different needs but results seem to be pretty common: smiles and laughter. Sometimes that’s enough.
And I get it. I see it every day with us, with strangers on the street and waiters in the restaurants. Everyone who sees him smiles and reaches out. He’s instant joy. He has certainly enriched my life these past few weeks. Thank you Daniela and Thomas for bringing Sharik to Siena. Thank you Sharik for the smiles and the laughter. You’re a rock star.