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In late May, Kristina Steinbach of Grand Rapids, Michigan, debuted in the ring with a female Shiba Inu. A 16-year-old with autism, Kristina appeared in the conformation ring at the four-day Apple Blossom Dog Show Cluster in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with 6-month-old Kuma.

The teen’s other Shiba, 3-year-old Keiko, is her service dog. Since the breed is naturally alert with keen senses developed from hunting dog ancestors, this Shiba Inu moved effortlessly into the role of a canine caretaker.

Magical Canine Connection

How did this Shiba synergy get started? It began when Kristina’s mother, Brooke Steinbach, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, wanted a female Shiba Inu puppy to exhibit in conformation. With that goal in mind, her other daughter, Annika, bred a Shiba Inu litter. “I chose Keiko from the litter, but as she developed, the puppy didn’t turn out to be a show dog,” Steinbach says. “Weighing in at 32 pounds, the pup became oversized and disqualified from competing.”

The American Kennel Club standard of the Shiba Inu requires females to weigh less than 17 pounds and be no taller than 15 1/2 inches when measured at the top of the shoulders. Males must weigh no more than 23 pounds and be no taller than 16 1/2 inches when measured at the top of the shoulders.

Kristina Steinbach
Brooke Steinbach

Although Keiko didn’t fit the ideal Standard for a Shiba Inu, the small dog grabbed a different gig. “Now three years old, Keiko changed our lives and Kristina’s,” recalls her mother. “We never planned on Keiko becoming an autism service dog, but when we saw her leave a calming effect on Kristina’s nervous system without special training, we realized there was a unique connection.”

According to Steinbach, her daughter suffered meltdowns, like many children with autism. The teen would rock, flap her hands, and have trouble coping with a large group of people. “Mornings were especially difficult for Kristina as soon as she woke up,” Steinbach recalls. “Keiko heard her fussing and would come over and lie across her body.”

The deep pressure stimulation helped calm Kristina down. “Keiko understands what I’m feeling and comes over when it’s time to squish me,” Kristina says. The meltdowns decreased from five a week to two a month. “Now, as part of the daily routine, Keiko wakes Kristina up every morning,” Steinbach says. “We call this dog the ‘meltdown mitigator.'”

Kristina’s Journey

Kristina was adopted from Russia as a small child, and her first adopted family chose not to keep her. “At four years old, Kristina joined us, and we are her second American family,” Steinbach recalls. “At the time, the adoption agency told us our new daughter would never read and would always be a danger to herself.”

Kristina Steinbach
Brooke Steinbach

Steinbach set out to prove them wrong. After spending countless hours homeschooling and working with her child, her efforts paid off. “Kristina has surpassed every limit the agency said she had,” says her mother. “She can do just about everything.” Today the teenager reads Harry Potter and is training representatives the small, non-sporting breed to earn an AKC Trick Dog title.

“When she’s around dogs, she’s fascinated with them. Now she’s learning to groom dogs one day a week,” Steinbach says. “Working with them gives her another avenue to learn.” Six months ago, Brooke bought a show prospect pup from Shiba breeder Rex Gaylord in Ohio. When Kristina wanted to learn how to take the dog into the ring, Gaylord helped mentor her. The teen took Kuma to puppy and handling classes but says Kuma is her mother’s dog.

Forming Bonds

Before Kristina’s first day in the ring, Steinbach contacted James Fankhauser, the chairperson for this group of Memorial Day dog shows. She let him know that her daughter had special needs and asked if someone could meet with Kristina to give her some tips. “He didn’t know us, but he took the time to contact other club members to help find another youngster who could meet with Kristina and give her some advice,” Steinbach recalls.

Sixteen-year-old Summer Koster, who shows Kevin, her 5-year-old Rough Collie, in Junior Showmanship, volunteered to help Kristina. “Her mother warned me that Kristina might not look me in the eye, but she did,” Summer says. “I was impressed with her because she was funny, sweet, and loved giving hugs.”

Kristina Steinbach and Summer Koster
Brooke Steinbach

Steinbach says the 16-year-olds’ shared love for dogs bridged a significant gap in building relationships. “Kristina was so eager to learn that she grabbed onto and remembered information right away,” says Summer, who met with her for two days. “When I encouraged her to stay calm and keep the dog on the mat, she did exactly that, which blew me away. Kristina never let her autism get in the way of the dogs, and she handled the pressure well.”

Despite the crowd, the noise, and the hubbub of the show, Kristina was in seventh heaven. “I got to see and pet a lot of dogs, and that made me happy,” she says.

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