Monday, July 30, 2012

It never starts with a bite

So as bad as you thought things got in our last installment on Bringing up Bella, it was about to get worse. Much worse.

To bring everybody up to date in quick summary:

  • Leslie's a dork and broke her arm
  • Bella thought mom died on her watch
  • Once mom came home, Bella decided no one and no thing was going to stop her in protecting mom (her food source and ticket to the good life) again
  • Bella turned her protective-ism of mom in dad's direction

We've done a lot right in our time with Bella. Today you have the opportunity to learn from what we did wrong. Really. No excuses. No defense. And no, you don't have to try and make me feel better by saying we did what we could. We screwed up. We didn't see that this was the beginning of something far more serious. And someone got hurt.

The first time Bella lunged at Jan, we were startled. I was sick in bed, Bella was on the bed with me, Jan was approaching the bed. Bella jumped down growling and snapping at Jan. I was alarmed and jumped off the bed to move between them.

Since I was still heavily medicated from breaking my arm, I don't remember what signals, if any, Bella sent but she stopped when I got between her and Jan. She looked quite contrite afterwards and, to be honest, we still thought it was "sweet" that she was "defending" me. (Yes, I know, slap us now.)

To err is human...

But really, we rationalized her behavior. We "understood" why she was "protective" of me. We "knew" she had been traumatized. We "got" her but we didn't acknowledge our own complicity. While we may not have taken these outbursts quite as seriously as we should have, I did set about doing research to figure out how to address the problem.

One of the things we tried was to have Jan turn his back to her during any "outbursts" and, for a while, this really seemed to work. In fact, I wrote in our behaviorial assessment after she bit him that her guarding behavior was reduced to almost nothing over time.

Wait, what?!

Yes, you read that right - "our behaviorial assessment after she bit him".

Even though we felt we had gotten her guarding under control, on August 9th, 2011, Bella bit Jan. As much as her behavior had been "improving" and we felt we were doing the right things to address the problem, apparently we were wrong.

I'm going to quote directly from what I wrote on the "Behavior Fact Sheet" we filled out for her behaviorist to describe the incident since it will be much more accurate than my memory will allow.

"Please give a detailed description of the last time this problem occurred:

The first time Bella actually bit Jan, we were in the bedroom. She had been afraid to enter because a fly had been in the room.

Jan was sitting in front of her, I was standing somewhere behind. Jan tried lifting her front legs to his shoulders for a hug (she does this on her own as a "trick".) She got nervous and tried to put her feet down but her nail got caught on his shirt at which point she lashed out biting his hand and wrist.

She snapped several times, did not bite and hold. We're pretty sure she inhibited her bite but she still broke skin and caused bruising. I managed to separate them and put Bella in the walk-in closet to cool down."

That, as you can imagine, got our attention. We realized then that we had no idea what we were doing and needed to get professional help. And not just from a training perspective but in understanding our dog and how to help her. The next day we called her vet and her trainer. By the weekend we had two recommendations for local behaviorists, had ruled out physical injury and were awaiting test results from her blood work.

Reading that assessment now, I can see all sorts of red flags and it's painful to admit how naive and foolish we were at the time. It doesn't help that Jan wears glasses and a beard not to mention has a ridiculously deep voice. We really should have known better.

Still, we are "lucky" Bella's bad behavior has been localized to us. It's called "owner-directed aggression" and I'll leave you with this article about it written by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, Dipl. ACVB, a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and founder and director of Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic.


  1. It's hard to admit it when we make mistakes, because we just want to be SO RIGHT all the time. Or at least I do! Especially now with the dog blog....I'm playing an Authority On The Internet, and being wrong can be embarrassing. Not acknowledging mistakes is worse, though.

     Thank you for this series, because I do think that it's helpful. Thinking you know the answers, and being able to consider that you do not, are two different things at times. 

  2. We struggled with this very same thing when we brought Felix home. Coming from a home where the man was an abusive alcoholic to our house, we could understand why little Felix lost his mind if my boyfriend stood over me, reached across me or touched me and we did everything wrong. We're so lucky we realized it in time to prevent a major problem!

  3. Wow!! It's always easier to look back and see the red flags! I'm so glad that you were able to find a trainer that helped!

  4. "After the battle everybody is a general." It's much easier to see mistakes in retrospective than when they're happening.

    I'm glad the injury was not serious! Hugs and best of luck getting things sorted out.

  5. Ah, but you did so much RIGHT! You recognized a problem and got help. So many don't do that!

  6. Right here shows that you did, in fact, do what you could. "While we may not have taken these outbursts quite as seriously as we
    should have, I did set about doing research to figure out how to address
    the problem."  Plus, you next went to a behaviorist when the problem escalated. I think you guys did awesome!

  7. Bella is lucky to have you.  You are focused and determined and that is what unconditional love is all about!  

  8. I love what Jana said - it's so true! How you and Jan handled situations as they occurred are undoubtedly the best one could do under the circumstances. I'm personally relating to your sequence of events, as you know. And I'm full of respect for what you've done! Lucky Bella, indeed!

  9. Maybe you made mistakes, maybe you did all you could with the resources you had at the time. I made a lot of mistakes with Shiva as well but I can't beat myself up over them as I honestly didn't know better. However, because I didn't know I found help, which is exactly what you did. You didn't take her to a shelter, you didn't have her euthanized, you didn't put her in pen in the backyard: you looked for real solutions. That right there says everything.

    I am glad that the incident wasn't more serious and that since then Bella has come a long way. You have a lot to be proud of!

  10. When I was a kid, my dog did this to my parents - we didn't handle it that well either. I think at times we also thought it was cute. Luckily, it lessened over time, but I think we were just lucky. I can totally relate to how you felt.

    I agree with Kristine - you have a lot to be proud of with regard to how you handled the problem and where Bella is now. :)

  11. Dachshund Nola and her MomJuly 31, 2012 at 11:25 PM

    At least you recognized the problem and got her help!

  12. I don't know if I can add anything that the others above me haven't already said.  I will say we are human and we make mistakes.  You recognize that and have/are taking steps to fix it that is the best that any of us can do.  Bella is one lucky dog because many would have chose a different road.

  13. I'm very thankful that you're writing this series of posts. 

    We spend a lot of time reading and learning from each other. But sometimes, love and learning are not enough. Especially when we're working with a dog with a terrible start in life.

    It's terrific that you and your husband got help. And you've come so far with Bella. 

    Thank you for sharing the message that sometimes things are hard, that we can't know everything, and that it's ok to get help.

  14. Probably the most shocking thing here is that this happened only last summer. I somehow thought this would have been longer ago. And I also feel like that fly thing JUST happened. My sense of time is a mess.

    Thankfully, you guys are helping Bella become not a mess. When you are done with her, please come and fix me. You seem to be very good at course correcting!

  15. To be fair, a major fly occurrence did happen this spring so you're not losing your mind. We knew she was afraid of insects ever since she was attacked by bees in her first year with us.  We just didn't see the schizophrenic-like behavior until this winter.  (Not sure exactly what was up but everyone in these parts were getting these big house flies earlier in the spring.  Crazy.)