Monday, August 6, 2012

Once bitten, Twice as determined to get help

When Bella's vociferous advances towards Jan on my behalf ultimately escalated to physical contact, we realized we were grossly unprepared to teach her what we felt she needed to understand - that she was safe and no one was going to hurt her here. We had tried all the tips and tricks we could find online (turn away, walk away, don't stare...) but it obviously was doing nothing to help her realize she wasn't under constant threat. Armed with the advice of our vet and our first trainer, we sought out a behaviorist to help us help her.

We made an appointment at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine Animal Behavior Clinic. We chose Tufts in part because in 2007 when Beau was deathly ill, they were able to perform living-saving surgery all while treating us with kindness and respect. (They all loved Beau by the time he came home with us again.)

We also chose Tufts because the behaviorist we were lucky enough to get an appointment with was Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS, founder and director of the clinic.

That's right, folks, we here at Bringing up Bella seldom do anything halfway. If we were going to take our dog to a behaviorist, it was going to be with one of the guys who pretty much got the party started. (If the name doesn't ring a bell, think Dogs 101 or one of several books such as "The Dog Who Loved Too Much", "If Only They Could Talk" and "Dogs Behaving Badly".)

Before we got to meet the good doctor, we had to fill out a 9-page behavioral fact sheet detailing everything we knew about Bella and explaining the behavior we were seeking help with. We had to list her daily activities, diet, exercise regimen as well as any training she has had. 9 pages. Let's just say it was thorough and we hadn't even walked through the door yet.

Once we did get in the door we spent well over an hour and a half talking to Dr. Dodman while his assistant took notes. We reviewed all the information on the sheet, providing clarification or further explanation as necessary. We discussed the incident at length and considered all the factors that may have contributed to it.

Bella's 'diagnosis' at the end of the appointment was listed as "Generalized anxiety, owner-directed aggression, fear aggression, inter-dog aggression, thunderstorm phobia and - insect phobia." "Insect phobia"? Really? That's a thing? Who knew?

Well, we do now.

A treatment plan for the whole family

What I appreciated most about the visit was the attention given to Bella as a whole dog. Her health, diet and exercise needs were addressed. As were her human parents. We walked away with oodles of literature to read, recommendations to implement and, yes, medications to administer. I'll go into detail in future posts about each avenue we were advised to pursue and how we addressed them but here's a quick summary:
Nutrition - Bella's diet was assessed and determined to be a bit too high in protein which can exacerbate aggression issues mostly due to increased energy. Because we use high-value (read: high protein) treats to train her, Dr. Dodman recommended we use a lower-protein kibble for her regular meals.

Exercise - There's no such thing as too much exercise for a dog like Bella. Likely part sight-hound, largely part herding dog, the more exercise she gets, both mentally and physically, the better.

Hypothyroidism - Bella was diagnosed with hypothyroidism which has been associated with aggression especially in fearful dogs. She was prescribed Solixine to adjust her levels.

Medications - The meds aren't meant to cure her, they're meant to help her heal.

I will go into much greater detail in a future post but we were all in agreement that Bella could benefit from a very low dose of Fluoxetine (Prosac). Bella has been so stressed for so long that our attempts at training good behaviors and coping skills weren't even getting through to her. Addtionally, she was prescribed Clonidine to help with her thunderstorm phobia and this is also where we learned about the Storm Defender cape. (Jan calls it her Super Hero cape.)

Communication - Recommendations were made on how we should communicate with Bella (Jan - say what you mean and mean what you say; Leslie - "must be the one to intervene and correct" the possessive behavior). We also had an extensive conversation about learning what Bella is trying to say to us and why she may not always understand what Jan especially is trying to say.
Overall, we came away with a plan and an ally in our journey to help Bella live comfortably with us and we with her. As shown in last Thursday's video, the plan, along with her agility and reactivity training, is working.


  1. 9 pages, wow! That sure is thorough. I didn't realize you'd worked with Dr. seems I've read at least one of his books (it's almost impossible to have not at this point, I think). It's interesting to hear about everything that was covered when you sought this help, and also how effective the planned course of action has been.

  2. I love how thorough the intake was. So often with problems, there at things at play you might never have thought of - like the thyroid. It's so good to hear that not only was were the problems pin pointed, but that you got clear tools to help address them. 

  3. Sounds like great things are happening to a great dog and great dog parents!

  4. Impressive, absolutely impressive. And so is Bella's improvements from all your efforts. (I'm curious about that insect phobia - ?!)

  5. I'm loving that you are sharing all of this with us! Bella is lucky to have such committed humans :)

  6. Donna DasnabedianAugust 7, 2012 at 7:00 AM

    You can see she has made great strides.  Especially when she was here on the 4th of July- she seemed like she enjoyed herself.

  7. Georgia Little PeaAugust 7, 2012 at 7:18 AM

    This sounds wonderfully holistic. I love that even her diet is being considered. It'll be very interesting to follow Bella's progress.

  8. That is freaken awesome that you got to work directly with Dr. Dodds. I'm so jealous. It sounds like a lot of recommendations go hand in hand with what he writes in his books. I can't wait to read your future posts elaborating on his advice and how it worked for you.

  9. Multiple thoughts --

    When you told us about going to Tufts, I remember thinking "holy **&%$!!  Dodman!"

    I've seen some insects in the south that gave me me the willies and wonder if there are some big super nasty ones in Puerto Rico......

    The diet -- we've been told to go low protein (22-25%) with both of our dogs because of their breed.  Seems like the raw diet is being proposed for everything lately but that's just the opposite of low protein.  Did Dr. Dodman even bring up raw and what do you feed Bella now?

    Which makes me wonder.... lots of the new grain free foods are therefore really high in protein and I wonder if there's a connection....

    And the obvious:  Where's the Bella as Super Hero photo?  :-)

  10. WOW!  Some great info and assistance there!

    Can't wait to see how things progress for you and for Bella!

  11. You've given her so much, a lot more than some people would.  I've heard about the protein with dogs, since we feed raw I am always on the watch to ensure that no-one is getting a little too uppity. :-)

    I guess I'm still really new to all the movers and shakers in the dog world, I've heard of Tufts but not of Dodman.  I guess I have some reading to do, eh?

  12. I'm in awe of you and can cannot cheer your dedication enough!  People are always amazed when I tell them the health issues we've faced with out dogs and I always say: Rescuing them means forever. Bravo to you!

  13. Wow! I'm totally amazed and inspired by how thorough that intake paperwork/interview was. It sounds like you have the best possible plan and the support to implement it. I'm looking forward to reading how the whole plan progresses for you guys. So proud of you for all this hard work!

  14. Oh wow, Dr. Dodman? That is just... Wow. It shouldn't make any difference but the fact I have seen him so many times on television makes him a pretty big celebrity in my eyes. I am so glad he was able to help you and Bella work out a cohesive plan. Reading this, it does make me wonder if there aren't some health issues contributing to Shiva's anxiety issues. We've never really sought counsel in that area but it might be worth asking around.

    I hope the plan continues to progress and your family can start fresh. Good on you for doing so much for your dog.

  15. Just meeting with an expert who can tell you there are steps you can take must be so reassuring. I can only imagine how hopeless you must have felt after working with all the tools you had in your tool box and seeing Bella get more fearful after your accident.

    Thank you for sharing this. I'm going to tweet it. You may save a dog's life with your message of hope.

  16. I love that you're sharing your story with others. I think you're helping a lot of people and dogs, letting them know there is hope and help.

  17. Fantastic that you could work with someone so skilled - I especially think that the focus on Bella as a whole dog is brilliant. 

  18. LOL - right there with you, Kristine.  Of course, I also agree it shouldn't matter but after I set up the appt, I wrote Jan an email and told him that I was "just a little bit star struck". ;)  I guess if you're a real dog geek, your "celebrities" are a little different than everyone else's. ;)

    I don't think the hypothyroidism is the root cause of Bella's issues but it's definitely a contributing factor.  There are two levels of tests you can have done but the first one any vet should be able to do - it's just a blood test.  If the results are well within range, you can leave it there but if they're borderline, you can take it further.  I'll be covering the whole hypothyroidism issue in an upcoming post - at least what I understand of it - but in the meantime, it certainly wouldn't be a big deal to have Shiva checked for it.

    Arthritis and other illnesses and generalized pain can factor into behavior as well...  As Dr. D's book says - "If Only They Could Talk".  :(

  19. I consider myself very lucky to have relatively problem free dogs as I don't know where I would turn for help in New Zealand if I needed it.  I know the internet has made it a very small world but there's no way I could take Frankie or Beryl to Dr Dodman.  As others have mentioned, Bella is a very fortunate girl to have such caring owners.  My heart goes out to other dogs like Bella who aren't so fortunate.  I don't like to wonder what happens to them.  Looking forward to reading your progress.  I love success stories:)  

  20. I love this series of posts and very much look forward to the rest. Hooray for Bella!

  21. Hey Sue - I know you don't need this but in case anyone else in New Zealand (or around the world) sees this and thinks they can't 'take' their dogs to Tufts and work with Dr. Dodman, they actually can.  The Clinic offers a "PetFax" option where you fill out the same paperwork we did, capture some video of the behavior if you can and send it in to them. :]  

    Check it out here: 

  22. The food situation is really confusing. I just learned from the comments on my food post that Honest Kitchen might have a vegetarian option?  Definitely have to check that out.

    (We'll work on getting a decent picture of her in her cape.  It's very red and she's very cute.  :)

  23. I know, right?  I totally geeked out over it but was able to maintain my composure in the appointments. ;)

  24. Apparently the insect-phobia isn't uncommon.  It's probably just an overly developed sense of self-preservation that turns into a phobia.  (Bella's been stung by Yellowjackets - fearing them is in her best interest.)

  25. I didn't know you had faced similar issues with Felix.  Sorry to hear that.  And, I agree, small fluffy dogs with aggression issues tend to be dismissed.  It's almost like some people think it's cute or funny.  I can imagine how alone you felt. :(

  26. Knowing how invested you are in learning about dogs and behavior, I'm sure you've stumbled across his books by now. :P