Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Two steps forward, one step back

Lest you think life with Bella has been all unicorns and rainbows since we started her on the 5-pronged approach recommended by Dr. Dodman including medications and her Agility for Reactive Dogs class in the Fall of 2011, life just never really seems to go in a particularly straight line.

Even while we were making progress training Bella over the various agility obstacles, and she was taking her prescribed medications, eating a low(er) protein diet and getting as much exercise as we could work into our schedule, in January/February 2012, Bella started showing signs of increased anxiety at home again. She began darting from the room at the slightest sound, not sleeping through the night and becoming even more frantic about storms and unexpected events.

What? Me, worry?

Things came to a head in February culminating in 2 events that made us realize not all was well in the state of Bella:

  • First, Bella and Jan had another scuffle in February. I called Dr. D.s' office immediately but it would be April before we could get back in to see him for a follow-up.

  • Then, a week or so later, we learned how quickly things can turn south in a classroom full of reactive dogs.

In the early days of class, our trainer, Carolyn, would have us walk the dogs around the room in a parade route fashion - each dog staying appropriately distanced behind the next to keep them under threshold. The idea was for the person following to be responsible for maintaining the distance behind the dog in front. But sometimes the dogs have other ideas.

Bella had been toodling right along in class for a couple of months when one night, while she was stalled admiring the alluring aroma of classmate Elmo's mat, classmate Willie decided to trot his way over the dog walk heading straight towards Bella at a pretty good and noisy clip. I, sadly without eyes in the back of my head, was watching Elmo in front of us and missed the signals Bella was most certainly sending me before she blew up like a mad dog in Willie's direction behind me. Hrumph.

Landing solidly on one of my knees and following that with my face, the best I could do was hold on (and pray I hadn't just broken my knee). Bella continued to lunge and growl at the end of the leash and Willie gave his owner a good tussle mimicking Bella's behavior back at her. It took a moment for everyone to realize I wasn't able to get up and suddenly Jan and Carolyn sprang between the dogs - Jan getting Bella back under control and Carolyn helping Willie's owner handle him and herd him back to his mat.

Sweet little Elmo remained rather oblivious to the whole encounter as he was now on the opposite side of the room.

Still not quite calm but getting better.
The trick that salvaged this situation was the the double leashes we use on the dogs in class and Carolyn's requirement that we wrap the loop end of both around our wrists. In my case, I often push the loop up over my elbow since my hands are small and I worry that the loops will slip over and out of my hand.

That practice may have sent me sprawling but it saved Bella from breaking free of my grasp and getting to Willie which would have been a disaster. (Willie had previously been attacked by another dog IN a training class. No wonder the poor guy has reactivity issues.)

The mark of a good teacher, in my mind, is the ability to read a situation, understand the needs and motivations of her students and change her teaching methods if and when they're not working for any individual. Carolyn is a very good teacher. And she has made several modifications to her approach in teaching us and helping our dogs over the life of our class.

After Bella's little outburst, Carolyn stopped having us walk around together in a circle and had us all line up along the same wall. Baby gates and sheets separating the dogs so they couldn't see each other at all except during controlled warm-up periods. Over time, as the dogs got better at that, we started working them on some of the obstacles during the warm-up sessions, first one dog at a time, then two and finally the whole class working together at the same time.

Bonding over treats and training.
So while we waited to get in to see Dr. D and get his recommendations for Bella's continuing anxiety, it was a great relief to be able to rely on Carolyn's experience and advice on how to keep working on Bella's reactivity and improve her relationship with Jan through the classes.

Jan and I learned we need to take turns as Bella's handler each week. Improving Jan's relationship with her is our highest priority but at the same time, we can't have mine suffer as a result. We could end up having the same problem but just reversing to whom it's directed. Everyone has a role to play in helping Bella heal and we each have to be a part of the solution if this is going to work.

Thank you, daddy, for teaching me.
Jan and Bella's relationship has improved over time and with a great deal of effort and patience. I am fortunate to have married the most amazing man in the world, one who clearly never gives up on those he loves. Bella surely is one lucky girl.


  1. Woof! Woof! Exposures will certain help ... just continue with cautions. yes patience n LOVE is so important. Is Bella wearing a Martingale? Maybe a wider one would help. It was during my agility class that I had reaction from the nylon collars as you said you wear it during class ... just check it. Lots of Golden woofs, Sugar

  2. Sad to hear about Bella's trials (and yours). Hoping things get turned around soon!

  3. I hope you were okay after that bad fall; that sounds like it would have been very scary. Mom has a hard time not feeling frustrated when I show her I have learned something and then I seem to forget it. I have to remind her that these things happen and to remember how much has changed in the long run. Bella is very lucky to have you and Jan. I know that all your hard work will keep helping her move forward, even though there are bound to be some rough spots along the way.

  4. I hope you were okay after that bad fall; that sounds like it would have been very scary. Mom has a hard time not feeling frustrated when I show her I have learned something and then I seem to forget it. I have to remind her that these things happen and to remember how much has changed in the long run. Bella is very lucky to have you and Jan. I know that all your hard work will keep helping her move forward, even though there are bound to be some rough spots along the way.

  5. I certainly understand that it isn't a straight line of progress. Morgan has been much better, but then on the hike last weekend, she short-circuited again, and I still think one of the wires in her little marble is loose! What can you do besides keep working? I'm glad Bella has you!

  6. Hi Sugar, that is indeed a martingale. I have wanted to get her a wider one but haven't been able to find them locally and am not sure how easy they are to fit right if you can't try them on... She only wears it in class but I have always felt it's a little too thin to do what martingales are supposed to do well: control the dog without hurting them.

    Do you have any experience with sizing them online? I'd be open to any suggestions you have.

  7. Wow Leslie, that must have been so difficult for everyone. Thankfully you do have such a great instructor and I'm so glad you and Jan haven't given up on Bella.

  8. You two are amazing in all that you have done and are doing for Bella! One of my pack doesn't play well with others (Callie) and one is afraid of new people and places (Forest) but those issues are so mild compared to what you are working through with Bella. She is indeed a lucky girl to have the two of you.

  9. Oh, I completely relate to how hard and frustrating this work can be. Hang in there. It's worth it for the joy our dogs bring us, isn't it? :)

  10. Wow. It must have been scary when you fell...glad someone (or two someones actually) jumped in to help. Thank goodness for the double leash system. It's nice that you had a good trainer to work with in between your appointments with Dodman. I can't imagine how frustrating this could have been if you hadn't. Awesome that you have a great hubby who's willing to work with Bella. I know the feeling. "Lucky" is an understatement - right? :-)

  11. That must have been scary! You're a very special lady!

  12. When Saydee stayed with us, I was given some real insight into how difficult living with a reactive dog is. She is so lucky to have both of you - keep up the good work!!

  13. Two French BulldogsMarch 6, 2013 at 12:33 AM

    Wow, glad you are ok. Bella you better start listening to the teacher. That could be scary. My Lily screams at other doggys. We try everything
    Benny & Lily

  14. Pamela | Something WaggingMarch 6, 2013 at 11:13 AM

    Wow, I could see you wanting to hand the leash right over to Jan after the face plant on the floor.

    I guess it's not just child raising that takes a village.

  15. Very scary situation for sure but you were in the right place - if there is such a thing - for it to happen, surrounded by people who understand. No one was at fault in many of these cases. Sometimes things just get out of hand. The important part is that no one was badly hurt and you were all able to continue on. It takes courage to go back and try again after all that. You have a lot to be proud of.

  16. With two of you so patient and working so hard and Carolyn there for support progress will come for you and Bella

  17. I'd say you all are very lucky to have each other! :)
    Mom says I exhibited a lot of Bella's behaviors when I was first adopted. I've gotten a lot better she says over the last three years :) I still have my moments though. What can I say? I like a lot of dogs butt not All of them. I say to Mom "do you like All people?" She said No not All. So I'm like - point made. End of discussion ;)

    Waggin at ya,

  18. Yikes! I didn't know you almost injured yourself in class or that Bella got worse before she got better. I so love that there is even a class like this for these dogs and that your trainer is so conscious of how she can change her approach to make things a little better the next time. That's a sign of a good trainer.

  19. I am following your story with baited breath. You help me to remember that not following a straight line is normal. You and Jan are absolutely wonderful, with all that you've done for sweet Bella.

    It is so interesting to ponder why some fearful dogs react with bluster, like Bella, while others dissolve into a puddle of paralyzed fear, like Shyla. It must be hardwired...

    IN any case, your class sounds like it was really good for you and you had an awesome trainer. I'm not sure if you're still doing it... but it sure sounds good.