Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bella Goes to Rehab

One of the challenges of having a scared-y dog is maneuvering things like vet visits, medical procedures, and well, pretty much anything that involves the laying on of hands by humans not her own.

Another challenge is putting a high-energy dog who needs exercise and mental stimulation to manage her anxiety on restricted activity while dealing with the injury that requires all those vet visits and medical procedures.

Bella is one lucky puppy in that we have a slew of well-connected friends who graciously offered support and advice throughout this winter of Bella's discontent. One such suggestion was to work with a veterinary rehabilitator at Paws in Motion in Natick, MA.

Suzy Starr came with glowing recommendations, not only for the work she does in rehabilitating dogs after injury/surgery but also for her slow and compassionate approach to fearful dogs.

When we first brought Bella in for a consultation, our hope was that we could alleviate her pain by working the muscle and joint slowly loosening any stiffness and reducing inflammation. But we'd have been happy with a way to channel her energy while getting a little physical fitness. If we could, at the same time, strengthen the rest of her muscles in an effort to reduce the strain on her shoulder, so much the better.

The approach the rehabilitator wanted to use was hydrotherapy - essentially an underwater treadmill. The idea is that the water provides buoyancy and takes some of the weight off the injured limb while the dog gets some exercise.

Sounds reasonable.

Reasonable? Have you MET me?

But knowing our Bella, we thought "Yeah, sure, no problem, I'm certain Little Miss Scaredy-Pants is gonna be just fine with getting into a big, noisy tank that fills up with water and then starts moving under her feet."


And then we found out that we wouldn't be allowed in the tank with her - that only the staff can be in the tank with her.

Uh huh.

Well, we knew before we tried to get Bella into the big scary tank, we would have to start with something a little more basic like, oh I don't know, getting someone other than us to actually be able to touch her.


We were happy to discover that Suzy Starr, the veterinarian and owner of Paws in Motion, knows a little something about scared-y dogs. Our first visit/consultation lasted over an hour and most of that time was spent letting Bella get used to Suzy. We taught Suzy some of Bella's no-fail commands - things like 'touch' and 'down' and 'foot' - and in only about 40 minutes, Suzy was actually able to pet our dog.

We were pretty stunned to tell the truth.

We used that success to get Bella into the tank with Suzy, letting her go in and out for a while until she would stay in the tank comfortably. And then we betrayed all the trust we had built up by locking the door and filling the tank with water.

Bella was not amused.

Bella, not amused.

In fact, Bella was traumatized.

The look on her face made it abundantly clear that she didn't understand why we would be torturing her like this. It was terrible. I felt like the most horrible person in the world. But Bella did eventually calm down and walk.

Bella spent 8 minutes on the treadmill that first day. And did zoomies like nobody's business in the tiny drying room when she came out. We were, once again, her heroes as we rescued her from the trauma of the tank. (Seems her memory of us being the ones who put her in there in the first place was short.)

And we scheduled her for another appointment the next week.

Yeah, she loves us.

The next week she knew what was going to happen and was a little less trusting about getting in the tank. (And by "a little" I mean, Jan had to pick her up and deposit her in the tank then try to scramble out while I locked the door behind him.)

Each week one of the staff stayed in the tank with Bella getting their own upper-body workout as they tried to keep her in it. Apparently Bella is much stronger than she looks. (Dear Paws in Motion staff: You're welcome. Consider that our contribution to your gym membership.)

We did about 6 or 8 visits in total. Mostly going for the mental stimulation and physical exercise.

We had to stop the visits during the steroidal injection procedures she had recently at Angell Memorial but I'm planning to start them up again. I want to get Bella back in shape gradually rather than just letting her go hog wild out in the backyard or agility ring.

But I also want to slow our approach to the tank again.

The video below shows her progression in the tank over a series of weeks and as you'll see, it actually got worse as we went along. I think we need to back up and slow down. If she only spends 5 or 10 minutes in the tank, so be it. I'd rather she have a positive experience than to become more and more frightened of it.

On the bright side, since getting to know Suzy and her staff, Bella has become more willing to meet people - a huge step forward in her development.

And so, once again as it always is with Bella, we take two steps forward, one step back but at least we're making progress.

Also, once again, we find ourselves working with some of the best and brightest in the world of animals as Suzy and her team are the folks working to rehabilitate Lilly the Hero Pit Bull. Lilly made national news as the Pit Bull who rescued her hu-mom who had fallen unconscious on train tracks in Shirley, Massachusetts.

For an update on that story, and a glimpse behind the scenes of Paws in Motion, check out this link from New England Cable News: Rehab for a Hero Dog.


  1. Oh geez, poor baby girl! It's so hard to make them feel comfortable AND do what is right for them. You guys deserve a medal :)

  2. English Rider myeffingponyMay 14, 2013 at 11:48 PM

    Hydrotherapy makes so much sense and Bella's acceptance of Suzy and her staff is enormous! I know that you know your dog and she is unique, just be aware of not holding her back by being afraid with her. Live a little towards the dog you hope she'll become rather than feeding the anxieties of the dog she was yesterday. That thought has helped me with dogs and horses.

  3. So sorry she's had such a hard time with it emotionally. Underwater treadmill is awesome otherwise, does great things for the body and burns off lots of energy safely. Jasmine was an old underwater treadmill pro. I was worried she might be uncomfortable the first time, but she took it in stride. I hope Bella can adjust to this.

  4. Well everyone seems to be doing sterling work work, including Bella. She's a lucky girl, even if sometimes it doesn't feel like it!! Have fun at Blogpaws! Deccy x

  5. Thanks, Julie. Been thinking of you. Hope you're doing okay...

  6. Thanks Jana, we're going to try again. You're right - it was definitely a great way to burn some energy for her.

    Still thinking of you and your Jasmine. Hope you're holding up okay...

  7. Mileys Daily ScoopMay 15, 2013 at 10:40 AM

    Awww, keep up the hard work, Bella, it will pay off! You are in great hands!!

  8. Ugh. Her face says it too. Why are you doing this to me!?! At least you ended up also being the heros by "rescuing" her afterward. Sorry she is having so much trouble with the tank, I can only imagine how Meadow would react.

    Glad to hear the good part though, how she's getting more willing to meet people. I'd roll with that one, as I'm sure you will!