Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A story of hope and progress (For Miles)

There's a story I've been wanting to tell about Bella's progress for a while now but so many other things kept taking precedence. Then something rather serendipitous happened this weekend that made the telling a priority. Let me start with that and then I'll get onto Bella's story.

I woke up Sunday morning to the most interesting message that had been left at Bella's Facebook page. It was from the hu-mom of a dog in Australia named Miles and Miles, it seems looks a LOT like Bella. Acts a lot like her too, from what I can tell.

See, Miles' hu-mom had been writing on a local shelter board to find stable, 'bomb-proof' dogs that would be willing to help Miles get over his fear of dogs when our friend Jet over at jet's furkid palace told her about our Bella.

Miles has dog-reactivity just like Bella does but with a slightly different story. I haven't yet asked permission to share his story here so I'll save that for another day but I wanted to write about one of Bella's recent stories to give Miles' mom some encouragement about what these fearful dogs can do with a little time and a lot of patience.

Hi Miles! Nice to virtually meet you!

I've written recently about Bella' shoulder injury that had us traipsing all over town for various treatments and examinations. Back in March, we took her into Boston for the first time to visit noted neurologist, Dr. Allen Sisson at Angell Animal Medical Center. I had never been to Angell before and have to say, I was incredibly impressed.

The place looks like a well-funded big city hospital: big, clean, modern, high-tech. The waiting areas for the animals are spacious and separated: dogs in one area, cats in another, yet a third for birds and exotics. Even better, there were two areas for each!

I, now the master of scoping the world for imminent Bella danger, chose the area to the left of the entrance which was empty and hoped against hope it would remain so until we could get Bella into an examination room.

Nice thought.

We were soon joined by a couple whose beautiful yellow Lab was waiting with them on a gurney. Poor old guy was really sick (although we did see him leave of his own volition later in the day) so I knew he was no threat to Bella. She knew it, too. But they were soon joined by another yellow Lab whose owner was more interested in talking to the sick dog's owners than watching her own.

I knew what was coming and knelt down in front of Bella to get her focus on me and doing our training. "Bella, look." Click. Treat. Good girl. "Bella, down." Click. Treat. Good girl.

I'm doing all this quite loudly and obviously - trying to make a point to the other owners that my dog needs special attention when all of a sudden, I feel the telltale sign of a dog's breath on the back of my neck. Not MY dog, this lady's dog. He's so close to us, I can actually feel him sniffing my hair!

"Bella, look." Click. Treat. Good girl. "Bella, down." Click. Treat. Oh you remarkable girl!

And finally "Can you PLEASE get your dog away from my dog?"

Insert gratuitous picture of pretty dog here.

I am not one for conflict. In fact, I avoid it at all costs. But in my time with Bella I have learned that I am the only advocate she has so I have learned to speak up on her behalf. I'm sure many people have decided I'm just plain rude. Surely this woman with her beautiful, stable, friendly Lab walked away with that impression.

But here's the kicker. This dog, in this strange and stressful place, got within a couple of feet of Bella, with me in between and how did Bella react? With a small, quiet growl. As soon as I spoke up, she stopped, laid down and looked at me.

Oh Bella, you are a remarkable girl.

I was so proud of her.

The folks in the waiting room probably thought we were the most awful people they'd ever met with a dog who didn't deserve to be out in public. But I was over the moon with pride at how my little girl handled herself. Was she happy? No, not really. Was she scared? Yeah, probably some. But did she handle it all without causing a scene? Absolutely. And I couldn't have been prouder.

So Miles' mom? I know you're going through some difficult times right now. I'm sure you want to die of embarassment at times, weep in frustration at others. Hang in there, though. You can do this and so can Miles. Patience and practice.

And if you ever need encouragement, stop in here or a few of the other blogs we know who are dealing with similar issues: Life with Desmond, Rescued Insanity, Oh My Dog! and Adventures of a Cattle Dog. We all know the pride and heartbreak of life with a crazy dog (or two or three).

If nothing else, you'll discover you're not alone. Maybe you'll even decide to start your own blog letting us follow Miles' progress. In any case, please drop me a note again someday to let me know how it's going. I have a lot of faith in you, your boy and your dog. You can do this. And I know Miles is worth every frustrating minute of it.


  1. Great story...and you know what...just because someone has a friendly dog like a Lab doesn't mean they should just let it go up to every dog it meets. I think having so many different personalities in my household allows me to see both sides of the coin and I never allow my dogs to approach strange dogs because of it - at least, not without the owners permission and assurance that their dog is friendly too.

  2. Good for Bella ... and for you! That's fantastic progress for you both.

  3. Click. Treat!! Good girl!!

  4. Especially in a stressy place like a vet you really have to keep your dog to yourself because we react differently when there is the added stress of the vet and no one needs additional injuries.

  5. Christine SterlingJune 5, 2013 at 10:38 AM

    Our Monty has reactivity issues with dogs, and I know the feeling of being the "outcast" when you go anywhere. We have to constantly watch Monty and find other folks annoying when they don't watch their pups. You are doing the best thing for Bella, which is never giving up on her.


  6. What a great story, no wonder you are proud! Good job Bella and good job Leslie and Jan!!

    I know how proud I was of Delilah the first time I distracted her from reacting. There is hope, it just takes time, lots of patience and love. I would have to say speaking up for your dog is a hard thing at times, but I've come to not really care what others think of me and my dog.

  7. I am really happy for both you and Bella. Miles' mom did a good thing by reaching out to you and I wish them the best, too.

  8. Terrific post, you should be proud of yourself too, guiding Bella through it all!

  9. KB - RompRollRockiesJune 5, 2013 at 9:26 PM

    What a huge victory for Bella!!!!

    I've found the same thing with Shyla. I usually avoid conflict at all cost... but I speak up for her. Her specific fears and reactions are quite different from Bella's but the "management" mode is very similar. I think that I see the whole world through a "shyla filter" now.

  10. Pamela | Something WaggingJune 5, 2013 at 9:59 PM

    Good, Bella! You must be one proud dog mama!

  11. Thanks for this great blog! As Miles' new Mum, I do take a lot of encouragement from this. I adopted Miles only eight weeks ago after he was abandoned, rescued and waiting for a new home for over 8 months. I have started clicker training him to divert his attention to me, and while very responsive, the stimuli and fear of another dog nearby supersedes all else for him still, and he becomes no longer interested in me, the clicker, or the treats. I totally agree with what you say - his reactiveness can be very embarrassing at times, and I see the accusing looks on some people's faces, as if they think I am in irresponsible dog owner. I wish I could explain to them that Miles' past means that he is terrified of being attacked, and that is the only reason he is reacting. But of course, I can't get close enough to explain this for fear he will attack their dog! My request for help with 'bombproof' dogs to socialise Miles with was touchingly successful - I was shocked that so many people wanted to help. Miles has three 'meet-and-greets' set up for this weekend. It may go shockingly bad with his reactivity, but it may go better than I thought, I am determined to try. Small steps, and, fingers crossed, we will get there.

  12. Wow. I am so proud of Bella. She handled that situation extremely well, so did you.

    I am usually unapologetic about asking people to remove their dog from my dog's face (mostly Jasper). I want people to know that some behavior is not okay in the dog world and most especially if a dog is reactive. I hope the woman left realizing that not all dogs like other dogs instead of thinking you were awful. She will need to learn that if her dog is to remain safe. The next dog and owner may not be set up for success like you have done with Bella.

  13. You are so NOT the most awful people! I can't even imagine anyone thinking that, you're both such responsible dog owners. Bella certainly deserves to go to the vet without being stressed by someone who isn't watching their dog. :)

  14. Oh, most important, congrats in Bella's great behavior! All of your training is definitely paying off. :)

  15. Way to hold it together Bella!!!

  16. It was good to read this, Leslie. Bella is so fortunate to have you! I've dealt with some fear issues with Sage and it limits where we go and do, but you find what works and keep working on what doesn't.

    On another note, since Google Reader went defunct, I find Feedly not as friendly and find I'm missing some of the blogs I used to visit regularly. But I do have to say, that second picture of Bella was so Toby!

  17. Hi Mandy, I'm so glad you saw this. I really was hoping it would give you some encouragement. Regarding "the stimuli and fear of another dog nearby" have you heard/read about "thresholds" yet?

    Basically, a threshold is the point at which the dog tips from being in control to out of it. It's different for every dog and different even for different triggers in the same dog. But the idea is you want to figure out what that threshold is - 10 feet or 100 - and work with your dog on the "I'm sane and can still hear you" side of it.

    Over time, you'll be able to get closer to whatever is sending your dog over the edge but any time Miles starts to wig out over another dog, step back a few feet and see if you can get his attention there. If not, back up again. You'll find "the sweet spot".

    You are so far ahead of where we were when we first got Bella so I know you'll be able to turn Miles around. He may never be an especially social dog but he'll be able to survive what you need him to without causing a scene. Hang in there. You're doing great!

  18. This is so fantastic! Way to go, Bella!! And Leslie. And Jan. xoxo

  19. That IS a great victory! Way to go Bella. When I adopted Gretel I was told she was anxious and had a tendency to nip at other dogs. Although she has never bit another dog while with me, she used to see red and incessantly, and aggressively, bark at the other dog. I admit I haven't worked with her as diligently as you have with Bella but I have been making some efforts to boost her confidence and self-soothing. More recently she has started baring her teeth to other dogs and then walking away....HERSELF! Like you, I imagine other dog owners think otherwise but I am So proud of this little girl! To just show a warning and then politely remover herself from the situation is a huge step. I am not saying we don't have any uncontrolled barking incidences anymore but they are very few and far between now :) Of course, if the other dog keeps advancing it is a whole other situation. I can still usually control it by putting myself in between her and the other dog and walking away. I have been known once or twice to ask other people to stay away from my dog too though :)