Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wordy Wednesday 125 - Bella's "Petrait" from BecArt Studio

Back in December, thanks to Cindy Lu's Muse we won a custom framed petrait by Becky Sorrentino Studio. Over the last month, we watched as Becky posted updates to Facebook getting more and more excited with each new note. And this week we were thrilled to get the finished product in the mail.

It is absolutely beautiful! Becky did an amazing job capturing Bella's exuberant spirit and crazy ears.

See for yourself:

Thank you, Becky. You have given us a real treasure and we could not love it more.

If you want Becky to capture your pets' personality for a one-of-a-kind keepsake, check out her pages below. We highly recommend her.

Website: Becky Sorrentino Studio
Twitter: @BecArtStudio

Monday, February 24, 2014

Bella really is a good dog. Seriously.

I can't imagine what some of you think of my crazy dog after last week's post. But let me assure you, Jan and I are not living in fear here in our house terrorized by our dog.

By almost every measure one uses to determine what makes a dog a good dog, Bella passes the test.
  • She doesn't counter surf.
  • She doesn't get into the garbage.
  • She doesn't pull on the leash. (Well, at least she doesn't for me. She and Jan are still working on that.)
  • She doesn't beg.
  • She doesn't incessantly bark. (Understandably the postman would debate that point.)
  • She doesn't chew stuff up. (Although she steals stuff, she does not ruin it.)
  • She comes when 'chicken' is called. (It's our recall word. Don't laugh, it works.)
  • She does not have accidents in the house.
  • She doesn't jump up on people. (Although that may be changing. We'll work on it.)
  • She's not destructive when left home alone.
She does dig but we've learned that as long as we give her a sanctioned place to do so, she doesn't dig where she's not supposed to.

She does sometimes resource guard but you might be surprised to discover that she does not resource guard her food. In fact, Jan and I often have to tempt Bella to eat her breakfast by hand-feeding her. I can take her bowl away from her while she's eating if I forget to put her medicine in her food without any hesitation at all. Does that surprise you?

Bella is a bright, curious and enthusiastic learner. Everyone who meets her from passersby to vet techs, trainers and interns absolutely falls in love with her. (They've even written comments on her intake/release notes telling us how charming she it. I kid you not.) She is a sweet and even sometimes cuddly dog. Who just happens to have some trust/fear issues.

When she attacked me in December, I admit it shook me up. She and I avoided each other for a few days.

It hurt, too. Emotionally, I mean. I thought she trusted me...

But the fact is, it's not personal. Bella isn't 'attacking' out of any emotion other than pure panic. In her mind, I believe, Bella thinks she is fighting for her life.

Over the coming weeks I intend to cover:
  1. What happened the night she attacked me, and why what I did played a huge part in making it worse than it should have been,;
  2. Our visit to Dr. Dodman, what we talked about and how he was the first person to hear what Jan and I were saying in the 2+ years we've been working through these issues with Bella,
  3. The options we were given for possible treatment plans,
  4. What plan we selected and what we've been doing to address Bella's issues since, and
  5. How she's doing on the new protocol.
After that I'll go into why we decided to see a holistic vet and talk about what that has meant for Bella's physical health. And how and why we think it may help her mental health down the road as well.

I will tell you everything I think you should know. But let me know in the comments if you have specific questions and I will make an effort to answer them.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Monday, February 17, 2014

That awkward moment when...

You discover everything you thought you knew...

Was wrong.

I heard a story on NPR last week and one sentence really struck a chord with me. It was something about how we're "photo-shopping our online lives" to appear happy and perfect. I've never meant to do that here on the blog. Especially since I know there are folks out there who have found hope and encouragement through Bella's story.

However, things have happened here at Casa de Bella over the fall and winter of which I have not yet spoken. It was not my intent to lie or mislead. I merely needed time to process everything, to deal with my crazy dog (and even crazier job) while also maintaining some balance in our lives through the holidays.

But first, let me calm your concerns up-front by saying everyone is fine. Better than fine. Good, even. Now.

That wasn't the case for quite some months and I hope to take you through the whole story. It may take a few 'episodes' to bring us up to date as there were many lessons learned and several points to cover.

I'll start with a recap that has some clues into what went wrong in it:

Bella re-injured her left shoulder while on vacation with us in September of 2012. (That would be the last actual, non-working vacation I have had, by the way. Just sayin'...)

Through the winter and spring, we saw numerous vets and made multiple attempts to identify and resolve the problem. All the while, we had our crazy dog on restricted activity.

When we finally found something that helped her shoulder (Metacam), we were immediately faced with battling the stomach upset it brought along with it.

Before this, back in the spring of 2013, our regular vet had prescribed Hill's Prescription Diet w/d (19% protein) for what he diagnosed as Colitis, a very common ailment among anxious dogs. Now that the Metacam was also turning Bella's insides upside down, the neurologist who prescribed it, told us we should be using Hill's Prescription Diet r/d (34.6%) protein to treat Colitis.

That was in July.

I don't know if you can see where this is going but we've now got my crazy dog whose shoulder is feeling loads better on a high-protein diet and regulated activity.

We started seeing signs of Bella feeling better in agility class when she began doing zoomies around the ring. We were slowly increasing her activity but, unsure of how much her shoulder could take, we were being careful, controlled. But she wanted to run and zoom and basically go nuts.

We continued to have troubles with her tummy and, per doctor's orders, were routinely stopping the Metacam until her bowel movements became normal and then starting it back up again until we saw signs of gastric distress at which point we'd stop it again. And so on. And so on.

And the hamsters spin the wheel.

Unsurprisingly, Bella lashed out at Jan again in August. It had been over a year since she had done so.

We made some changes to her meds, talked to and worked with our trainer and had plans to follow up with Dr. Dodman. But shortly before the holidays, Bella did something that threw everything we thought we knew out the window.

Do you see what's wrong with this picture?
At the time, I didn't.
I do now.
We had always approached treating Bella under the premise that she was generally anxious but specifically still nervous around Jan. It made sense: she had only ever bitten him, his beard, glasses, long hair and deep voice are factors many dogs find challenging, and her initial poor reaction to him seemed to stem from when I broke my arm.

But in December 2013 all that changed when Bella attacked me.

I will go into all of it in time but suffice it to say, I missed every piece of information Bella was sending me. Talk about trigger-stacking: high-protein diet, restricted activity, shoulder pain, upset stomach, general anxiety from the winter weather, a dark room, loud television, a couple of glasses of wine (mine, not hers) and a painfully egregious rookie dog-handler mistake ended up with me unable to use my hands for a few days and my right arm for a week. It could have been much worse. (It's of note that it wasn't.)

I've been trying to find a way to share this with you since it happened (and there is some very good news to come out of it all) but I want to give it the time and attention it requires.

We're using some big and scary words about our little girl now. Words like: post-traumatic stress disorder, anti-convulsants, neurotransmitters, neuropathic pain and paroxysmal fear. But we're also seeing tremendous progress and a remarkably calm and happy dog.

Along with Dr. Dodman who is helping us with Bella's behavioral complexities, we've started seeing a holistic vet who is going to try to help us with her Colitis and her shoulder problems. Bella's tummy has improved almost as much as her behavior and we are incredibly hopeful at this time that we will be able to give Bella the pain- and fear-free life she deserves.

Please bear with me over the next few weeks as I try to fill in all the gaps.

My little pumpkin turned 6 years old this week. Happy birthday, Bella. You are still my favorite little Valentine.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Today was a special day

Today was a special day.

Bella was lying in her bed next to my desk. She started mumbling at me. Usually that indicates one of three things: she needs to go out, she wants to play or she wants a treat.

But this time when I turned around, she stayed lying on the bed. She didn't get up to "show me" what she wanted.

It took me a minute to figure out why she was mumbling at me, what she wanted from me.

I got up and sat next to her. She still didn't get up to "show me".

And finally it dawned on me.

She wanted me to pet her.


Wanted me.

To pet her.

I stroked her shoulder, leg and foot as she closed her eyes and drifted quietly off to sleep.

Today was a very special day.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Monday, February 3, 2014

Dognition: What did we learn?

A few of weeks ago, I shared my impression of Dognition, a science-based "personality test" for your dog, and said I would follow up with Bella's results. Sorry for the delay - Bella happens.

Moving on....

In reading through the report prepared for us by the Dognition team about Bella's results, there seemed to be a common thread running throughout and that is how many times the words (or sentiment) "This talent would come in handy in the wild" came up.

These are Bella's results for the initial Dognition games:

And below are just some of the insights provided in Bella's profile:

The overview:
"Bella is a specialist in independent problem solving, which requires a keen understanding of the physical world, a good memory and the ability to solve problems she has never seen before. Because she is so good at solving problems on her own, Bella does not need to rely on humans as much. While scores in the games testing social skills are solid, Bella's preferred strategy is definitely to work out problems without anyone's help."

(Jan would just like to say "Bella sounds a lot like her 'mom'".)
And the specifics:

"Being individualistic is something to be proud of. Perhaps you've noticed that Bella is excellent at self-entertaining, or is better at solving problems on her own."


"Of all the species that have been studied, dogs are the champions at using our communicative gestures. Even chimpanzees, who are one of our closest living relatives, do not rely on human gestures as much as dogs do. Instead, chimpanzees try to figure out these types of problems on their own.

Compared to other dogs, on this scale Bella was more like a chimpanzee. Although chimpanzees are extremely intelligent in other areas, when they play a similar game they do not use a human point to find the food. Instead, they tend to use more self-reliant strategies."


"Bella is the perfect example of a dog using cognitive strategies effectively. She knew she should wait when you were watching, and that it was safe to swoop in and take the treat when you had your back turned or your eyes covered.

The fact that Bella didn't wait as long to take the treat when your eyes were covered is impressive, since you looked almost exactly the same as when you were watching Bella... Bella's performance shows a sophisticated mind at work."


"Bella has an amazing working memory, which is a type of memory that allows your dog to keep information in mind for a few minutes and mentally manipulate it. This may sound simple, but working memory is crucial for any kind of problem-solving... This skill comes in handy in the wild. Feral dogs tend to be endurance hunters, slowly wearing down their prey."


"You can be very proud. Bella just aced the most difficult games in the Toolkit. Reasoning is the ability to solve a problem when you can't see the answer and have to imagine the solution. Unlike learning through trial and error, which doesn't necessarily require much understanding, reasoning requires that you truly understand the problem and the phenomena behind the problem.

This talent would come in handy in the wild, since animals often have to keep track of objects that become hidden.

Bella was able to solve the mystery by imagining different solutions and choosing the one that made the most sense. This leads to a lot of flexibility. She can solve a new version of a problem she has seen before, and spontaneously solve new problems she has never seen before. This is a sign of true genius.

Congratulations - when playing the most difficult game in the most difficult dimension, Bella's performance was masterful."
The theme continues in her performance in the monthly games (similar to the initial games but with instant results).

There was
  • The Numerosity game: "In the wild, there are many advantages to being as numerically savvy as Bella."
  • The Impossible Task game: "Not looking back to ask you for help is rather wolfish behavior... Persistence in situations like these is a valuable quality, and reflects your dog’s curiosity and determination."
  • And the Spatial Navigation game: "Bella would make a great explorer.... no matter which way she was oriented she would most likely go back to the bowl she had learned had food in the beginning. This strategy is particularly effective in large and unfamiliar environments."

Bella was bred to survive.

I guess what we've most discovered about Bella through these tests is that she was probably a bit more feral when she came to live with us than we realized. I wish we had known how feral at the time - we certainly could have made things easier for her.

Dr. Dodman has told us more than once, "She's smart. She's got it all figured out. She's just got it figured out all wrong."

Bella's life in an American home may be filled with stress and monsters but the way she thinks, the way she learns, would have served her well in the environment to which she was born.

I signed up for Dognition because I wanted to understand Bella better, hopefully learn a little bit about how she thinks so I could figure out how to help her cope with this life she's been dropped into.

One would like to believe that the life she's living now is far superior to any she had a chance of living on the island but she doesn't know what lay in store for her there. Maybe she could have survived a few years because of her cunning and her smarts. But one mistake could have meant a painful demise.

She doesn't know that though. And so she lives here with us worried about garbage cans, flies and the chirps of dying batteries.

But every day we continue to learn and teach and try. And she's such a willing partner in all of this.

My little hero...

If you have also gone through the games and gotten your dog's Dognition profile, I would love to read them. Please share in the comments or direct us to your own reviews!