Could I be confusing my dog?
If I were Bella, so far I would surmise that "Bella" means let's go for a walk. "Good Girl" is probably my name, or it means, nice poop. "Go Potty" means step off the road into the wet grass for a few minutes and pee. "Wait" means I can't go anywhere because Mommy won't move or I am attached to a cord.
Could I be confusing my dog?
Through the connection of a thoughtful friend, I was given the opportunity to discuss Bella with an experienced Vet. This vet read Bella's blog and shared some thoughts with me. She was compassionate, and wise. Her thoughts helped me piece together the story of Bella's past and the trauma of her life in a puppy mill. It is tempting to feel great fury toward the sociopathic people who do this to animals, but to keep myself sane I focus my thoughts on the present and future for my animal.
Bella was not socialized to dogs or people. She lived in a cage. She has no confidence in herself or in the world that she finds herself in. She has only known the caged life. Estelle, the vet, put it eloquently. Bella still lives in a cage, a cage in the world. Bella is deeply afraid of everything, terrorized in fact. And she is feral. Estelle suggests that it will take a year before I will really get to see who Bella can be. She said "shoot for the moon" but accept Bella's limitations. She will likely never be a normal dog.
Thankfully, Estelle also made some concrete recommendations. First, I need to connect with a good vet. The vet can make a referral to an animal behaviorist who can develop a protocol for Bella's healing. Fortunately, living in Ithaca, I have access to the Cornell Behavioral Clinic. Bella's protocol may involve anti-anxiety medication, probiotics as well as coaching for me on working with Bella.
Although my conversation with Estelle brought me to tears thinking of the pain that Bella and countless other animals have undergone, and continue to undergo at the hands of man, I was also heartened and determined. Maybe this one creature can benefit and heal with my help. Sweet Bella, I'm going to try.
Last night I had trouble sleeping. I closed my door to keep my cat, Circe out. (She always takes up way more space than her little body ought to.) Bella sleeps on the floor in my bedroom, and doesn't make a sound. After a few hours of sleep, I got up and went into my office. It was 3 am. Very shortly, I heard the familiar clicking of Bella's toenails on the floor. I got up an went into the hall, whispering softly, "Bella?" She had retreated. I went to the kitchen for a glass of water and heard the the clicking sound again. I turned around and there was Bella, looking at me with curiosity, or so it seemed. As if she wondered what I was doing up at this hour. I reached my hand down to her to pet her expecting her to turn around and go back to the bedroom since there was no walk to be had, but to my surprise, instead of scurrying away, she let me pet her for a while. We were two silent creature of the night sharing a moment. This was the first time Bella didn't scurry back to her corner and instead voluntarily accepted my touch.
Still, no tail wag. I was beginning to wonder if she might have a damaged tail. I texted Ellie, the woman who had Bella for a month before me. Ellie assured me that during the first few days in her household, Bella was playful. She shared a short video, and sure enough, Bella is playing with Ellie's two Berners, and her fully functional tail is wagging happily. Bella even does the bow/invitation thing, urging the other dogs to play with her.
So the mystery is, what is the source of Bella's depression, and why did it emerge after a period of playful connection with some other dogs? Ellie said "When she first came she was so excited that she wasn't locked up and had other dogs to be around and play with but then she just slowly went back into herself with every noise and every time my son would run or yell." She adds that Bella "seems to like stuffed animals as she stole my son's a few times to sleep with."
In my home Bella can listen to my therapy sessions and doesn't have any 6 year old boys running and yelling. There are, alas, no other dogs, but she does have peace and quiet and plenty of walks. Could it be that despite the initial excitement that came with her liberation from the puppy mill, Bella just feels lost and traumatized? Does she miss her puppies that were taken from her? My poor Bella.
Yesterday was gorgeous. I brought Bella out and hooked her leash to her long line so she could be outside with me while I did some gardening. Just weeding and bringing some branches to the curb. For several minutes she just stood and watched me. Then I went over to her and helped her sit down. She sat and watched me. After about 15 or 20 minutes she got up and turned to face the door. She wanted to go in to her corner next to her bed on my cement floor. Perhaps it was too warm for her with her thick, black coat. Or perhaps she needed to end the challenge. I took her back in so she could go to her safe place.
This morning, after she ate, I sat with her and talked with her softly, petting her. I think she liked it. She seemed relaxed. My cat, Circe, was drawn to my whispers and came in to investigate, jumping up on the window sill above our heads, then left. Bella settled down for a nap. The cats seem to regard her as a curiosity. The only excitement Bella provides is when she ambles awkwardly to the front door when I call her to go out. Usually the cats come, too, since they are used to me calling them to take them to the pottery studio. When they see that I am waiting for Bella, they position themselves to watch, either on the cat tree or under a chair. Not with any excessive nervousness, just with cat caution.
The question of medication has been raised by a few people now. I think of it myself and I am interested. I don't want her to suffer unnecessarily. Of course, it concerns me that I may be entering into an expensive endeavor that I cannot afford. Training is also going to be necessary. She is completely illiterate with regard to all the basic commands; sit, come, down. Perhaps I could get ahold of a training protocol and do the work myself.
Yesterday afternoon a friend visited with her dog and we planned to trim Bella's toenails. Alas, just meeting a new person and taking a walk with another dog near by was all that Bella was up to. I have to remember how fearful she is. She did sniff the guest dog after we had walked for a while, and did watch him a bit while we were outside, but retreated to her corner on the hard cement floor next to her bed as soon as she was allowed.
This morning we walked the Loop and went a little bit further. I put the harness on her instead of her collar which was slightly confusing to her at first, but as usual, she walks very nicely after an initial pulling period. What makes me sad is that she keeps her tail tucked and therefor often eliminates on her tail. She again enthusiastically circumnavigated the yard at the end of our walk. After her tail bath, she returned to her corner and I gave her a treat.
I will take heart that I can sit in the room with her while she eats, and that she follows me with her eyes. I would so love a tail way, though, Bella, please....
Fumbling with the poop bag, I dropped Bella's leash! I was so worried she would run off, but she just stood there waiting for me to collect myself so we could continue our walk. Yeah, bonding! Much better on the Loop this morning. She is most dog-like when she walks.
Although Bella doesn't take food from my hand, she now comfortably eats in front of me. This has developed over the last couple of days. I've developed the habit of sitting with my coffee in my bedroom with her after I put the food down. Over the next several days I'll try to move closer to her so that I am sitting next to her while she eats. It helps me to think that I am taming her rather than training her at this point.
Yesterday I took her on a new walk. New just means going left outside of my driveway with her instead of right and taking a loop a few streets over. This was faintly alarming to her. She is wedded to 'The Walk' which is ritualistic to her. "The Walk" begins when I turn right outside my driveway and simply go up and then down the street. Variations from this are greeted with trepidation, but I want to challenge her gently and not create a pattern we can't veer from. So on the new walk, the "Loop" Bella anxiously tried to turn back a few times and didn't feel more relaxed until we approached the part of the road she knows. I'll try it again today. None of these walks are more than a mile.
Nope, there's no doubt about it. Bella pees on command. She also clearly understands that when I hook her to the cord outside she isn't going anywhere. So she stands calmly enough, although she pants and will stare inside the house if I go in for something. I hope she will learn to enjoy the sounds and smells of the outdoors on my porch. We are greeted by a cacophony of birds most times.
Today I challenged her in a few ways. I held her on her leash in my session with a dog friendly man for 15 minutes. She was a bit nervous, but didn't pant and tolerated it. When I let her go, she ambled back to her corner in my bedroom efficiently, but without panic. I tried again with a couple, and she seemed more nervous. By the time I wanted to try with a third person she wanted nothing to do with the venture. I will back off and be more respectful. One challenge a day with a therapy session, Bella, I promise.
Since the beginning, when Bella pees, I've been saying "go potty" softly. Yesterday, a few minutes into our walk, I said "go potty" and she peed as if on command. Perhaps it was a fluke. So this morning, I did the same thing. Volia! She peed on command. Now of course I know her habits, but it's nice to think that maybe she is learning.
The other thing that happened this morning was that after we came home from our short, ten minute wake up walk, she distinctly pulled and we did the loop a second time! Maybe her legs are getting stronger. She also seems to particularly enjoy circumnavigating the back yard before we go in. I had thought that she was avoiding the car, which I still think she did for a few days after our park outing, but now I think she seems to especially like doing a little loop on the grass and under the pines before we go in. She wants to do this fast, too. I think it's fun for her.
Bella's first day in my home was 4/4/19. I went with Galen of the Bernese Mountain Dog Rescue to pick her up in Candor. She was huddled against a couch in the upstairs of the house. Three other rambunctious dogs and a 6 year old had the run of the place. The kind woman who originally rescued her (her name is Ellie) had bought her in Ohio for $500. Bella (aka Alaska) is a former puppy mill momma. Ellie tried to incorporate Bella into her home but finally decided that Bella was just not adjusting to her household. Bella was afraid of her 6 year old. Ellie called the Bernese Mountain Dog Rescue. That's how I got her. New, fledgling foster mom. I had a dog 48 hours after I volunteered.
I know that Bella was born 10/10/14. She is spayed. From the vet records, it looks like she was rescued from the puppy mill at the end of February 2019. Since the progress is so slow, I'm writing the narrative to reassure myself that it is, indeed, happening. Bella spends her time on my bedroom floor, which is cement, next to the Tempur Pedic doggie bed I made her. When I call her to come to the door to go out, she will take short walks with me. I think this is her favorite activity. However, we take many short walks because her legs tremble after our walks and I think she doesn't have good muscle development yet. She never makes a sound. Never barks. Everything is eye contact with her. She follows me with her eyes, something she began about a week in to our time together.
This is a recap of her progress.
On 4/7 Bella first made brief eye contact with me and got up by herself from the corner of my bedroom. Previously I had to approach her and gently lift her under her front legs to get her standing to come outside to go to the bathroom. She has become calmer and slower going through the house. Ears perk for the first time.
4/8 Prior to working with the Bernese Mountain Dog Rescue, I established contact with the Cayuga Dog Rescue. My plan was to foster for them, but if this happens, it won't be until June when the director returns from the south. Nevertheless, they have been helpful with wisdom and even support. I got some lovely dog treats and a toy courtesy of Cayuga Dog Rescue. It took several days before Bella showed interest, but eventually she learns to enjoy the treats. I now give her one whenever we come in from a walk. The toy I bought her means nothing to her.
On 4/9 Bella rests her head on her bed for the first time.
On 4/11 she came to the front door to go out by herself when I called "Bella". This has mostly continued unless someone else is here. She now has perky ears when she looks at me. Seeing her resting her head on her bed (never her body) I was so moved that I think I will adopt her.
On 4/13 she reached her nose to me for the first time. This is when I reach my hand to her, sitting on her bed. She sniffed my fingers. A volunteer from Cayuga Dog Rescue, Megan, kindly helped me bathe Bella. She was scared, but didn't really object strongly. She cooperates, but it might be like a prisoner cooperates. I was able to get the wash water lukewarm, but the rinse water was right from the hose and was cold so she hated that. So sorry, Bella, but you need to smell better! I am stuffy at night!.
By 4/14 she eats when I put her food down if I leave the room. Prior to that she might ignore her food for hours or not eat all of it. Very tiny spit up.
4/16 still no tail wags. I think i got a couple of teeny tail tip movements during the past week, but no bonafide tail wags. She now finishes her food and eats shortly after I feed her if I leave the room. Soft stools.
4/17 I took Bella to the Arboretum with Valerie. It was probably too soon. She was very frightened in the car and panted like crazy while pushing against me. I suppose previous car rides have taken her to new places, maybe terrible places. She liked walking for a short bit, but then seemed to want to turn around or pull back to someplace. For the next few days she made a wide berth around the car as if the car was the enemy. I think the other cars passing by scared her a lot and she didn't know where she was at the park.
On 4/20 she ate a treat in front of me for the first time.
4/21 I sat in the car holding Bella, standing next to the car on her leash for 5 minutes. She then doesn't eat her treat in front of me after we go inside-tiny set back. I notice that she is distinctly more nervous if someone else is around, even when that person is gentle.
I was able to sit in the room while she ate, just out of sight.
This page is not professional, and has nothing to do with the rest of my website. I'm writing as Bella's mommy, just for fun. Perhaps this blog will be helpful to others working with former puppy mill dogs.