Projects of the Heart
A Project From the Heart: Fostering Bella, a Service Dog in Training or Retirement?

Bella's Tale About Finding her Forever Home

Bella is now healthy and retired. She now lives in her Forever Home. She is loved by a young lady and her family where she will enjoy her retirement and use her ears to hear all the secrets of a young-lady life.

All of us do things because that small voice said we should. Recently I received a call about a surrendered former hearing alert dog who was owner-trained. The shelter asked if I could help them with her. Of course, help turned into, “of course we can foster her (What am I saying!).

She was surrendered to a shelter because the person she had worked for had a younger dog. She was current on her vaccinations and the name on her vaccination card was Bear. The shelter reported to us that she did not know her name. I thought perhaps it was because her former person used sign rather than called her verbally. We agreed that Bear did not fit her but wanted to make sure that we did not confuse her more. She did not respond to the word Bear. So she became Bella. She likes her name and likes to hear it said over and over.

Bella had been surrendered on a Wednesday and we took her on Friday. Because the shelter was at a distance from us, they meet us half way in a small town off the freeway. The only place we could be sure to find was McDonalds. So, no Big Mac for Bella but she did get a new foster family there. I guess it was a supersized full meal! She seemed happy to go with us. She immediately fell in love with my aloof service dog who seemed to like her too. They sat in the car rump-to-rump all the way home.

The people at the shelter told us that Bella was in bad shape; that her toe nails were grown out two inches and they had removed "bags and bags" of fur. When we picked her up she was still very badly and painfully matted, particularly around her midsection and lower body. While the folks at the shelter had been able to trim her toe nails some, they were still overgrown in length. The fur on her paws extended two to three inches beyond the end of her paw. Three wonderful groomers helped get her cleaned up. They found that her dew claws were grown into circles they were so long. It was hard to even find her in the middle of the fur. We had no idea what he skin looked like. Her teeth were almost completely black.

Nonetheless, Bella was, well Bella. She was subdued but flashed a grin at us just often enough for us to fall in love. The first day that she came we let her go into the house after all the stress of the past few days she did not even sniff around. She immediately went to a corner and pressed herself against the wall. After a bit, I took her outside to see if that would make her more comfortable. I worked quietly in the vicinity but let her take her own time. She immediately plopped down on the snow and with the look of a wise and silent wood-creature took in the universe for nearly two hours. Of course, when we went back into the house she immediately remembered that she needed to pee :-)

The snow provided great camouflage. A friend said we could find her by looking for a passing snow bank.

That first night Bella was interested in her supper but refused to eat her kibble. We put a bit of broth on her kibbles since her teeth looked so bad. She was interested then. We fed her in a less used bedroom in the house that is well lit from the main room. When I put her food down she would not eat. I was trying to figure out what rituals she used and in so doing I flipped on the light to get a better look. She started eating! Turn the lights on she can eat, turn them off she has to stop. YEA! LESSON ONE. It must be really hard for dogs to train their foster parents.

The first night was a bit confusing for all of us. We miss-guessed her size and the crate that we had picked up for her from PetCo was WAY too small. She needed a cozy place though. I remembered that we had an unused (well, technically rejected by my dog) insulated plastic dog house outside. I dusted off the snow and brought it inside. I took the top off and Bella slept through the usual family evening activities. When it came time to go to bed we decided to take the dog house up to our office which is not far from our bedroom. I made a small corral for her so we would not have to worry about her safety looking at each other with that “where is she now” look. At bedtime Bella obediently went up the stairs all the while saying to me, "But, you don't understand! I am not allowed upstairs!" When she saw her house though, she darted right in like a white minnow.


The next day was to the groomers and to exchange her too small crate for a larger one. The groomers took some time that evening to work on her and then all day the following day. She was so sore from all the matted hair that they had to be extra careful. When we returned to pick her up she was all wags and wiggles. Bella was so beautiful! She clearly had stolen the hearts of the groomers and they hers. When we dropped her off she was a huge fur ball that was going to be shaved and when we picked her she was a furry beauty. We were so happy when she came wiggling out with beautiful white fur. When you watch her walk from the back it looks like she has little pink zippers down both legs since they had to shave so much of her rear quarter fur. Still, she was beautiful to us! Smitten Foster Parents.

Bella was jubilant when she greeted us, and particularly overjoyed to see my sometimes snooty "I am an only child, please" dog as if she was our long-lost friend. She and my dog, now friends of 48 hours promptly stood side by side in service dog formation and said, "Hey, it is time to go home now."

While we had been told she was a hearing dog we did not know quite what she "did for a living". We also knew that she was 10 years old and had most likely been retired by a younger dog that joined the family. She was very well behaved but without some history or background we had no idea if she was task trained to perform a duty to help her disabled person or if she had helped in an informal way. Part of my job was to figure out “how she worked.” I decided to take it slow but just fold Bella into our daily doings. We were going to the store so I called my dog to "dress" and held out her harness. As she always does, she put her head down and walked into her harness. Bella came running over and ducked her head down too. I had a service-dog-in-training vest for her and I held it out and she walked right in and then sat and looked at me. “Well, LESSON TWO, foster Mom. Now you know I work.”

We went off to a store that allows any dogs on lead so we could see how things went. The store was quiet and people there know I have service dogs. She did brilliantly! I "drove" my dog in her usual place on my left using her harness and Bella just to the left of my dog using a lead. They look like a little sled team marching along. Later we went to my office (it is very quiet and people are used to my service dog). She did brilliantly. Later we went to the grocery store, one of the places we feel most welcomed in town. The grocery staff always call out and wave.

Perfect, both of them just perfect. They have different styles but both have the grocery store nailed. No sniffing, not even at the meat counter which they remind me is, "Right by our noses!"

By now Bella has determined that she liked the blue bed we offered her to sleep on in the den but that her place of glory is her crate. Lord does she love that thing! We have finally had to start closing the door so that she will come out and spend some time with the rest of us.

On Tuesday, I had to have an MRI. My dog and Bella went with us and waited patiently and professionally for the hour I was in the test. After that we went to the grocery store to get my prescriptions filled. As you can see from the photo they are doing a lot better than was!


On Thanksgiving I decided that there was too much turkey and dressing on the horizon and that I would take the dogs out for their first official "Hike". We have a lovely mountain trail that takes off from the back of our house. With confidence and trepidation I hooked up both dogs, put on my snowshoes and off we went. Not two different dogs could exist in the Universe. One Hound one Little Snugly White Furball. My hound wanted to bound up the hill and sniff the deer tracks and Bella looking wistfully at the trail behind as if to say, "But look! It is warm down there and my crate has a great blanket in it!" I kept calling out, "This way" which is my dog's cue to quit running in the direction she is going (always the opposite of me) and come my direction. In order to keep them going forward--that is one moving away from the house and one not moving away from me--every few steps I would change directions. I nearly got nauseous from all the twists and turns. After a time I decided I would let them off lead. My dog knows the area well so off she went. I called to her "far enough" which means that she should wait for me. She was great. Bella kept turning and looking back. By now we are about a mile from the house so it is quite some back! I thought for sure she would stick close to me because she is that sort of shadow dog and was in a strange environment. Nooooooo, off she took body dropped, trotting with great focus, just faster than I could, down the trail back to the house. Just then, my hound is running north barking her head off for me to come find the vole she has spotted.

What a dilemma! Who do I respond to? I am hollering, "Leave it!" "It is not yours" in one direction and "Bella, Bella, this way, STOP, Come on....Bellllllaaaaa." Finally I realize this is just not going to work. I am on snowshoes and the snow is soft and about 2 feet deep. Anyone who knows me knows I am about as steady on my pins as a drunk donkey. I started moving as fast as I could toward her. I did not want to scare her as we had learned that reaching for her by the collar led to a total meltdown. I decided I would Natural Horsemanship method. Stealthily so as not to scare her I reached one ski pole around the left, angled toward the front. Then, the right. She turned and looked every so sweetly at me as if to say, "did you know there was a fence up there?" I put her back on her lead and went back to get the hound who was still barking. After I got her back on lead they both looked at me like, "But you love us. Look how good we are? Are you ready to go yet? We are both pointing forward like you told us to.”

Peace rules. After Turkey, and a lot of special treats, we played "Lead.” Lead, my dog explained is “when Mommie gives out treats if we pick our lead up and bring it to her. She says it is part of my work to stay sharp on my service dog skills.” My dog rolls her eyes when I toss the lead back across the rug and tell her to go get it. She says, "Hey, if I have to do this to get a treat I will but do you know you could just keep the danged thing when I bring it to you?" Bella looked quizzically at the lead like, "Did you want me to do anything with that?" We went for baby steps. It was not long before she realized that if she touched the lead with her nose she would get a treat. You can see in the next photo how she generalized that to getting to go outside.

So, we continue to learn. We are leaning that Bella is as sweet as they come but she is an obdurate little thing! Try to get her out of her care when she is snugly and warm. Nonetheless, she is precious and wants to work. After talking with my dog behavior consultant colleagues online we have decided to start hearing signal training from scratch. We still don't know if Bella's forever home will be to help someone who needs ears from her or if she will be a wonderful pet-dog who gets her ears scratched any time she wants.

Update 11 December 2010
Bella Finds a Forever Home and Enjoys Her Well Earned Retirement

Bella has gone into retirement and become the dog of a wonderful, generous and sweet  youth. When they came to get Bella after a while together, Bella had clearly shifted her alliance to the young lady and her mom.

During the time that Bella was with us we were able to take her pain away and help her have the confidence to walk across a room rather than slinking around the perimeters of the room. Her fur was beautiful and healthy. Her teeth were appropriately clean for a 10 year old dog, and the swelling in her gums from gingivitis was healed, Toward the end of her time with us in rehab, she began to bark and play. She even walked on her hind legs both forward and backwards for as many as 10 steps. What an amazing dog.

One very poginet moment occured toward the end of their visit to take Bella with them to her forever home. I held out the harness for my service dog and she walked in and we buckled the harness. Right after I finished, she crossed the room, and stood close to Bella in their working formation. We all nearly wept. Still, when we separated then there was no worry on either dog's part. We saw Bella off and went back upstairs in our house. I had placed the blanket that Bella had been using near my desk as a transitional object. I looked over after a while and my dog was lying on the floor with her head burred in the edge of the blanket.

Later that night I washed all of the things that Bella had used. We took a long weekend trip that weekend and by the time we came back we remember Bella with pleasure but do not feel her ghost-presence in the house. We are confident of her forever home.