It is not simple for one dog, named Bella
Bella has earned the label of fearful, by that I mean when a human is near, she will move slowly and lower her body carriage. She will look away and her tail may be tucked. She will avoid people and use escape behaviors to not interact or make eye contact. She is very bonded to her human family and has a few people in her circle of trust.
I meet Bella when she is a year old. Her humans are fiercely devoted to caring for and protecting her while ensuring she is living her best life. What does this look like? Keeping Bella in her bubble or comfort zone. Not putting Bella in situations or environments that are new and limiting her exposure. Her family manages and controls the context not Bella. (Wow, that could be its own blog.)
The first step was to build Bella’s behavioral repertoire, giving her behaviors to engage in to earn reinforcers. We find that cheese tops Bella’s list, even beats my homemade meatballs☹.
Let’s get back to the vet scenario; vet trips can be complicated for her. New humans and contexts with handling…the very situation that sets the stage for the group of behaviors we labeled as fearful. Her human wanted to involve a vet that offered TCVM (Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine) to help her behavior and prevent disease and illness with the use of herbs and food therapy…. maybe even some acupuncture someday. TCVM is about balance within the body/mind and good health through prevention. A western approach means vet visits once a year or if there is illness present. In Eastern medicine you see the doctor more to maintain health and wellness.
I have the privilege of seeing clients at PetZen Animal Wellness Center in Gig Harbor WA. Here they offer eastern and western medicine for dogs and cats. I see clients when the center is closed. Bella’s sessions began in the lobby with teaching useful behaviors to earn reinforcers. We also began to introduce the activity of K9 Nose Work® for enrichment. With this activity Bella could use her sniffing abilities to seek out cheese. A game without intense human involvement. I put cheese in boxes and get out of the way, offering Bella the chance to problem solve with her nose in the veterinary setting?
We gradually built Bella’s resilience at the vet. Working on needed behaviors in lobby and slowly moving into exam rooms, with me playing the veterinary role. Each session built upon the last one, by this I don’t mean we raised criteria each time!
We worked on behaviors useful for her first exam with Dr Bart Iaia. This was an “exam” cue. Meaning Bella would stand very close to her human who would put her arms on her with very gentle restraint. With Mom’s hands holding her, Bella’s tail was neutral, and her face was soft, her mouth was open, and a light panting would happen. Bella could “take a break” on cue or whenever. Take a break is Bella gets on her mat with hips flipped and loose facial muscles.
In the interest of brevity, I have left off many details…let’s get to results.
Yesterday Bella had a visit with Dr Iaia. All the pieces came together, and Bella did better than I expected! We meet him in an exam room I don’t use as often. Information for me… Bella generalized all the information and she was amazing. She offered her “exam” cue and the doctor was able to check her pulses, look at her feet pads, and feel her ears. Enough for him to work his magic? In between “exam” situations, Bella remained on her mat, in a relaxed pose, eating cheese offered by her amazing human. Bella even responded to cued behavior that she is high probability to do.