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A wise old dog finds a forever home

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Melody Jameson photo
Among Bella’s duties is encouraging light exercise by the residents at Belvedere Commons. Here, she sits, still and patient, as centenarian Sylvia Williams bends and reaches from her wheelchair to deliver soft pats to her head and occupational therapist Naomi Moran (left) cheers on the two of them. Williams will celebrate her 100th birthday Monday at the small assisted living facility where everyone is on a first name basis. Bella also participates in daily “volleyball” games with balloons in the dining room, carefully avoiding punctures to the balloon balls and maneuvering with agility around wheelchairs.
By MELODY JAMESON

There are rescue dogs and dogs that uncover illegal substances and agility performance dogs.

There are dogs that take on criminals and dogs that give mobility to the sight impaired and dogs that lighten the load for quadriplegics.

All of them are carefully groomed from puppyhood, skillfully trained, rigorously tested.

And, there’s Bella of Belvedere Commons. Her puppy years are long

forgotten, she’s had no specific training of any sort, she’s never been put through any type of proving routine.

But this seven-year-old Yellow Labrador has initiated a rescue, defended her “family” of elderly in the assisted living facility here and routinely provides therapy in the memory loss unit. How?

The best explanations center on the devotion and inclination toward helpfulness which seems to be instinctive with the breed. Then, there’s that sixth sense, the capacity to discern without instruction human conditions and needs that characterizes many canines and is finely honed in some.

Bella, says Leigh Dingle, executive director at Belvedere Commons, has an abundance of all of it. She’s a dog who assists living. None of which was known three months ago.

Belvedere Commons, a small ACLF on Cortaro Drive which is home to some 40 mature residents, had tried in the past to adopt a house dog, trying a couple of small breeds, Dingle says, herself a dog lover who shares her life with several. The attempts, though, did not work out well. And, when the family of one of her charges mentioned they no longer could keep their full-grown, older Lab, the enthusiasm level was not particularly high.

Then, Bella came to visit and perspectives changed, quickly. She was going to stay only a few days while her owners took a short trip. That was months ago and today no one, neither resident nor staff, would want her to leave, Dingle notes. In fact, she’s an integral part of the place now, as relied upon as staff, looked for more often than any visitor.

For her part, Bella rapidly made herself at home. She settled on a chair in the administrator’s office, covered with her own quilt, as her personal bed, her food dish and water bowl conveniently placed nearby. Her leash hangs where she can reach it by mouth to inform she requires an outside walk.

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Bella...grins in friendly greeting
She has free access to the entire house, roams the halls at will, and visits with individual residents in their rooms on a regular basis, day and night. Plus, she has meal times committed to memory. Her one somewhat-bad habit is accepting treats from residents in the dining room, Dingle says. For residents, Bella trumps executives there. Trying to halt the practice, she adds with a laugh “they don’t listen to me, I’m just the administrator.”

The house soon learned that Bella is not a barker, but she is a persnickety greeter. She will plant herself in the middle of the foyer, eyeing those coming through the door, checking as to friend or foe. She does not vocally greet newcomers, but will wag her sweeping tail and grin a big dog grin when friend status is established, staff members say.

On the other hand, one day she spied a couple of young men loitering in the parking area in front of the one-story home, Dingle relates. Bella dashed from one front window to another, barking ferociously, and kept up the ruckus until the men moved away from the facility.

Her capacity for delivering regular therapy was discovered when Bella first was allowed to enter the secured Alzheimer’s patients wing, points out Marsha Hohlbaugh, the ACLF’s’ life enrichment director. As the day wears on for patients with memory loss, the inclination frequently is to become increasingly restless, she explains, and by mid-afternoon, this level of restlessness can reach a high voltage pitch. But, around 3 PM each day Bella will enter the unit and order will settle on the place, almost magically. “She brings with her a calming effect” that everyone recognizes as she makes rounds, greeting residents, giving a cold nose nudge here, offering her broad, softly furred back for touching there, the director says.

Bella’s many insights, though, are not so confined. She recently performed a rescue which left staff members nearly speechless. One of the center’s oldest residents who usually gets around with a walker had returned from a hospital stay and, for reasons unknown, had haltingly reached a hallway outside her room without any support whatsoever. Her younger neighbor across the hall caught sight of her and tried to come to her assistance, encouraging her to sit on the younger one’s walker equipped for just such situations. The maneuver could not be managed, however, and the two elderly women were marooned unsteadily in the empty hall.

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 “You think I don’t get it that you’re just pretending you’ve got a treat for me,” Bella may be thinking as she cooperates for a photo with Belvedere Commons resident Marion Davies. Her one not-so-good habit that the Yellow Lab has exhibited since she came to live at the ACLF, protecting, amusing, calming its 43 residents, is a penchant for treats from her new “family” at meal times in the dining room. Nonetheless, Bella has found a permanent home there, cherished for her gentle manners by staff and residents alike.
At this moment Bella ambled in their direction. One of the women shouted at Bella to get help. The Lab pivoted and raced toward the administration area, they later recounted. Barking loudly, ignoring instructions to be quiet, Bella approached Hohlbaugh and then darted toward the hallway. The activities director followed and, of course, came upon the two stranded residents who immediately were helped into their quarters.

The extent of the injuries and subsequent problems averted by Bella’s quick reaction that day never will be known, Dingle adds. “At that age, a fall easily can mean a broken hip – or worse.”

Another of Bella’s devoted fans is Elaine Ketterman, a Sarasotan whose mother lives in the memory care unit. In a November letter to the Belvedere Commons ownership, Ketterman praised Bella as “the perfect dog in size and temperament” and complemented Dingle as well as the ownership for instituting the new pet therapy program. “I am amazed at how calm the residents become whenever Bella enters the room,” she wrote, adding “This method has to be much safer than many medications that are used to reduce agitation.”

Yes, Dingle asserts firmly, “It’s a win, win, win.” Bella may be an older, untrained, uncertified dog of specific title, but she’s still the right dog in the right place at the right time. Bella has found her forever home.”

Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson
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