Dog and owner overcome obstacles to help others

No one wants to hear bad news about the health of a pet. But when Terry Pierce was told by a veterinarian that her puppy, Bella, had a kidney disease that would shorten her life expectancy to three to five years, Pierce knew exactly what she wanted to do.

?The breed has about an eight to 10 years life expectancy (normally),? Pierce said of her Dogue de Bordeaux, also known as a French mastiff. ?It got me to think that as short as her little life could be, I wanted her to leave her mark. So we started looking into doing therapy dog work.?

Challenges

Now, almost four years later, and a few health-related bumps along the way, Bella has found her niche.

The friendly canine has been a part of the summer reading program for children at the Hillsboro Public Library and a frequent visitor among residents at Parkside Homes.

But it hasn?t been an easy journey.

After hearing the diagnosis for Bella in 2009, Pierce began looking into the therapy dog program. A therapy dog is different from a service dog. Bella?s primary job would be to provide companionship.

In early 2010, Pierce took Bella to Wichita for basic obedience training, then enrolled the dog in the Canine Good Citizen therapy dog program.

Classes went well, but Bella failed the final test.

?She decided she wasn?t going to sit for me that day,? Pierce said. ?She did all the other difficult things?being around noises and activity and children. She did fine, but she decided she was not going to sit for me.?

The evaluator gave Bella a second chance, but with the same result.

Pierce was surprised to hear the reason Bella failed the test.

?The trainers said Bella had picked up on my nervous energy??right down the leash? is what they told me,? Pierce said.

Disheartened, Pierce contemplated giving up the therapy-dog dream. But she found another trainer who took on the assignment?and fixed the problem with time.

?They say dogs can pick up on your personality and your energy,? Pierce said. ?We?ve always had dogs and they understand when you?re upset.

?But Bella is very intuitive. If there?s enough negative energy in the room, she?ll leave. She?ll walk out of the room and she?ll go sit in our little entryway and just wait.?

Turns out Pierce needed some behavior modification herself?and Bella would be her teacher.

?It got to the point where instead of going to the door and telling her to come back in, I would open the door and ask her if I was ready for her to come back in,? Pierce said. ?Sometimes she would come in, and sometimes she would wait.?

Pierce said eventually, when she felt frustrated or anxious while at work or with family, ?I could almost see Bella turning around and walking out of the room. So I think she?s helped me a lot more than I think I?ve helped anybody with her.?

The two took the test again and ?passed with flying colors,? according to Pierce.

With the completion of additional paperwork and one more evaluation, Bella was approved for duty.

Making connections

The public library was Bella?s first assignment.

?The kids signed up to read with Bella, then they did a drawing each week and picked about four kids who got to come read with her,? Pierce said.

?Once we brought her there, the kids just wanted to sit down with her. They wanted to read her a book and show her the pictures. They get so involved in it.?

Librarian Cathy Fish said the program, called Tail Waggin? Tutors, often helps children who normally are shy about reading out loud or in front of other people.

?She said there were kids there that would read to Bella,? Pierce said. ?So it was neat. It was really neat.?

From there, Pierce and Bella began visiting residents at Parkside about once a month. They started about two years ago?sometimes to a mixed reaction. Over time, Pierce and Bella have learned the ropes.

?There are some people who are not animal people, and there?s people from that generation that don?t believe animals should be in the house,? Pierce said.

?We respect that their room is their home,? she added. ?We get to know the residents who enjoy her visits, the ones who are maybe indifferent and the ones who just do not enjoy it.?

Though Bella, at almost 90 pounds, is small for a French mastiff because of her kidney condition, residents don?t always see it that way.

?We?ve had some people say they are excited about the therapy dog?then they see how big she is and they change their mind,? Pierce said.

In one case, a resident kept waving off Bella because of the dog?s size. Pierce, with Bella on leash, would continue to greet the woman each time they visited.

At Christmastime, Pierce was distributing a holiday card featuring Bella and her visits to Parkside. The woman who kept her distance from Bella was standing in the doorway of her room.

?We walked up to her?she allowed us to do that,? Pierce said. ?We gave her the card and we talked for awhile.?

Then it happened.

?As we were talking, Bella walked right under her hand,? Pierce said. ?Then (the resident) was standing there and was just petting Bella. It almost brought tears to my eyes when it was happening.

?We?ve had a few experiences like that have been very touching,? she added.

More health issues

Health issues have continued to be a challenge for Bella and Pierce.

In addition to her kidney issues, Bella, about 41?2 years old now, has developed an irritable bowel as well. It prompted Pierce and Bella to take a break from their therapy visits.

?She?s on a real strict diet,? Pierce said. ?We just have to be careful that she doesn?t eat anything that the kidneys will have to process. She?s got low-protein food, and she?s on a binder so the kidneys don?t have to work so hard.

?This year we thought about not renewing our membership because of her health issues. But we?ve got everything under control again.?

Bella?s issues have come with a price?literally?for Pierce and her boyfriend, Chris Frantz. Trips to the veterinarian, special diets and medications add up to a significant expense.

?It?s been a challenge,? Pierce said. ?But I believe God brought her to us. He?s working with me through her and with her through me.?

Pierce said Bella is getting along well enough now that they?re ready to resume their visitation duties.

?She likes it, she really does,? Pierce said of the assignment. ?When we pull out that scarf (Bella wears during when she?s working) she knows she?s going somewhere. I just love it. I do.?

Bella has almost reached her life expectancy, but Pierce said she and Bella will keep her visitation work going as long as the dog?s health allows.

?We got into it because we wanted to help other people and we wanted Bella to leave her mark,? Pierce said. ?It?s ended up that it?s me who?s really gotten all the rewards from it. I never dreamed that this dog would have brought this to me.?