After a year in lockdown, rescue dog Bella is ready for rehoming
For this beagle-lurcher, lockdown has been a blessing and a curse. We meet her carers to find out about Bella's incredible journey.
This February marked Bella's one year anniversary at our Millbrook Animal Centre in Surrey. A stay of that length isn't something to celebrate - it's our aim to find all animals a loving home as soon as we can. But with Bella, we can celebrate how far she's come. This past year of lockdown has made it incredibly difficult to rehome dogs, especially those with complex needs. But it's also enabled our teams to work more closely with these animals, in quieter environments, to give them their best-ever chance of a happy ever after.
"We knew from the start that Bella would be a challenge," says Liz Wood, our deputy manager at Millbrook. "Clever dogs can often be challenging. But we didn't dream she'd still be with us a year later.
"She came to us from a tiny flat with an owner who couldn't cope. And Bella couldn't cope with the world. Aged just seven months, she'd already had four owners but absolutely no socialisation or training. Everything overwhelmed her. If she saw another dog (inevitable in the kennels) she'd really struggle."
Animal care assistants Phil Morrison and Sophie Foord took on the role of befriending Bella and working closely with her day to day. And animal behaviourist June Williams, who is funded by local charity the Friends of Millbrook, began visiting three times a week to help Bella.
"It's my job to work with traumatised dogs but Bella was one of the most extreme cases I've seen," says June. "The obvious solution might seem to be affection, cuddles and walks but that's easier said than done with an animal terrified by every person, dog or car she sees."
A vet advised that Bella needed anti-anxiety medication simply to get to a state where she could start taking on new experiences without becoming more stressed. Thankfully this worked well and the team began introducing stuffed-toy dogs at a great distance, always using reward-based training.
Bella's reactions ranged from leaping and baying to cowering. "We taught her to sit in between our legs when she felt threatened, so that became her safe place," says June. To help Bella get used to cars and learn they were not scary, Phil and June would place small pieces of cheese all around and eventually on vehicles, for her to find. "After some months she made friends with a greyhound called Vinnie who seemed to give her confidence, so he'd come with us. Then one day Vinnie got into my car and amazingly Bella followed, no cheese required."
The team did all sorts of things like this to help Bella get to know the world. "She seemed frightened of elderly people, so we got some old-lady clothes from a charity shop and Sophie dressed up for her," says June. "From putting on limps to wearing funny hats, she really went above and beyond to desensitise Bella to people who might frighten her. Sophie's spent a lot of time working with her on site and intuitively knows when she's not coping and what to do."
By summer, Bella was going for walks off-site. "Phil was there for every walk, even on his days off," she says. "Bella is full of mischief at times and keeps her cheekiest moments for Phil, whether it's running off with the basket of tennis balls or making him wade through a river to get her! By August, I let her off the lead with my own spaniels and Bella played properly for the first time ever. That was a special moment."
Phil soon realised that people and dogs alike seemed to love Bella. It was November before she could start meeting the wider staff at Millbrook. But these days she'll even let strangers come close with a treat. "The vast majority of dogs, male or female and all sizes, really want to come and say hello to her," says June. "She's learned to play beautifully with other dogs. She loves playtime in the secure compound and she's amazing at scent-driven work."
The type of home Bella is looking for
It wasn't just humans shielding during lockdown - coronavirus restrictions also helped protect Bella. "She wouldn't have tolerated our usual visitors walking through the kennels and grounds," says Liz. "Lockdown gave Phil and Sophie precious time to understand her needs."
But of course, it's also delayed her rehoming. While we can rehome some less challenging animals via Zoom, that was never going to be OK for Bella. Now with restrictions beginning to relax, Millbrook is hoping to make a match.
"Bella would suit living with another dog, probably male and older than her," says June. "As her profile states, it must be a spacious, quiet, rural home. A town or city will be too stimulating and undo all the progress she's made.
"She'll need a big, enclosed garden and owners who aren't houseproud, are home most of the time and committed to ongoing training. We'd like them to live near Millbrook so we can offer our support. Ideally, her new owners will have had young or complex dogs before and sight and scenthound experience."
"We understand how frustrating a long list of requirements can seem," adds Liz. "We want nothing more than to see all our dogs go to loving new homes. But it's not just about the love you can give. Years of experience tells us the types of environments these dogs will thrive in and those they won't. So we hope people realise we're not rejecting them as pet owners, simply as owners for a particular animal."
Well trained and full of life
"She's such a clever, fun and athletic dog," says June. "When Bella enjoys life it's a joy to behold. She missed out on her puppyhood so she's still got that to live. Her recall is good, she's trained to the whistle. And she has a beautiful personality. I remember one occasion Bella put her paws on my lap and looked deep into my eyes. I think that was her way of saying she trusts me. It felt like an honour."
Bella has spent a year learning how to be her best self. And every moment has counted. But now she deserves a reward for all her hard work - and someone else deserves to benefit from her wonderful company.
"She's going to really round out someone's life," says June. "Although Bella has special needs, she's a special dog."