Dog lovers know the special comfort our best fur friends bring us.
At the end of our lives, that comfort can often be an important touchpoint.
Bella, one of Spokane’s working dogs, has been that touchpoint for many humans nearing their last days on Earth.
In the beginning
Bella is a four-year-old miniature Australian labradoodle.
She’s friendly, gentle, snuggly and loving.
The touch of her paw is enough to drain the tension from even the most stressed-out neck.
The wag of her tail, her bright eyes and a killer smile are all you need to feel your own face break into a silly grin.
Bella, bred by a local veterinarian, was handpicked from a little born on May 5, 2016. The vet chose her for her human, Bob Brandkamp, who knew he wanted a sweet companion that could be trained to provide therapy services as one of the area’s working dogs.
Bob and his family lost their cockadoodles, Lacey and Jackson, inside of a year. The loss was hard on the Brandkamp family, especially mom, Michelle, who was heartbroken.
The thought of another dog was difficult but the youngest Brandkamp, Jenna, campaigned for a puppy, particularly a labradoodle.
“She put together a PowerPoint presentation to argue for it,” Bob says.
Jenna was a senior in high school and headed east to play college softball (she pitches at Alderson Broaddus University in Philippi, West Virginia).
Bob knew Bella would be his.
And “his” is a relationship that reaches a whole different level of connection between dog and human.
The journey to get there
With a goal in mind, Bob started working on Bella’s training. When she was only four months old, he was socializing her with other dogs, taking training classes and learning about therapy work.
Therapy dogs visit hospitals, schools, hospices and nursing homes to provide comfort to people other than their handlers. They’re encouraged to interact with people, unlike service dogs or working dogs like livestock guardians.
Therapy work isn’t easy to get into. To be considerate a candidate for therapy work, a dog should be:
- Comfortable in crowds
- Friendly and confident
- Able to initiate contact and stay engaged
- Able to cope with stressful situations
- Comfortable being touched, at times awkwardly
- Able to disregard food or toys on cue
- Comfortable around health care equipment
- Trained to obey sit, down, stay, come and leave it
Tick, tick, tick … that list is Bella to a T.
Today, she is a registered therapy dog via Pet Partners, a certified crisis response dog and a Canine Good Citizen, as chosen by the American Kennel Club.
She’s part of an outreach team at Avista Utilities, where Bob works. She goes to schools with him to help educate kids on safety around Avista electrical boxes, downed wires and poles, household appliances and more.
She’s a hospice therapy dog, volunteering with Bob at Horizon Hospice and Palliative Care.
As a therapy dog, she visits hospice patients, many of whom have had special connections with dogs.
“A lot of our clients had dogs but couldn’t bring them into hospice with them,” Bob says.
Their first patient, Bill, was raised around dogs. His father had show dogs and his favorite activity was to walk Bella downtown while he still could walk. Bill’s cancer drove him into hospice where Bob and Bella then visited and Bella laid on his bed while Bill petted the little dog.
“He called her ‘The People’s Princess,’ ” Bob says.
Bob can see the impact Bella has on their clients, particularly those like Bill who have no family visiting or reaching out.
“We become their family,” Bob says. “It’s just very … to not have family or support and go through that alone, I don’t know.”
Friends, partners, teammates
Bella and Bob have been through a lot already in these short four years.
Their therapy work has created a bond that’s different than any other connection he’s felt with dogs over the course of his life.
“First, it’s superficial,” Bob explains. “We have spent so much time together that it’s impossible for us not to be connected.
“Second, I see the impact she has on other people. It’s magical. I wish I could do that for people but to facilitate that process is very powerful.
“And third, she’s kind of stinkin’ cute.”
They rely on each other.
They’re a team.
“She’s my partner,” he says. “She understands my role. She looks to me for cues and I see how she picks up on client cues and senses what the client might need. It’s really fascinating to watch.”
But it’s hard work, and Bob has to be Bella’s advocate. He has to recognize when she needs a break, as easy as a walk in the park or letting her hang out with their cocker Desi.
“It is stressful on working dogs,” he says. “You don’t ever want it to be a detriment. The dogs enjoy the work but as handlers, we have to advocate for them and place limits. I can’t let her get so stressed that the work harms her physically or emotionally or that she starts to find the work unappealing.”
He has learned to recognize the little ways dogs communicate their stress — the yawns, the whale eyes, the licking.
“Even when you think dogs are just hanging out, it can be stressful and they show it in ways we may not always recognize,” he says. “I’ve learned a little how to talk ‘dog.’ It’s a very complex language.”
And just as Bob is Bella’s go-to for leadership, she provides him comfort.
Their clients have one inevitable end: They die.
That can take its toll on Bob, who spends his time with the clients getting to know them and listening to their stories.
“She recognizes when I need care and attention,” Bob says. “She picks up on things I’m feeling and she doesn’t like to be where she can’t hear or see me. We’re so used to working together that we’ve very much in tune with each other.”
Working dogs in the time of pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on hospice care and working dogs.
Washington State is only now allowing families to visit patients in long-term care facilities but therapy dog teams remain prohibited.
Bob checks in with the family of one client he and Bella have been visiting for more than a year.
He sees that Bella misses the interaction with people in general, so he takes her for more frequent walks in parks and around the neighborhood.
There’s one family in particular he likes to visit. The kids want a dog and one of the girls is saving her allowance to adopt one. Her brother, though, is terribly afraid of dogs.
“Bella has become their proxy puppy,” Bob says. “We have the boy touching Bella and I see his dog anxiety start to wane. I plan to print out a picture of her so he can have it. He can look at the picture and Bella is a safe space for him.”
All around the circle
Bella the therapy dog is my No. 2 Bella, her little paw prints pounding a special little place into my heart. Until the pandemic hit and everything was shut down, I was commissioned as Bella’s photographer, documenting her visits to schools and seniors facilities.
She is every bit as sweet and gentle and when Bob and I met at Mirabeau Point Park for a socially distanced visit, she ran toward me — all smiles and wagging tail heading straight for my treat bag.
She sucked away every ounce of tension in my body.
She’s an amazing little girl and I’m so glad to share her and Bob’s story. Since we’re heading into Labor Day, I’m happy to focus on working dogs with work as the topic for this week’s edition of the worldwide pet photographers blog circle.
Let’s go see what work the others are up to. Start with Elaine Tweedy of I Got the Shot Photography, loving her job in northeastern Pennsylvania and surrounding areas.
Click the link at the bottom of Elaine’s post to get to the next post and so on.
When you get back here to Bella’s story, you know you’re home.
Right where you belong.