Monday, February 8, 2010

Bella Departs ICAN Training (but there’s a happy ending!)

At ICAN, we firmly believe that no dog in service training ever fails the program, although they may experience a “career change”. Such is the case with dear Bella who is departing the ICAN training program. Let us explain why. (Don’t worry – she’s healthy and happy and there’s a happy ending!)

To understand the challenge with Bella, we ask you to think of the following. Take your most firmly held belief, one that you can’t imagine yourself ever, EVER changing your mind about.

How hard it would be for you to change a belief that your mind, your heart, and your soul believe to be right, true and real? Pretty darn hard. It would be like trying to convince Tony Stewart that he shouldn’t race for the win when on track!

With that example in mind, let’s explain Bella’s reason for her career change.

Bella has her own deeply held belief that she can’t give up.
Her belief is that certain things that she encounters in life have a vital importance and significance, so vital and significant that she will defend against them being taken from her. The technical term for what Bella does is "Resource Guarding.”

In many domesticated dogs, this instinct to guard and protect things that ensure survival and health has decreased because of generations of living with abundant resources and being kept safe by human guardians. However, due to some dogs’ genetics, this instinct to resource guard still shows up. Typically, dogs who have this instinct tend to start showing it between 5 and 7 months of age.

In some cases, this resource guarding and reactivity is mild and the dog can be trained with positive methods to give up the guarded item in favor of something more attractive. However, in Bella’s case, there are no items more attractive to her than the item she is currently guarding and defending. This greatly limits the ability to train her from demonstrating the unwanted behavior. ICAN staff and trainers spent several months working with Bella to modify her pattern of resource guarding. Initially, our positive training methods appeared to have worked and she went one full month without incident, receiving an abundance of praise and treats for her appropriate behavior. But then, without warning, she reverted back to the resource guarding and did so without any warning.

Bella's resource guarding is tricky because her response involves growling and use of her mouth to ward off what she sees as a threat to her survival. For example, a person’s hand reaching to remove a rawhide from her will be growled at or nipped at. It doesn’t matter that this hand may be offering her a juicy steak to replace the rawhide; something in Bella tells her that she must keep the rawhide for survival. Bella’s response is further complicated in that it is spontaneous, intense, and unpredictable.

Does this mean Bella is a bad dog or untrainable? NOT AT ALL. In every other instance, Bella is a beautiful, loving dog and very skilled in offering appropriate behaviors when asked. Was this something brought on from being trained inside a prison? NOT AT ALL. I wish each of you could see the dedicated care and positive-based training that all of Smoke’s Pup Crew receive from their trainers living inside correctional facilities. Bella’s trainers did everything correctly in teaching her skills and behavior appropriate to a service dogs.

No, Bella is not a bad dog. Sweet Bella simply has been born with a tendency to resource guard as dogs in the wild would. Unfortunately, service dogs can’t behave this way. Bella's behavior and environment would require a level of management that would be an unreasonable expectation to pass on to a person already managing a disability. ICAN’s accrediting body, Assistance Dog International, is very clear in stating that a dog demonstrating resource guarding to Bella’s extent cannot be a service dog candidate.

It’s important to recognize Bella’s limitation because of what we ask service dogs to do for a person with a disability. Here’s a simple example: we ask a service dog to pick up and retrieve items for a person. Imagine if the person Bella is helping drops a medicine bottle and Bella retrieves the items but decides she needs to keep it for “survival”. Would she growl and perhaps nip when her person tries to take the item away? Possibly. Imagine the item dropped is a medicine that a person must take immediately, such as an inhaler, to avoid serious health issues. What happens if Bella delays this medicine being taken because she won’t give it up?

What happens to sweet Bella now?
We know that statistically not all dogs who enter service dog training have the temperament, motivation, and skill set to become service dogs. At ICAN 2 dogs out of every 5 in training will not be suitable for service work and will require a “career change”. That’s when the ICAN Release Dog process kicks in. People who have an approved release dog application on file with ICAN can adopt dogs that are released from the ICAN program. When a dog becomes available for adoption, ICAN reviews these applications to find the best possible match for the dog and for the applicant.

ICAN’s focus for finding Bella the perfect “forever home” meant finding a special family who understood dog behavior and her severity of resource guarding, who knew how to manage it when it occurred, and who would love her despite her tendency.

Fortunately, a family well acquainted with ICAN was interested in Bella.
Carol and Rob adopted Sadie, a released ICAN Labrador, four years ago and wanted to add a Golden Retriever to their family. ICAN had complete confidence in Carol and Rob’s ability to help Bella manage her tendency and knew Bella would have a wonderful life with them – but would Carol and Rob feel that immediate connection with Bella, a connection strong enough to overcome the challenges they would face with her resource guarding?

The answer was a resounding YES! A trial adoption was arranged to give Bella, Carol and Rob time to confirm the situation worked for everyone. Bella spent a few weeks with the family and the decision was unanimous – Bella had found her forever home. Bella was jubilant – wouldn’t you be too with over 70 acres of wooded, rolling land, a new Black Labrador step-sister named Sadie, and two doting owners?

Best of all, Carol and Rob are open to continuing Bella’s training in appropriate serviced-based skills and may eventually be able to take her to places, such as nursing homes, where her environment can be controlled so that items that tempt her to resource guard are not introduced.

We’ll miss Bella, and so will the men who trained her from a small pup to her current age of seven months, but we are all pleased to know she has a fantastic new family.

As for Dega, Dora, Bristol, Lily, Charlotte, Racer, Hunter, and Riley, they are continuing their training and learning lots of great skills. Can you believe that in a mere 5 months Smoke’s Pup Crew will be one-year old?!


  1. So glad to see Bella was listened to and found a great forever family! Some pups may it very clear they would rather not live life as a service dog, others make it a little less clear and others are just fine with that life, the hard part as the people interacting with these dogs is to figure out what they're saying! Good job for listening to her! She's a gorgeous 7 month old golden! :-D

  2. Ally, Teddy and Kira,
    Thanks for your kind words and for understanding that ICAN putting the dog's best interest first is vital to ensuring our client's best interests are served. I'll be posting a few more photos of Bella in the next few days that we just received. Take care and thanks for reading the blog.