Good Dog Bella.

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If you’ve lived in Toronto you might have heard the name, Barbara Turnbull. At the age of eighteen, Barbara was shot during a robbery while working in a convenience store. She was left a paraplegic but lived life to the fullest, eventually becoming a reporter for the Toronto Star.

Barbara passed away this week at the age of 50. We want to share a part of her story with you today. She said many times that one of the best things to happen in her life was getting her service dog, Bella. A true “Good Dog”.

Barbara Turnbull & Bella

Barbara Turnbull & Bella

In her own words…”After my injury I did well managing my needs, but it took 60 pounds of love in the shape of a beautiful yellow Labrador to take my post-injury life from good to great. Everything changed when Bella entered my life on April 19, 2004. For a long time after my injury I classified everything as before or after the shooting. In the past nine years that’s shifted to before and after Bella.

Through National Service Dogs I was paired with Bella, though in a way she chose me. The staff was considering matching us, but they wanted to see how she would react to my wheelchair. Without telling me about this potential partner, they invited me to their booth at Toronto’s Sportsmen’s Show. Chris Fowler, then NSD’s head, introduced me to about six dogs. Bella lay down beside me.

A skills dog, Bella was trained to push automatic door buttons, open doors by tugging on a rope, fetch dropped items, undo a zipper, pull off a coat, turn lights on and off and bark when asked to “speak.”

Mind you, that doesn’t mean she passed up all mischief. When she was 18 months old and was left for a spell one day at then-NSD trainer Danielle Forbes’ house, Bella pried open a seven-kilogram tin of kibble and ate most of the contents. “It looked like she had swallowed a beach ball,” Danielle says. “The food was coming out both ends for the next 24 hours.”

Bella bounded into my condo at the age of 2 with energy to spare. NSD is a small organization, so Chris and I trained one-on-one in my neighborhood and workplace. Bella wore her purple work jacket each day while we worked on her basic commands and skills, and tailored a few for my home. The jacket is like a business suit, a signal to the dog and the public that work comes first.

Initially I liked the idea of her sleeping on the floor, and that worked well the first two nights. The third morning she came over to me and rested her head on the side of the bed near my face. She was irresistible. “Okay, come around,” I said. She didn’t need a second offer, running around the bed and hopping up. When I transferred into my chair that morning, she moved over to where my imprint was still on the sheets and rolled onto her back, rolling back and forth in my spot. I didn’t know anything about dogs, but it seemed to me that she was covering herself in my scent. She never slept on the floor again.

Bella quickly learned how my chair worked. The first week I nicked her paw and landed on her tail. She has never gotten under my wheels again, instantly responding to the click and moving before it does. Almost right away people commented on how Bella focused on me. She locks her gold eyes on mine for direction and permission.

Golden retrievers and Labradors make the best working dogs because of their pleasing nature and love of food. Work is genuinely fun for them. Bella always seemed to be asking “What’s next?” I’d keep a pile of cookies on my desk, beside the stand that holds the mouthsticks I use for pressing keys and turning pages. After she did a task, I would knock a cookie down to her. She got pretty good at catching them mid-air.

One issue that seemed difficult to solve was how to get out with her. I’d lived in my condo for 10 years without ever once going out on my own. I live on the second floor. When I come in, the concierge presses the elevator button for me and I can open my front door through my head control. Going out was a whole different ballgame. Chris and I discussed how to attach something to the wall so that Bella could press the elevator button. Since that was taking a while to organize, I felt I needed to improvise. I decided to try one of my mouthsticks. It turned out to be the perfect length, the elevator buttons situated easily within reach of my stick.

I started meeting people in my neighborhood, made good friends at the dog park, did my own errands. Places I would have taken my van to before Bella suddenly didn’t seem so far away. There was incentive to “walk,” as I call my excursions: I had a dog needing exercise.

Without noticing, I lost that anxious feeling I would get when out on my own. People see Bella before they see me. They talk to Bella or about her before I come into the picture. I’ve become second fiddle. It’s perfect.

When I think back to how I limited myself before Bella, I don’t recognize myself. How did I live in my condo for 10 years without figuring out how to go out on my own? How was I too shy to ask a stranger for help in a store? Bella brought me closer to who I was before my injury. I quickly felt more confident and comfortable about who I had become.

She opened the world I had closed for myself unnecessarily.

We’ve had endless adventures and some scary moments, like the time we were alone in a park late at night and she was attacked by another dog, or the time she was hooked up to her five-metre flexible leash and she didn’t make it into the elevator before the door shut. We were once about to be hit by a car, and I instinctively turned my chair towards the vehicle, so it hit my legs and avoided Bella (fortunately neither of us was hurt).

Over the years she’s become more of a food hound and impossible to control when we are outside and there’s the slightest whiff of anything she considers edible. There was a hint of that the first time we were in a grocery store together and she licked a croissant that was in a basket close to the floor. But, as a friend pointed out, most labs would inhale the contents of the basket.

I can still put her work jacket on and take her anywhere, and her behavior will be nearly perfect.

Bella turns 12 next February and will be retiring soon, with friends in Etobicoke. She doesn’t know this yet, but they serve homemade cookies and chicken stew. Her face is grey and she grunts when she lies down. My next dog is being trained, though I know it won’t play quite the same role. Bella will always be special for me.”

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