Avista Utilities recently hired a new customer engagement specialist, and she’s already hugely popular. Employees call out to her as she walks down the hall. She’s got an employee ID badge just like everyone else, but there’s something that sets her apart.
She has four legs, a wagging tail and a colorful curly coat that begs to be petted.
Bella is a 3-year-old mini-Australian Labradoodle owned by Avista risk manager Bob Brandkamp. Bella goes to community events, including the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, and stops by the company’s energy outreach events.
“We provide more vehicle to touch customers,” Brandkamp said. “She’s a great ambassador.”
Bella is most popular at school visits, where Avista employees talk with students about electricity safety issues. There are already 28 schools signed up for visits this spring. “They get to interact with her after the safety lecture,” he said. “It’s just amazing how powerful the presence of a pet or a dog is. It just changes the environment.”
But Bella is not an ordinary dog with a name tag clipped to her collar. She’s a registered therapy dog and a certified crisis response dog. “She has been training since she was 4 months old,” he said.
Brandkamp said he wanted to have a therapy dog because he knows how beneficial they can be. “I’ve done a lot of mental health advocacy in the community over the last 20 years,” he said.
Pets can reduce anxiety and depression, lower the blood pressure and provide emotional support, Brandkamp said. For the past two years he and Bella have volunteered with Horizon Hospice, assigned to one or two patients for months at a time. They provide comfort and companionship to patients and their families.
“We’ll get assigned to a patient who has had a strong connection to dogs in the past,” he said. “We’ll spend extended periods of time with them. To me it’s amazing work.”
He remembers the first time one hospice patient met Bella, who is small enough to climb into beds and wheelchairs. “This woman just loves on Bella,” he said. “Her favorite thing is to give Bella treats.”
Bella’s visits give them something to look forward to amid their health issues. “They literally live for that,” he said. “For that half hour or hour that we’re there, they forget all that.”
Bella has visited Freeman High School, which was the scene of a school shooting in 2017. She’s walked the line of people lined up to get a Thanksgiving meal from Tom’s Turkey Drive. “That line is three to four blocks long,” Brandkamp said. “It’s cold and they might have their kids.”
Brandkamp said Bella loves her work. “She loves it when I pull her vest out,” he said. “She’s going bonkers because she knows she gets to work.”
While she’s on the job Bella has been trained not to bark and to avoid jumping up on people. She’s very well behaved. If she goes to a meeting with Brandkamp she insists on sitting on a chair at the table rather than curling up on the floor.
Brandkamp said he keeps an eye on her while she’s working for signs of stress, which can vary from dog to dog. “I also know her and what her limit is,” he said. “She can work for about two hours and then she’s done.”
When the vest comes off, Bella knows she’s free to be a regular dog. “As soon as we get home and I take this off, she reverts to Bella the dog again,” he said. “She barks at dogs on TV. She chews on the remote.”
Brandkamp began to think Bella could be a benefit at work and talked the company into starting a pilot project with Bella as a community engagement specialist. “It dawned on me that there are parallels between our volunteer work and what they do at Avista,” he said. “It seemed like there was a way to transfer her skill set to what we do here.”
It’s not just the public that benefits from Bella’s work, but also Avista employees. Brandkamp said he’s always being asked when Bella will be coming to work. “She has her regular circuit here of people who expect to see her,” he said. “She’s a great internal asset.”
Bella has her own Instagram account, @bellaatavista, and her own web page at www.myavista.com/bella. She has a fan club and people can request a packet that includes an autographed photo. Anyone interested in having Bella make a visit to their school (grades K-3) can send an email to email@example.com.
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