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Model Pet 2011 contest winner: Meet Isabelle!

Posted 7:59am on Wednesday, Aug. 03, 2011

This year's Model Pet contest brought more than 200 entries. See and read about them in our Model Pet gallery And check out the photo spread in our print magazine, DFW.com Ink edition, which hits racks on Thursday, Aug. 4 throughout Tarrant County.

It's a sad fact of life that we expect to outlive our pets. It rarely dawns on us that the universe might have other plans.

About a year and a half ago, the world of Isabelle Blue Wisdom was simple, content, safe.

The growing Neapolitan blue mastiff -- just shedding her puppyhood -- was massive and gorgeous. The sum of her parts exuded a kind of comic majesty: fine gray coat, head the size of a small Thanksgiving turkey, wrinkled forehead, unfurled and panting tongue, droopy eyelids that held wistful amber eyes, and a delightful set of ultra-flappable jowls.

Back then, Isabelle lived with her "mom" Barbara Riffel, and a joyful household of tiny dogs -- one Chihuahua and five mini-dachshunds.

One December day in 2009, just before a North Texas snowstorm, Barbara left for work and, like all dogs, Isabelle knew that her owner would be back later that night.

Only this time, she wasn't.

That day, Barbara was diagnosed with cancer and admitted to the hospital.

Barbara asked her friends Rachel Novak and Phil Vola to take care of Isabelle until she beat the cancer. "A 100-plus-pound dog was too much for her to take care of during chemo," Rachel recalled.

Of course they would.

But the change was too much for Isabelle. Ripped away from the only life she knew, this big, beautiful baby was treading in a sea of panic. At first, she would just stand next to Rachel and tremble. As the days, then weeks passed by, Rachel and Phil kept waiting for a glimmer of joy. But Isabelle's tail never wagged.

"She had her whole world turned upside down when Barbara got sick," Rachel said. New owners, new house and new siblings -- a cat, and another dog, Desi (who was also an entrant in our Model Pet contest).

"Isabelle just didn't want any more changes," Rachel said. "She wanted to feel comfortable. So, one of the first things we did was eliminate as much chaos as possible. We kept everything very calm with her. We kept our gestures low, didn't use loud or high voices."

It worked.

Partly thanks to their dog savvy (They own a local distributorship of a national pet-food company), they knew where to turn for help. They found a great vet in Ashley Bellard at Banfield Pet Hospital at Alliance. They worked with Brittany Williams, owner of Cowtown Canines and a Great Plains Mastiff Rescue volunteer. They also tapped Crystal O'Neal, the Texas coordinator for Big Dogs, Huge Paws, a giant breed rescue group. Rachel joined online mastiff communities, learned more about the breed and about fearful dogs.

It took about three months, but that docked gray tail finally started to waggle.

They have been working with Isabelle for a year and a half, and her personality has done a 180 since those early days of sheer terror.

"They call them gentle giants," Rachel says of mastiffs, "and she is truly a gentle giant."

Isabelle would rather sit in your lap than anywhere else. She knows how to high-five and shake hands. She has lots of facial expressions. When she lies down, she twists herself into a pretzel.

Still, you'd figure Isabelle might have retained some of her timidity -- especially around new people.

One of Rachel's friends in the neighborhood has a son whose Boy Scout troop was having a dog wash, and Isabelle was invited. Considering her wary past, you'd think Isabelle might be wigged out with a bunch of little kids handling her.

"But she just jumped out of the van, like, 'OK, I'm here!' She knew what to do, and she stood right where they told her to stand. One little boy came right up and took her jowls and started shaking them. She just stood there," Rachel said, laughing. "It was so funny. She must have had 10 different sets of hands on her that day. She was so happy -- the more kids that loved on her the better."

In her essay for the Model Pet contest, Rachel wrote: "Yesterday, Isabelle went to the dog park for a mastiff playdate, and I almost cried! She greeted nearly every person at the park and played with other dogs. After all her struggles, this amazing confident dog has emerged! She is a 'Model Pet,' because she overcame her fear and shows what an amazing spirit dogs have."

The judges agreed, Rachel.

To Rachel and Phil, Isabelle is 140 pounds of pure lap-sitting, snuggle bunny love. And for Rachel alone, this gentle giant is a daily reminder of Barbara, who died in April.

"Some days, Isabelle triggers good memories, and I smile," Rachel says. "Some days she makes me cry, and I miss Barbara a lot."

If there's a heaven, Barbara should know that her big gray beauty is in good hands, trembling no longer.

Says Rachel: "I think she is smiling and watching down on her."

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