A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.
A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.
Today is September 21, 2017. It’s the one-year anniversary of the death of Lost Dog #2, Jonas, and I feel weird AF. So forgive me if this one contains more navel-gazing than usual. Strap in, y’all. It’s gonna be a roller coaster.
Last September, I was fast approaching The Decision. You know the one: when do I release my terminally ill dog from his pain? But Jonas, always more generous than I ever deserved, gave me one last gift: he took the decision out of my hands. Around noon on the 21st, he abruptly died on his own, in his bed, surrounded by his people.
Two weeks later, I had my dream puppy fall into my lap. Surprise! Ready or not, here comes River!
I can’t say I’d recommend getting a new dog two weeks after such a loss -many people do, only to find that it amplifies their grief- but it worked for me. Adopting a fearful Belgian Malinois puppy left little time to breathe, let alone marinate in my sadness.
In some ways, raising River was a lot like raising Jonas. He was a scared little puppy, too. Only difference was this time, I had 13 years of education and experience under my belt.
Jonas was responsible for a lot of hard lessons I’ve learned as a human and a dog trainer. It took a while -I was stubborn- but he was patient and so, so forgiving. The most crucial of these teachings was on embracing the concept of working with your dog, and not against him. This is a lesson I try to impart on my stressed-out puppy parents. And it was my saving grace with River.
Lazing on the couch, usually. She’s learned what all puppies must: that sometimes it’s okay to just exist, and not try constantly to do aaallll the things. Hallelujah.
When last we spoke (unless you’ve been following us on Instagram), River was seven months old. I’d had her for three months. We were just wrapping up a tumultuous adjustment period. Questions remained: when will we form a bond? Are her reactivity issues gone for good? When does agility class start?
Now, River is 15.5 months old (OH NO I’M ONE OF THOSE PARENTS SEND HELP). Life has gotten dramatically easier, but she keeps me on my toes. A Belgian Malinois is already a beginners-need-not-apply dog. Throw in the fact that she was an under-socialized rescue with a mystery past, and things get even MORE thrilling.
Raising this dog has been a helluva challenge, one I would not have been prepared for as recently as, like, five years ago. I shudder to think how badly I would have screwed her up.
But I think I’ve done alright, all things considered.
After doing a ton of work to get past her initial fear and reactivity, River was quite social for a while. At about eight months old, she entered a fear period, which is a normal part of puppyhood. For the first time in months, she had an explosive reaction – to a child she’d met and loved on previously, no less.
Oh well. Back to it. We rode out the fear period with lots of counter-conditioning.
And things got better.
For socialization, River had met a few pleasant adult dogs, and attended a bunch of puppy “parties” (thank you, AZ Humane). Her dog-reactivity went away. She’d had enough positive interactions with her own species that I felt cautiously optimistic about attempting the boss battle: the dog park.
I scoped out a park that had a few critical features:
For our first visits, we went when no one else was there, and we did River’s favorite thing: play Frisbee. Wow, the dog park is a fun place!
Then we leveled up, going when there were a few other passive-side dogs. River did great; sometimes she played with new friends, and sometimes she kept to herself and chased Frisbees.
But one time, we arrived at the dog park gates, and River balked. For no reason that I could discern.
“I can’t do this today,” she said.
I hesitated, remembering all the times I’d ignored a dog when they told me they could go no further, and how I’d lost something… intangible, every time.
“Okay, River. Maybe next time.” We got back in the car.
Next time, she was fine.
Since the fear-period hullabaloo, reactivity has become less and less of an issue. She’s had a few minor flareups, though. Just enough for me to accept that this is something we’ll be working on at least until she matures. We still play counter-conditioning games on a maintenance basis. Listening when she says no, trying again next time, building her confidence and her trust in me.
So the answer to the question that everyone on week two with a new puppy who “doesn’t love them yet” wants to know:
Yes, River and I have bonded. We’re best buds now. It took at least six months, but yeah. Thanks largely to how I handled her reactivity, I am River’s safe harbor. Her protector, leader, whatever you want to call it.
She worms her way into my lap at every opportunity. My terrifying badass Belgian Malinois is quite the cuddler, turns out.
Eventually, a terrible, no good, very bad thought began creeping into my brain.
The dog park experiment taught me that while River does okay mingling with hordes of strange dogs, it’s not really her thing. But she loves playing one-on-one with a friendly pup. It brings her out of her shell in a dramatic, adorable fashion.
It’d be great if River had a friend. (Merlin, ever the curmudgeon, was no help there)
Plus, I needed additional help with the secret project I’d been working on.
Guys, I’m doing a thing.
I’m working on an online dog training school. The first course? A complete guide to puppy-raising. I have hours of footage of River’s puppyhood, which will be edited down into video tutorials.
It’s the result of years of research and speaking with lots of freaked-out puppy owners. It’s an extension of, and huge improvement on, my ebook “I Got a Dog – What Was I Thinking?”
Longtime readers may recall that I’ve been talking about “doing courses” since the dawn of time. I just never had the means to do them the way I wanted until I had River.
Update: Puppy Survival School is open for enrollment! Click here to check it out.
There were problems, though. Critical gaps in the footage. I didn’t have everything I needed to make this course totally comprehensive.
Why? Partly because of the way River arrived in my life. That is to say, by leaping fully formed from the head of her father Zeus. It was all I could do to keep up, let alone carefully plan out all the things I needed to film.
And partly because this footage is of a fearful pup. Which is fine, but isn’t as helpful for people with outgoing puppies.
The terrible, no good very bad thought grew, until it became an inevitability:
I was going to adopt a second puppy.
Disclaimer: You can never be 100% sure that a puppy will meet all your criteria. The only reason I went through with the second-puppy plan was because I had the means and willingness to keep this pup forever, even if she turned out differently than expected.
My criteria for this second puppy:
I concluded that herding breeds were out. Herding types are my first and truest love, but not right for this go-round. Herding dogs are at high risk for reactivity. They absolutely do not fit the profile of “relatively easy,” what with their intense energy and intense brainpower and their moods and opinions and infinite complexities. (God I love them)
I decided to look for one of the many happy-go-lucky black lab-ish mixes that are plentiful in the local rescue scene.
And behold, that’s exactly what I got. We found Hazel’s litter at the same shelter where we found River.
I did a meet-n-greet with Hazel and her sister. Hazel’s reaction to suddenly finding herself in the arms of a complete stranger was the opposite of River’s: River was wide-eyed and petrified into stillness. Hazel was fearless and wiggly and delighted to meet me. The sister was also delighted, but slightly less fearless.
Hazel it was.
At their first encounter, River flipped her shit.
She was surprised to see my sister standing in the backyard holding a mysterious squirming bundle, and freaked out, barking and being as ferocious as possible.
Knowing this was all show and no substance, I let her sniff the pup, at which point she quieted down and became contemplative.
“Not a scary monster? A… baby?”
She sat in my lap and watched Hazel explore the yard.
That night, they played together and had a grand ol’ time. At one point, River broke away, and ran up to me with bright eyes and a big grin.
“She PLAYS! Can you believe it? She doesn’t ignore me like Merlin or tell me to get lost like the cat!”
Getting another dog for your dog is a gamble that doesn’t always pay off. In this case, it worked beautifully. Hazel is laid-back and uncomplicated. She is the Pumbaa to River’s damaged and broody Simba. (I guess that makes me Timon? Merlin is Scar, of course)
She is everything River is not. They’re a perfect match.
On walks, when Hazel the Unfazeable is by her side, River is more relaxed than she ever was before.
Raising Hazel has been a shockingly simple endeavor, relatively speaking. We’re just chillin’. Going slow. Stopping to pee on the roses. Not trying to do it all.
Same with River, now. She isn’t really reactive, but still tends to be shy. I still hope to do competitive agility with her, but not until I’m confident that she is confident enough to enjoy agility class.
And if it turns out that she never is, that’s okay, too.
Jonas died on the last day of summer. So this time last year, the last day of summer truly felt like an ending.
This year, it’s a beginning.
Hazel hates the heat. She doesn’t like to be outside a moment more than necessary (#same, #relatable, etc). But since she was born at the end of February in Phoenix, extreme heat is all she’s ever known.
“Is this my life FOREVER?” she grumbles, shuffling back into the house after a potty break.
No, baby, it’s not. Winter is coming. And at least here in the Valley of the (Wrathful) Sun (Gods), winter is the most wonderful time of the year.
Your life is just getting started.
In the puppy madness, I nearly forgot: Merlin just turned 10.
There’s this concept of the “heart dog:” the idea is that while you love all your dogs, once or twice a lifetime, there’s one you bond with even stronger. Your canine soulmate, if you will. That’s Merlin. It helps that we have the same weird hobbies, like nerding out over clicker training and playing Frisbee in the pouring rain.
To me, Merlin represents the epic things that are possible within a human-dog relationship. When two creatures of different species work together so well, it’s like they can read each others’ minds.
In this surrealist hellscape of a world, that phenomenon is one of the things we can point to and go “yeah, that’s pretty cool.”
This is why I run this site, and why I’m building this puppy school – To help other dog owners make it through the mundane bits of dog life, and get to the good stuff.
Friday died when she was 11, and Jonas when he was 13. I’m well aware that Merlin’s prime is behind him and I am already a wreck thinking of a time when he will be gone.
I haven’t made a Doctor Who reference in a while, so here ya go: in a scene that I’ve thought about a lot ever since learning that Jonas was sick, the ancient Doctor reflects on the shortness of his human companions’ lives. He says to Amy Pond, and I’m paraphrasing:
“It goes so fast. I’m not running away from things, I’m running TO them before they flare and fade forever. I’m running to you, before you fade from me.”
That’s what life feels like these days.
Here’s to you, Merlin, old buddy. Never fade. Here’s to ten more birthdays. And here’s to departed friends. Friday and Jonas, and… so many others.
Here’s to old dogs and bright shiny puppies.
Here’s to chasing Frisbees and learning tricks and playing in the rain, running towards each other for as many years as we are given.