Authors Note: Apologies to my regular readers for the extended absence. The past few weeks have been something of a whirlwind. The loss of our Belgian Shepherd, Vince, was both sudden and difficult. The arrival of our new dog, Rizzo, was equally sudden and unexpected. But as our life settles into its new patterns, my contributions here will likewise resume their regular pace. Thanks so much to everyone for all of your support and good wishes. On to the next chapter…
The door had just closed on a cha pter in our lives with dogs. My wife and I had unexpectedly said goodbye to a second dog in less than 11 months. And not just any dog, but one who ha d been instrumental in remaking our understanding of dogs and canine learning and intelligence.
A long-planned trip took us to the east coast for nine days, and we left our remaining dog, Tiramisu, back in Victoria. It was a chance for us to take some time to get through the grieving and move on with our lives. You can only imagine our surprise and mixed emotions upon returning home and finding emails and messages about the potential for a new puppy.
My wife had been gently looking at breeders of Belgian Shepherds for months and knew of several planned breedings. But she hadn’t been quite ready to commit. Emotionally, she wasn’t sure she was ready to grow attached to another dog even though it had been months since the sudden and tragic loss of our three-year old, Mario. The sudden loss of our oldest dog, Vince, in June seemed to deepen that reluctance But it seems the kindness and wisdom of friends and family conspired to bring the next dog into our lives.
Little Rizzo arrived just seven days after our return from our trip east. At eight and a half weeks, he was a fluffy, bouncy bundle of energy that we weren’t quite prepared for so soon. Suddenly there was preparation to be done. The puppy gates and ex-pens came out of storage. A crate was placed at our bedside. The socialization and training schedules had to be organized. Oh yes, and the treat assortment had to be tested. We had to know what Rizzo’s favorites were.
Meeting his Adoring Public
Rizzo arrived from California via Seattle where my wife picked him up. After a three-hour drive and a ferry ride to Vancouver Island, Rizzo came straight to our agility classes to be met and fussed over by students and staff who were eager to meet him. After a spirited evening of “pass the puppy”, our little Rizzo came home for a much-needed sleep.
The next day was much the same with a parade of visitors coming to our home during the day to meet and play with Rizzo. And that evening we brought him out again to agility practice to meet even more people.
We were careful in every instance to make sure Rizzo’s experiences were positive. Everyone he met had treats ready for him to eat and lots of fun and toys. If he squirmed, people put him down. If he ran to someone, they picked him up or fussed him playfully. In all, it must have been the puppy equivalent of one big party being thrown in his honor. And Rizzo loved it.
Then, on the weekend, my wife took little Rizzo up to a herding clinic where he not only met more nice people who fed and cuddled him but new dogs and even sheep as well! It added up to a wealth of new experiences for our new puppy and he approached all of it with enthusiasm and without fear. My wife was always close by monitoring, making sure that Rizzo was never put in an uncomfortable situation and that he had the freedom to go where he chose (for the most part).
Lots to Do, Lots to Remember
Although it hadn’t been that long since Mario was a puppy, we had put the trappings of puppy raising back into storage. We weren’t exactly planning on this. You see, we take our puppies very seriously here.
While much conventional wisdom counsels new dog owners to wait until their dog is six months of age before beginning training, science has proven that the period between seven and about 14 weeks is when the most productive and long-lasting training experiences take place in a dog’s life. The foundation that is build during that time can last for the life time of your dog.
So out came the crates and the wobble boards and the touch targets and, of course, the puppy gates. There were lots of treats to chop up into small bits for training. There were training plans and behaviours to consider. Books were pulled off the shelf and conversations about what to train first began in earnest.
As with all of our recent dogs, Rizzo’s days would include a healthy dose of learning, and not just learning behaviours — learning how to learn was a big part of this too. If you can show your pup how fun and rewarding the “training game” can be, you can instill a lifetime of enthusiasm for learning. And these learning sessions were also our “secret weapon.” You see, all this new learning is very mentally taxing on a young dog and through all the fun and rewards, we were tiring the little guy out. All of that puppy energy was being channeled for good and not evil.
Meeting the Contessa Tiramisu
Bless his little black heart, young Rizzo is fearless. Unfortunately, our older dog, Tiramisu, has her personal air space issues. When he was first introduced to Tiramisu, fearless Rizzo run straight at her and, for his trouble, got a loud and startling snark that sent him flying across the room screeching for his life. No contact was made and no harm wasdone. But Rizzo’s education in dealing with the Contessa Tiramisu had begun.
Over the next couple of weeks we managed Rizzo’s interaction with Tira carefully. Both dogs were learning. Rizzo was coming to understand that Tiramisu was not just a big puppy and that she had preferences as to how she would prefer to interact. Tira was struggling with issues of her own. At six years old, she had had very little contact with puppies and she had to learn how much was too much for the little guy.
As the days went on, it was fascinating to watch the relationship developing. Rizzo began to recognize the correct space to leave passing through hallways and out in the yard. Tira began to moderate her warnings; a raised lip and a snarl instead of a lunge and a snark.
They’re not playing together yet; the size difference is still too much for Tira. She’s not one to “tone it down” for the little one so we compromise by taking them to the park to allow them to run together. And we’re careful to make sure Tiramisu gets lots of love and attention while Rizzo is around. Because, you see, we want Tira to recognize Rizzo as a signal that good things are going to happen for her too.
Sleepless Nights and Busy Days
While it wasn’t quite expected this soon, it hasn’t taken that long to get used to having little Rizzo around. The first week or so included sleepless nights as small bladders needed to be emptied in the wee hours. It did take a few days for young Rizzo to get comfortable napping and sleeping nights in his new crate.
So his days were full of training games for the crate, for his learning, for clickers, and for basic foundation behaviours. In a few short weeks, Rizzo is well on his way having learned at least a half dozen behaviours including “sit”, a target touch, to go into his crate, to go under a leg, and more that are still in the process of being perfected. Most importantly, he’s learned how to learn with the clicker as his guide. New behaviours are coming along faster and faster.
Our “Captain Fearless”, Rizzo is full of boundless energy and enthusiasm for all that he does. It’s a joy to watch my wife working with him and interacting with him myself. The challenge for us will be to keep that exuberance and zest for learning as he develops into an adult dog. I look forward to keeping you updated on his progress and all of the things we look forward to him teaching us about dogs.
We are so grateful that this little black tornado, this miracle, has come into our lives to fill the void of dear friends so recently departed. You have big paw prints to fill, little Rizzo. Vince and Mario, whom we lost in this past year, have taught us well. We will pass all of that on to you for the great adventures we have ahead of us.
All photos © Eric Brad
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