Rizzo arrived here in our home just 2 years ago. A handful of days before his arrival we lost our dog Vince, our companion of 10 years and a dog who taught us a great deal. A black bundle of fur and energy, Rizzo pranced into our lives and he still prances as he runs today. This Adventures In Puppyhood series of articles has given my readers a glimpse into our process and progress in raising our newest dog.
After making our change to positive training, my wife and I decided on a new motto for ourselves. “Each dog better than the last.” Before we moved to training our dogs with behavioural science and positive methods, our approach consisted mostly of trying to keep unwanted behaviours in check and get a standard set of behaviours in place. We didn’t really have much more of a goal that just a dog that didn’t disrupt things too much and provided us good companionship.
When our older dog Tira arrived here in 2004, we were ready to try a new approach to training. We had no idea what that could mean. In 3 or 4 months Tira was as well behaved as our previous dogs after were years of training. We seemed to have bypassed all of the trial and error stuff we had before. This new kind of training enabled us to go beyond anything we had ever had with our dogs. That’s when we decided to learn as much as we could and see how much you could teach a dog. We would make each new dog smarter and better than the last one.
Picking A Puppy
Researching canine behaviour led us to learn about natural development and genetics in dogs. The “nature vs. nurture” debate is far from over and there are excellent arguments put forward by both sides. But there is some definitive evidence now that the experience of puppies from birth to 8 weeks of age can have a significant impact on both their temperament and their behaviour. In fact, it has also been shown that levels of stress hormones and other body chemistry in the body of a mother dog can have a significant impact on the disposition of her pups as well.
By the time it came to finding Rizzo, we knew what we were looking for and it involved a great deal more than just the breed and gender of the dog we wanted. An article by Dr. Carmen Battaglia, Developing High Achievers, details how early stimulation in new born pups can have a significant impact on developing a dog’s confidence and ability to cope with stressful situation. The article cites research on horses that showed that as much as 65% of performance ability was not genetic but is derived by training, environment, and managment. We wanted a breeder who shared our interest in giving puppies the best start by providing a stimulating and encouraging early life experience.
Rizzo’s breeder, Lorra Miller of Isengard Belgians, did a fantastic job with Rizzo’s litter. From the day he arrived here, Rizzo was confident, curious, and eager to meet every new situation we had in store for him. I credit the Isengard Belgians program for giving Rizzo a variety of experiences in his early life without exposing him to undue stress and fear. The result was a puppy that was attentive, calm, and enthusiastic. All we had to do was not mess it all up.
On his second day here, our tiny 8 week old puppy followed my wife into the closet by leaping off the bed. He was fast, there was nothing we could do to stop him. Without a squeak or a squeal, he pranced off in search of his mom. Two days later, in our back yard, my wife placed Rizzo on the picnic table where he would be safe for a minute while she retrieved a toy. She was only 6 feet away when Rizzo boldly launched himself into the air. He hit the ground with a thud and picked himself and ran to my wife with a smiling look on his face that could only be saying, “Did you see that mom? I can FLY!” That’s when we started calling him Captain Deathwish.
We had a dog here who was ready for anything. And anything is what he was given. In his first year with us, Rizzo got try out herding, tracking, agility, and even some Rally Obedience work. He was also a social butterfly. My wife took him to meet lots of other dogs and people wherever she went. She scheduled play dates for him to make sure he learned how to interact with other dogs. He came with us on shopping trips and outings to dog activities like agility trials. We packed as much into his life as he could handle to try to give him the best start.
As with all puppies, Rizzo hit that adolescent period that we call the Brat Phase around 1 year of age. It’s an important time for a dog. They are gaining confidence and coordination. And their senses are opening up to the big wide world. There is a lot to see and smell and do. Much like human teenagers, they are eager to explore and don’t like dealing with “rules” at that age. So I could see my wife’s frustration grow as Rizzo’s attention was often on things other than working with her.
When puppies are 8 to 16 weeks of age, they are like sponges. It seems like they can learn anything if you use the right training techniques. They are eager and ready to show you what they have learned too. And so my wife had taught Rizzo quite a few behaviours and, now that he was a “teenager”, you would be hard pressed to believe he had learned a thing!
What we have learned about this phase of a growing puppy’s life is to not do anything differently. All of that training has not been forgotten. It has just sort of gone on vacation for a while. Punishing a dog for not listening when they are first discovering the world is a good way to ruin a great relationship. My wife just quietly clenched her fists and waited for Rizzo to come back.
Six or seven months ago, a magical thing began to happen. Rizzo was emerging from his fog of adolescence and all of the work my wife had done with him was still there. In fact, it seemed that Rizzo’s increasing maturity was brining many of the things he had been taught into even sharper focus than before. Suddenly Rizzo seemed to be “getting it” as never before.
While herding was just too exciting for Rizzo, his work in Tracking was astounding. The biggest struggle we had was finding a way to reward Rizzo for doing a good track. It seems his favorite thing to have after a successful track was…another track! He just loves to use his nose and this game was just the place to do it. In the past few months Rizzo has settled into his indication behaviour and will even “Wait” on command in mid-track until my wife tells him “back to work.”
Agility, too, came together quickly. The big, unfocused, loopy turns Rizzo used to do while running around equipment was suddenly turning into an intense focus on my wife and following her direction with split second reactions. Each week brings more focus and more ability. The weave poles, the last piece of equipment my wife taught Rizzo, was learned in a few weeks and he can perform them with speed and confidence.
A Dog Emerges
Much of that sweet puppy that Rizzo was when he arrived remains. He’s still cuddly and silly and devoted. And he still prances. But all of the patient work teaching him behaviours, socializing him to dogs and humans, involving him in activites like Tracking and Agility that challenged him both mentally and physically have all gone into turning our little puppy into a happy, calm, confident, and intelligent dog.
I couldn’t be prouder of Rizzo. But even more, I am proud of my wife, Petra. She has done an incredible job as Rizzo’s primary trainer. She faced training challenges with flexibility and a willingness to try things differently. She never got angry at Rizzo and always tried to find ways to make him succeed. Sure, there were bad habits that we had to break, but they were few and far between because of Petra’s proactive approach in teaching him good alternatives to potential bad behaviours.
“Each dog better than the last.” Petra and Rizzo have certainly lived up to that motto. And they have set the bar very high for the next dog we get which will be mine to train. I only hope that I can do a wonderful a job as Petra did with our next dog so I can help him be the best dog he can be. Captain Deathwish has turned into our Superboy. Science and good training techniques have combined with a great trainer to produce one amazing dog that is Rizzo.
Lots of love to Petra and Rizzo. I’m proud of you both.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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