This blog is mostly dedicated to two specific Z-dogs in my life: my own heart-dog, Zoë, and a fiesty little tike named Zydeco that we have welcomed into our home for the next five weeks. Integrating a reactive puppy into a reactive dog household is no easy feat. As a professional trainer with two full grown and pretty well-trained dogs of my own, it’s been awhile since I’ve had to actually “walk the talk” when it comes to full puppy management; add in the complexity of our Zoë’s total lack of tolerance for most dogs besides her housemate Maya, and the management challenges increase ten-fold. I’m hoping that by documenting the daily ins and outs of all we learn during Zydeco’s stay, I will be able to enrich the journey of dogs and their humans everywhere.
As one of my training idols, Kay Laurence, once said: “all dogs are reactive dogs.” Similarly, a Z-dog could be any dog. Z-dogs are the master teachers among us. They are the ones giving out hard won doctorate degrees in being better human beings. Not sure if I’ll ever really get that thesis turned in on time, but after seven life-changing years with Zoë, and just a few eventful days with Zydeco, I definitely feel I am working my way through the practicum hours necessary for a combined Ph.D. in patience, problem solving, and soul-stretching for sure.
Meet Zydeco the Brave, a feisty, extremely lovable, crazy-smart, four-month-old German Shepherd-mix. He was found running in the street by my good friend’s daughter-in-law, starving, terrified, barking at every person he saw. In just a few short weeks my friend and her family have done an amazing job restoring this little boy to health and beginning the process of remedial puppy-hood. I have offered to take him him while my friend is traveling in the hopes of giving Zydeco the best possible chance at overcoming some of his early life-challenges and behavioral habits. Until now, Zydeco has clearly not been dealt an easy hand. For a dog so young, his survival strategies so far have included fierce, defensive, knee-jerk barking at strangers, stealing and resource guarding food, and intense, oddly mature behaviors around other dogs such as persistent mounting and escalations when told to buzz off by the adults instead of more developmentally typical, “Oops! Sorry I am just a puppy!” appeasement responses. However, in just a few short weeks he has already accomplished a lot, taking a leap of faith with humans again, bravely adapting himself into not just one, but now two different households. He is not an easy boy, but quickly wins the hearts of all who earn his trust. While he is here, I am certain he will have more to teach us than we have to teach him.
This is Zoë. Like Zydeco, she also was found wandering the streets at four months of age. For the past 7 years she has been my constant companion and a life-changing learning partner. Zoë is the reason I became a professional dog trainer in the first place. Her survival strategies when she first came to us were a little different than Zydeco’s. Her go-to behavior with people and most overwhelming situations was usually frantic appeasement to the point of grovelling, and if that didn’t work to relieve the social pressure, she mostly tended to shut down. Sometimes it got so extreme, she would look catatonic. With most strange dogs, however, she slipped quickly into a kind of Tasmanian-devil whirlwind, defensive mode. After years of hard work on both our parts, she has certainly come a long way, but she has never fully been able to accept other new dogs in her personal space to this day. A few years ago I gave up on my dream of “fixing” Zoë’s dog aggression and instead decided to focus on seeing to it that she has the happiest, most enriched life possible. Watching her blossom from shy, easily-stressed Wallflower into the delightful girl she is today has been an unfolding joy. Although Zydeco is the inspiration for this blog, and is a ridiculously endearing and exciting puppy, Zoë will forever be my heart dog; and I fully realize that asking her to accept this interloper into her inner sanctum–even temporarily– and to share me with him is a lot to ask.