Oh, yeah, right…Zoë and Maya…
No way around it, Zydeco has been pretty all-consuming since his arrival three and a half weeks ago. Not only is he an irresistibly charming puppy, with all the puppy needs for time, attention, playtime, and management that entails, he is also simply what I call a LOT of dog. Even when confined to just the kitchen, he fills the house with his presence, his big dog barks, his crackling energy, and his raucous play. However, on the flip side, he also has turned out to be surprisingly easy to live with in some ways too. Believe it or not, but our little rebel is actually quite respectful of the gates, for example. He rarely jumps on them, or tries to push through when we open them–even if our hands are full of grocery bags or laundry baskets, and he hardly ever cries when I leave him in the kitchen anymore at all. After tucking him into his own bed at night I can now get a full night sleep upstairs and he doesn’t make a peep until our sleepy hello cuddle time the next morning (which is friggin’ adorable!). He is also 100% potty trained at this point, and other than roughing up the throw rugs now and then, so far completely non-destructive in the kitchen. I hardly ever have to crate him.
But…there I go again… No matter how hard I try to make sure my girls are getting equal time and attention, Zoë and Maya are admittedly a little shoved to the sidelines these days, patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for me to be done with puppy so they can get some fun time with mom too. Zoë, I’ve discovered, is not all that good at waiting her turn. She stresses and demand barks more often than I’d like to admit, and unlike Zydy, has repeatedly tried to knock down the gates, forcing me to fortify them with chairs. It is difficult for Zoë and Maya to be blocked off from the kitchen because so many of their important default rituals take place there, such as laying on the bed under the stove while I make up their dinner, or hanging out in their open crates while we eat our meals…and Maya is really missing her favorite spot on the back patio where she likes to pile up all her “babies” (stuffy toys) around her on a dog bed, where she’ll often stay for hours surveying her yard for squirrels.
Then there is the fact that, although her tolerance for puppy shenanigans has greatly improved in three weeks, Zoë still isn’t too thrilled to have a dog in her kitchen. I haven’t pushed very hard for actual interaction between them as a goal so much as tried to counter condition their trigger points living in close proximity with each other because, to be perfectly honest, I just don’t think their personalities will ever mesh well. They just really push each others buttons. For example, there is something about the way Zydeco comes blasting in the backdoor, that no matter how much chicken rains from the sky on Zoë’s head each time it happens, the sound of the dog door and his galloping feet still tends to startle her straight to the snarly-snarkies for a few moments…and, of course, what does Zydy do when that happens? He escalates, and eggs her on. Then Maya jumps in, and it can very occasionally erupt into total barking bedlam around here for a minute or two now and then.
But Zoë has been benefiting from this experience also. In the same way that accomplishing a hard thing stretches who a person is, she is stretching. She used to be completely intolerant of intense dogs like Zydeco at much greater distances, but living with him like this, some habituation is definitely taking place. It hasn’t been perfect or completely stress free, but my goal of having them at least tolerate each other safely with barriers, and to live relatively peacefully under one roof, is well on its way to being realized. One thing I’ve done is I’ve worked very hard to pair anything annoying or startling Zydy does with things I know Zoë’s absolutely loves–usually foods–and by golly, it is working. Most of the time puppy can full on leap at her barking (which I’m convinced he sometimes does just to stir the pot) with no more than 3′ of fence separating them, and instead of her usual teeth and devil growls, Zoë brightens with a look to me clearly saying: OH BOY! I KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS! WHERE’S My TURKEY? Other times she can’t help but snarl at him a little bit, but recovers almost immediately (Zydeco can too), and is responsive to cues again in seconds. This is a blessing really because Fred has been away and I am often here managing things on my own. If I couldn’t get control of these situations quickly, we’d have a much bigger problem on our hands. But anyway these are big changes for Zoë. So, although I do struggle sometimes with the guilt of putting her through this, I’m also really proud of how she’s handling it overall.
There are many methods for dealing with dog aggression out there. But when you are a one woman show, counter conditioning, and good old differential reinforcement for alternate behaviors is simply the easiest to implement. I have been doing some gentle CU-style approach–click–then retreat type games, as you’ll see in the video, but I still keep the treats flowing the whole time. I know I’ve slightly blown Zoë’s diet while puppy is here (however, I have increased her exercise), but my girl just really loves her food, and she has such a long history of working for her food in this way, I’ve decided to just stick with what she knows, rather than attempt B.A.T. or C.A.T. Zydy loves food, fun, and anything that is a stimulating. Maya is just happy when she gets to be with me instead of on the other side of the gate…and, although there certainly have been frazzled, pull my hair out moments when it’s the witching hour and all the dogs are barking at once, I certainly do love fully committing myself to making all three of these very special dogs as happy as I possibly can.
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.