Raising Phoenix Rising: dog training a young Groenendael (1)

I want to share with you my experience of Raising Phoenix Rising: dog training a young Groenendael. Mirribandi Phoenix Rising became a part of my family on Friday the 13th, February 2015, at the tender age of 8 weeks. I am not normally a superstitious person, so I took the 13th to be a lucky omen. I had planned his arrival for many years, well before he was born. It was a deep-seated wish to have another dog, and I confess, my reasons were partly selfish: I was and am terrified about losing WolfCub, about how I will cope when he is gone. A fear all of us have who welcome into our lives those blessed four legged companions, whose stay on this planet is sadly much too short. I was also living in rental accommodation and until my partner and I were able to hijack our lives to a mortgage, there was no way we could have another dog. So first home bought, and then serious plans to get another dog began. I was really looking forward to immersing myself in dog training one of my own again.
Way before Phoenix was conceived, I knew my next dog would bear that name. It meant so much to me, projecting as I was to a time when WolfCub would be part of the dust of the universe, taking half my heart with him. The symbolic importance of ‘Phoenix’, the myth, resonated strongly with me: life, time, magic, purity, clarity, rebirth, renewal, creativity, protection, immortality, resurrection, transformation. These are just some of the associations with the word – I wonder if at some deep level there was a child like wish that after WolfCub’s passing, he would partly arise in Phoenix too. As if I could somehow keep him alive, while also recognising the distinctiveness and uniqueness that is Phoenix as he is now. When I saw that one of the puppies had a white and black paw, as if he had been playing around in the ashes as he arose, I just knew that puppy was the one.

So the day arrived – Phoenix was flown down from Mirribandi Belgians in Queensland and we were off to pick him up. I had done some reflecting on how WolfCub might receive this new addition to our family, although I could never have been prepared for what actually happened. I knew he tolerated puppies and other dogs licking his mouth and being generally annoying as we know puppies to be.  🙂 I had trained him to tolerate this, through pairing their behaviour with treats that he liked. WolfCub was happy to make allowances for wormy squirmy behaviour in return for some dried chicken or liver. For the planned introduction to Phoenix, I had upped the ante and bought fresh chicken fillet, something WolfCub found irresistible. They were to be introduced in a neutral space and I would feed the yummy chicken to WolfCub and he would think Phoenix was a cool dude to have around! Well I was about to have the rudest awakening possible – as the two were introduced WolfCub refused to look at me, nor would he take the chicken fillet! This was a dog who all his life had been a total food PIG for the most worthless scraps of food! And now he wouldn’t look at me or take the chicken. I was completely floored by this. His shunning of me was a direct stab to the heart, and of course this is how he must have felt when I bought Phoenix home.

The first night was exhausting. I was shattered by WolfCub’s response. Phoenix was being crate trained so he was in our bedroom where WolfCub also sleeps. Phoenix cried much of the night and I knew I could not respond to his crying, or it would continue. I don’t think I slept a wink. The next day I was in a state of turmoil. WolfCub was only just starting to thaw towards me and I was thinking ‘omg, what have I done?’ He wanted nothing to do with the new puppy. Leaving my partner at home with Phoenix, I took WolfCub down to the park, where I walked around tears streaming down my face. Finally I sat and sobbed openly – luckily it was quiet, although I really didn’t care about the spectacle I must have made. I resolved that if, in a month’s time, WolfCub and Phoenix’s relationship had not improved, he would have to go back. My loyalty and love for WolfCub could not bear to see his later stage of life compromised through this new addition.
The first few months were a complete emotional roller coaster. As if there wasn’t enough to deal with, menopause had arrived at the same time as my puppy: there were mood swings and hot flushes. I was also feeling intense grief over many things: WolfCub’s response to both me and Phoenix, and especially the nature of my relationship with WolfCub – I felt like I was drifting away from him as I put time and effort into the Phoenix’s education and training. I knew as a trainer, they had to be walked and trained separately – so the new pup could stand on his own two feet, confidant apart from WolfCub.  Along with my job as a dog trainer, my responsibilities to family and to you, my followers on Facebook and everything else, I was really struggling at times. There were plenty of fun times, but there was also a big adjustment to this new life. I felt as if every bit of joy I took in Phoenix was a betrayal of WolfCub – the way he looked at me sometimes when I was interacting with the pup would reduce me to tears again. Sometimes I acted as if WolfCub was already gone from me, mired in miserable grief, before picking myself up again – there was always something to be done either with work or with trying to see that both my boy’s needs were met.
Despite this grief, my heart was also flowering, opening up to the joy that was Phoenix Rising – he was so affectionate! Very unlike WolfCub, who although he enjoyed ‘hugs’ (I trained him to as dogs don’t generally like it when we bend and loom over them) and pats, he was more reticent about initiating physical contact. Phoenix lived to love and how could I resist?  The first month or so, crazy as it sounds, I restrained myself, choosing to be affectionate with him when WolfCub was out of sight. I wanted to protect his feelings and I even felt guilty about showing Phoenix love. Such a conflicting array of emotions, no wonder I felt confused! After some reflection and talking with good friends I abandoned this strategy, to literally fully embrace Phoenix. I made a point of granting attention to both my boys and continued to give WolfCub treats whenever Phoenix was around, to help change his emotional response – this is called counter conditioning in dog training language. Pair a positive reward for the dog in the presence of something he finds negative, and over time, with enough repetition, the negative experience becomes a predictor of something good. In the end it worked, but it took 6 months before WolfCub and Phoenix had their first play together, and I was completely overjoyed! (You can see a video on my wolf shadow photography page on Facebook.)
Stay tuned for part 2 next week…

About the Author:

Rewards based dog trainer and photographer, living with and loving my Belgian Shepherds, WolfCub, Phoenix and Boo.


  1. Julie Kelley-Bushey November 26, 2015 at 11:40 pm

    So glad WolfCub and Phoenix are best buddies now .
    You put so much love into all that you do x

    • Kirsten November 27, 2015 at 9:49 am

      Hi Julie, great to have a visit from you, thanks! 🙂

  2. Ruth Vork November 26, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    I needed Kleenex by the time I was half way through.
    Not only are you a talented photographer and dog trainer; you are a very talented writer! I felt everything you were feeling! Yes if only our 4 legged companions could stay with us forever! I have been seeing many stories lately of 4 legged fur babies losing their 2 legged companions and the horrible grief they go through. So it is a 2 way street with grieving loss.
    I am glad the boys are part of each other’s lives as well as yours and your partner. WolfCub is an exceptional teacher and mentor! The personalities are different; but the love they both have for you is endless and for all eternity. Give the boys a hug from me and Foxy and of course they are to lavish you with dog kisses.
    Thanks for sharing your journey with all of us!

    • Kirsten November 26, 2015 at 4:01 pm

      Hi Ruth, so appreciate your visit and kind words. All the best to you and Foxy! 😀

  3. Pam Wolfe November 25, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. I am fostering a dog right now that I saved from a high kill shelter and also have two other dogs. It can be exhausting and I love reading happy endings!

    • Kirsten November 25, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      Hi Pam, I wish you all the best with your new foster dog. Let me know how it goes ok?

  4. Jill Griffin November 25, 2015 at 11:23 am

    I’m so happy that this tale had a happy ending and WolfCub and Phoenix are becoming BFF!
    Thank you for sharing Kirsten!

    • Kirsten November 25, 2015 at 1:34 pm

      Hi Jill, thanks so much for your visit – hope you and yours are doing well. 🙂

  5. Kirsten November 25, 2015 at 8:54 am

    Hi Karen, nice to know there is someone else who can related to menopause and a new puppy! Thanks for sharing that with me and I am so glad Pr1mo and Iggy get along. Like with your two, WolfCub and Phoenix will never be best friends, unless WolfCub has a personality makeover! 😛

  6. Karen November 25, 2015 at 12:56 am

    Oh Kirsten, it’s like I’m reading my own story.
    Dealing with a puppy while ‘enjoying’ menopause is really no fun, after 2 weeks I was about to return Iggy to the breeder.
    And he’s such a lovable dog, but he was also a puppy and having a pup after 7 years was hard work.
    Pr1mo wasn’t acting like WolfCub, but if he could have been able to talk he would have asked me why I had to bring another dog in our home.
    We also just moved, so I had made everything not very easy for myself.

    Now, I love Iggy to death and can’t imagine my life without him. I felt guilty towards Rocco, who we had to let ago almost 4 years ago but that’s gone now.
    Pr1mo has accepted him, they aren’t the biggest friends, but they get along fine.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. Deb Barton November 25, 2015 at 12:26 am

    Ive enjoyed your photos of WolfCub so much. Felt like i knew him. Enchanted by him and looking through your heart at him. Then comes Phoenix and my heart was captured times two. 🙂 Some of Us have special relationships with our furry angels. Very Few can put it into words. Beautiful ..Thank You Kirsten. I am on the edge of my seat for the next chapter. 🙂 <3

    • Kirsten November 25, 2015 at 8:51 am

      Hello Deb, thank you so much for your visit and very kind words! 😀

  8. Michelle November 24, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    Wonderful touching story of your life with your dogs and lovely comments. I had a Groenendael called Merlin for 6 years that died of Addisons and he was like an Angel, so cuddly and easy to train – so when he died like you we wanted him to be reborn – so when our second dog was born Christmas Day we called him Gabriel ( Lyn I see also has an 11 year old Gabriel), the alpha of the pack he would be healthier we hoped. 11 years later he has died of a brain tumour – but he was the complete opposite of Merlin – he liked cuddles and other dogs but was aggressive to strangers despite my best training efforts – but he was my rock – our Groenedaels may all look the same as your beautiful photos remind us but they are unique – and despite how painful watching them get old is it is also an honour. There is nothing more beautiful than a wise old wolf with white hairs. Your story continues and we look forward to reading your part 2….;)

    • Kirsten November 24, 2015 at 9:15 pm

      Thank you Michelle – yes our dogs are all unique, and it can be both a joyful discovery or a challenge to our expectations, or both! 😀

  9. Sheila Denby November 24, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Thank you Kirsten for so eloquently putting into words the emotions and struggles you have had with your darling boys – WolfCub and Phoenix. My Spenser is just over 11, starting to slow down now but I do not foresee bringing in another puppy. When he arrived at 8 weeks he joined my pack of four and now he is the last one. I want to devote all my love to him as he has helped me through my own personal tragedy in the last year. Your photos are fantastic and brighten up the days for everyone who sees them. Please continue to share your story and your boys with all of us. 🙂

    • Kirsten November 24, 2015 at 8:59 pm

      Hi Sheila, I so appreciate the support you have shown my page over the years, and especially for taking the time to comment here. Where would we be without our beautiful companions? 🙂

  10. Lynn November 24, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Thanks for sharing your struggles Kirsten through your brilliant writing… it’s not an easy thing to watch our beasties getting old… Gabriel will be 11 next month and has slowed down so much…. I miss taking him for long walks as after 20mins on three legs he has had enough…. Give Cub & Phoenix a hug from me… you have done such a fantastic job with them both….

    • Kirsten November 24, 2015 at 10:29 am

      Thanks for your visit Lynn – it is sad to see them grow older. WolfCub has had enough after 20 minutes too: his mind is willing, but his body can no longer obey 🙁

  11. Donna November 24, 2015 at 7:52 am

    In addition to being an amazing photographer, you are a wonderful writer! You describe so vividly the dilemma of having an elderly dog family member and a young pup family member. It sounds like you are handling the issues well, learning along the way.

    • Kirsten November 24, 2015 at 8:38 am

      Hi Donna, thank you so much for your kind words and visit! 😀

  12. Maureen November 23, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    Your story of Wolf cub and Phoenix is as wonderful as your photography, Through your words I could feel the tears and love, so well written. Looking forward to the next chapter. Like you I am dreading the day I lose my dear old friend, he is 14 in January. The heartbreak will come, but the memories will stay.

    • Kirsten November 23, 2015 at 6:59 pm

      Thanks so much for your visit and kind words Maureen. I sincerely hope you may have much longer with your dear friend than you fear!

  13. Sherry Blue Sky November 23, 2015 at 11:34 am

    I so relate! Pup was appalled when I brought Jasmine home. He grew to tolerate her but they lived separate lives, never did grow close. You did a great job with Wolf Cub and Phoenix. I also relate to advance grief over Wolf Cub’s eventual loss. I grieved Pup’s loss for two years before he died and will never stop grieving him ,four and a half years later, it still hurts. Phoenix is such a beautiful pup – the soulful look in his eyes is wonderful – and his happiness and joy. I love seeing the two of them together – you did a great job helping that happen, Kirsten. Yes, just love them to the max……..we know when we fall in love with them, that eventually heartbreak will come. But the joy while they’re here makes it so worth it. Your photos, as always, are spectacular.

    • Kirsten November 23, 2015 at 12:20 pm

      Thanks so much for your visit Sherry and sharing your story. There are many parallels in our two situations, as you say. And life always presents us with the bittersweet experiences. Take good care of yourself. 🙂

  14. Nairu November 23, 2015 at 9:27 am

    What a beautiful story 🙂
    We added a new family member a few months ago, and I was very worried because my dog Laika is very territorial and dog-shy. I wasn’t home and my parents didn’t follow the “introducing a new dog” protocol. I was so scared that she might not accept the puppy or hurt him. I thought it would take ages for them to become friends. However, just on the 12th day I got to see them playing together, I felt so happy. She only played with her father at home (we owned them both), outside, she never played with other dogs.The last time I saw Laika play with another dog was the day her father died, a few months before we got the puppy; I took her on a walk because I felt devastated, and she surprised me playing with another dog she just had met. I’m pretty sure she did it to cheer me up, she had never done this before. It is wonderful to see your dog playing with another one after so many time, and seeing they’re happy.

    • Kirsten November 23, 2015 at 9:40 am

      Thank you for sharing your story with me Nairu, so glad things turned out well for you with the puppy play. 🙂

  15. Karen White November 23, 2015 at 8:22 am

    Oh Kirsten, I do sympathise. With my first flatcoat, who I had an incredible bond with, I gor much the same reaction when I introduced a puppy. She hated the littler interloper with a vengeance. It took much time and work before she was reconciled to the new family member. Intruducing Tasku to Taivas wan’t plain sailing either, Taivas completely ignored Tasku, and Tasku was terrified of both Taivas and my FCR, Ashley. Ashley however thought I’d bought Tasku just for her! Tasku was four months old before Taivas would interact with her, even now they aren’t best friends.
    I’m sorry the early days and weeks caused you so much distress and heartache, thank goodness their relationship is developing. You are such an amazing trainer, I’m looking forward to reading more each week.

    • Kirsten November 23, 2015 at 8:56 am

      Hi Karen, thanks for sharing your experience with me – boy they do make us laugh and cry right? Thank you for that very kind compliment on my training skills: I have to say I am always looking to improve and learning never ends…luckily! Life would be so boring if it did! 😀

  16. Trudi November 23, 2015 at 8:19 am

    Went through similar when we brought bear home, now bear and Puccini are inseparable

    • Kirsten November 23, 2015 at 8:53 am

      Glad to hear that Trudi – thank you for taking the time to visit and comment 🙂

  17. Dave Leitch November 23, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Beautiful photography, gorgeous dogs – does it get any better? I wish I was a better photographer, our guys deserve to have some better pics.

    • Kirsten November 23, 2015 at 8:52 am

      Thank you for your visit and comment Dave. With the photography, it is a case of practice, practice and more practice! 😄

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