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…