“Only love can break a heart, only love can mend it…”
Hal David knew what he was talking about when he wrote those lyrics – even though he had not met either Wee Willie Winky or Benny Salad Houdini.
Willie, our beloved Shih Tzu rescued from a puppy mill runner, died* unexpectedly at the age of 4 ½. Losing this happy, active, loving companion caused heartbreak that all devoted pet parents understand. The outpouring of sympathy indicated just how many of those there are, and while it comforted, it didn’t stop the tears for my husband and me. That was a job for Benny.
Tom was determined that our next dog be a male Shih Tzu like Willie, preferably a puppy. I started searching via our local shelters and rescue groups — no luck. I chased a couple of leads on petfinder.com — no luck. I filled out applications with rescue organizations – luck! One group specializing in Shih Tzus and small dogs had a litter of not one but five male puppies ready for adoption (their pregnant mother had been turned over by a backyard breeder). We snuggled and played with all of the squirmy adorable ten week olds and then picked “Puppy #3” because he was especially little and seemed quite laid back.
Our tears pretty much stopped almost immediately – and idyllic as it might sound, it was not because of love at first sight. It’s because there is no time for tears! My grieving husband was naturally ready to give this tiny blonde bundle of lovability almost anything he wanted, but Benny is an extremely smart and equally willful little guy, given to the bossiness that is frequently found in Shih Tzus. So Mom (that’s me) had to start showing tough love with both of her boys – no small dog syndrome in my family, please! (Small dogs can take over a house – position themselves as the pack leader – because we cave into their cuteness and fulfill their desires and demands without making them earn it.)
So here in the midst of intensive training, I am massively Mommy proud that at the age of 13 weeks, Benny understands “sit,” “come,” and “make a good decision,” and actually follows those instructions much of the time. He accepts a leash and the city streets with equal aplomb. He knows “do your business” and responds admirably – although getting him out to the grass is a new adventure in house training for me. I’ve never done it from a condo before. Sometimes it feels like we live in the elevator, riding down and up, up and down. Thankfully, my husband handles most of the middle-of-the-night excursions (probably because he doesn’t want my naked face and bed head to scare anyone).
Baby Benny earned his big boy name of Benny Salad Houdini because he loved his fresh veggie dinners from the first, and can’t get enough of the greenery outside either. He munches grass and leaves as though he were a deer rather than a dog. He covets the free roaming ways of a deer as well. He easily escaped every barrier we tried for his confinement room: netting, higher netting, dog gate. Finally we had to simply shut the door. We’re still working on the separation anxiety; Benny spent his first ten weeks in a foster home brimming with dogs and humans. Being alone for even a moment is a brand new experience.
But Benny knows how to amuse himself. He is a champion chewer of everything within mouthing distance: rugs, curtains, pant legs, bedding. That means relentless redirection. Anyone eavesdropping on me these days would think that, “Chew toys!” is my favorite phrase. And that tossing them is my favorite exercise. Our floors look like FAO Schwarz for canines.
And then there are the cats. Lucy, who was Willie’s best buddy, stepped right up as second mother to Benny. This formerly feral starving kitten always eats her entire breakfast right away and then begs for more. But she started saving half of it so that she could teach Benny how to find the supposedly secret entrance to the cat feeding quarters and help himself to her bowl. Undoing that (frankly charming) act of generosity and maternal instinct has taken some creativity. Lucy is also teaching Benny to play in a way that’s acceptable to cats, which involves a lot of wrestling but a little less nipping than he might like.
Fred took great delight in trying to teach “Chase Me,” at a running speed that Benny could keep up with. That meant I had to play blocker between them in order to teach both that chasing cats is not an acceptable game – even if the cat thinks so. Nowadays they usually walk together rather than run. Usually.
Frisco is still keeping his distance, in classic Frisco style. He’ll come around.
Raising a puppy properly is like swimming the Florida Strait (I imagine; I haven’t actually done that). It takes intensive, consistent training, patience, persistence, and some sleep deprivation. It can be anywhere from challenging to tiresome to irritating to repeat yourself a dozen times to get the result you want once, but well worth it. Here’s a real time example.
This is what Benny is doing, next to my chair, as I write this.
This is what Lucy is doing, just above him on my lap.
This is what Fred is doing, just above her on my desk.
This is what Frisco is doing, just off to the side.
You’ll notice that Benny is thoroughly relaxed and making no effort to upend the established social order. I’m not kidding us, though. Once the writing is done and everyone’s back to bouncing around, he’ll give doggy dominance another whirl. But we’ll keep working at it, because a dog who knows his place is a happy, secure dog. And after only three weeks, Benny knows his place: firmly in our hearts.
*We are awaiting final necropsy results on Willie, but it appears that the cause of death was a heart irregularity.