Stranger Danger

Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.

Shirley MacLaine

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

“My dog is aggressive towards strangers.

“My dog is fearful.”

“My dog is skittish.”

I hear these phrases constantly.  Some dogs are goofy, fun-loving balls of affection who have never met a stranger.  Then we have dogs who have what I call a healthy sense of self-preservation.  My Orion used to be like that.

No, Orion wasn’t abused, which is a common misconception with dogs such as these.  As humans we try to rationalize and explain behavior.  It must have a cause!  Something precise that has caused our dogs to be wary of the world.

But the world doesn’t work like that.  For example, my daughter, River, is the most fun-loving, outgoing creature I have ever met.  She explained to the pizza delivery guy a few days ago that if he ever encountered a monster, she’d protect him.  She then gave him a hug.  River is the equivalent of a goldendoodle:  the life of the party who thrives on any type of human interaction.

My son Eric is completely different.  He’s more circumspect.  He has wonderful social manners, but it takes him a long time to warm up to someone and feel comfortable.  He needs to feel out a situation before he participates in it.

Neither of my kids have been abused.  Both have been raised exactly the same way.  We accept that kids can have different personalities, but we don’t allow much wiggle room for our canine companions.  They have to be wriggly balls of fun, just desperate for human interaction, regardless of with whom, in order for the to be healthy, happy dogs.  But just as not all humans are of that caliber (I certainly am not), not all dogs need to fit into the one-size-fits-all mould of “dog behavior”.

Orion, who took a few weeks to warm up to my husband, now thoroughly enjoys any attention he can get from him.

Orion, who took a few weeks to warm up to my husband, now thoroughly enjoys any attention he can get from him.

Orion, for instance, is a lot more wary and aloof than a typical Labrador Retriever.  Orion is a Papillon.  As a matter of fact, when I first met Orion, he bit me.  Completely not his fault:  he didn’t know me, and I had thrust my hand inside his carrier to retrieve him, as he had gotten caught in the back of it somehow.  Any creature with a lick of sense (especially one weighing 5 lbs.) would do the same thing!  It doesn’t mean he’s damaged, it means he has a sense of self-preservation.

Gradually I built up Orion’s trust in me.  I started by not yelling, kicking, hitting or otherwise abusing the dog.  Common sense, right?  The longer I went without kicking Orion, he figured the more likely it was that I wasn’t going to start.  But then we moved beyond that.  There’s a difference between a friend and a protector.  I was to become both.  I needed to Pilot Orion.  In other words, I needed to not only answer all of his tough questions (such as, “Is that person a threat?” and, “Should I be afraid?”), but I had to get him to trust me enough to forgo his own determination of a situation and accept my answer.

Look at it like this:  What if I told you to sell everything you own and invest a certain stock?  Your reaction would probably be, Why on earth should I listen to you and do something so potentially catastrophic?! You’d be crazy to just listen to me regarding such a decision.  However, what if I started off with small suggestions, such as putting $5 towards something.  You take a look at my situation, which seems financially comfortable, and decide to take the $5 plunge.  That $5 turns into $10.  Your faith in my decisions is boosted.  I give you another suggestion, you take it, and make more money, or, at the very least, don’t lose any.  Pretty soon you’re actively looking to me for suggestions.

That’s how it works with dogs.  You have to give them a reason why your answers to their questions are better than what they can come up with.  That’s what Piloting is all about.  Now obviously you can answer their questions with force, and with pain and anger, but that’s losing the most important part of the Piloting equation:  trust.  So how do you get a dog to trust you? Easy! Put them in very simple situations that require only a very small leap of faith, and then gradually up the ante.

I recently boarded the world’s most adorable Labradoodle, Cody, in my home due to his owner’s injury and anticipated long convalescence.  How did I get him accustomed to me, and used to my answering his questions?  I started with agility. Teaching him to jump over a yardstick placed directly on the floor.  Then adding stimulation: placing one end on a soup can, raising it just a bit.  Then the next side is raised.  Pretty soon Cody is trusting me enough to go bounding back and forth across the “jump”.  If I had started out with the jump raised all the way…well, that’s a bit of a stretch.  He didn’t know me very well, and that’s an awful lot to ask of a dog.  But by adding gradual amounts of stimulation to the situation, raising it slowly, I was able to expand his level of comfort with my decisions until eventually he trusts my answers more than he trusts his own.  That is what Piloting is all about.

So how do we put this in play with regard to stranger danger?  Well, we need to start with the fact that it is okay that your dog is wary of strangers.  We aren’t trying to change who your dog fundamentally is.  But we can indeed broaden their horizons a bit.  Get your dog to trust your answers with the small things, like walking by the man on the other side of the street.  Answer their questions as you are walking, and make sure you are Pilot during the walk.  Don’t just drag your dog along past the stranger – that’s forcing them past a point, not answering their questions.  It may take a bit of mental fortitude on your part to make it past the first person, but if you are Pilot, take your time, and keep your patience, you will do it.  Remember, this is difficult for your dog: this is the first time you are Piloting them past a perceived danger.  It is a huge leap of faith on their part and should be treated as such.  Just because you realize that the other person isn’t a threat doesn’t mean they do.  But if you get them past the first person, answering their questions all the while, the second person is easier to get by, then the third, and so on.  Pretty soon your dog is looking for your answers rather than coming up with their own.

Orion is still wary of strangers.  I allow him to be.  Unless I don’t.  That’s the beauty of Piloting.  If you don’t abuse the position, you can ask your dog to do marvelous things.  Orion and I worked on his stranger danger, gradually upping the ante each time.  First he had to walk calmly by strangers, which is difficult when you barley reach someone’s ankles – no wonder everything looked like a threat!  You try walking among a herd of elephants without being apprehensive, and then you’ll understand what a small dog can feel like on the sidewalk.

Next we worked on strangers approaching. They would ask to pet my dog, and I would let them…in a very controlled way.  I would pick him up and present him rear first.  If Orion would ask a question, such as “Can I make them stop petting me?”, I would answer his question by very gently tapping him on the derriere with all five fingers, similar to the way one taps out an email on a computer:  no harder.  It’s not about pain, it’s about getting him to refocus on me and the answer I was giving him.

Trust is integral.  If I’m asking Orion to trust my judgment about someone, it’s up to me to keep him safe and make wise judgments.  So if the individual who wants to pet Orion seems very hyper or is giving off a lot of negative energy, my answer is no.  My first duty is to my dog, not to social graces.  It’s up to me to put Orion in situations where he can thrive, not situations that test his faith in me to beyond capacity.

As Orion accepted being pet by strangers, he was always given a reward.  For Orion, food doesn’t do much, but calm gentle praise certainly did.  He wanted to know he was on the right track, and I most definitely assured him of it.  Answer his questions, give positive when he chooses to accept the answer.

Orion is still wary of strangers, but rather than immediately cowering in fear or lashing out when someone decides to pet him, he takes a different approach now.  He looks at me.  He expects me to answer his questions.  Sometimes he has to accept that he will be pet, but since I’ve always protected him during the petting, he isn’t afraid anymore. Kinda like a kid who is forced to hug Aunt Bertha at family functions:  he isn’t afraid of Aunt Bertha, it’s just not his favorite thing to do.  

Orion and Cody.  It took a little Piloting to get Orion to accept my answers and Cody, namely that Cody wasn't a threat.

Orion and Cody. It took a little Piloting to get Orion to accept my answers and Cody, namely that Cody wasn’t a threat.

Orion has come a long way from that frightened little creature he once was.  Yes, I have put a lot of effort into Piloting him and answering his questions, but it’s always easier to be the one answering questions than the one who has to take a leap of faith.  That’s why I’ll always strive to be worthy of the Pilot position and never shake his faith through ego or vanity or putting him in situations that we haven’t worked towards yet.  I’ve earned his trust, and it’s up to me to make sure I don’t abuse it.

 Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog training in Cleveland, Ohio

Bringing Up Baby

Hold puppies, kittens, and babies anytime you get the chance.

H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

So here I am, a deadline for a blog post looming over me, and I’m drawing a blank on what to write.  To my rescue:  a telephone call from a past client.   Apparently they’ve brought home a new addition over the weekend and wanted to verify how to integrate their current dog with the new addition.  After verifying that they meant a new baby, and not a new puppy (completely different set of rules), I set about giving them the lowdown on creating a harmonious house while dealing with a new baby.  So here are a few things to bear in mind:

It sucks.

You’ve just given birth (historically, if you’re female).  You’re sore, tired and overwhelmed with both love and the looming, daunting task of raising a mini-human.  Unfortunately, the dog is going to fall by the wayside for a little bit.  That’s okay (short-term).  Okay, it’s not really ok, but you’re going to do the best you can with what you have.  Piloting doesn’t mean being perfect…it means accepting that you’re the one in charge with difficult decisions, and that you will answer all questions.  Only now you’re doing it on 2 hours sleep a night.  There is only so much of you to go around.  It’s okay.  Fido will manage.  This is short term, until you find your footing.  Right now you’re doing triage, so don’t beat yourself up if Fido doesn’t get his usual 5 mile hike each day.  Just do your best.

Look For Shortcuts.

Just because you’re doing your best doesn’t mean there isn’t a baseline that needs to be adhered to.  For example, when I was pregnant with my son Eric, Darwin was already an old dog of about 10.  His baseline for activity was at least a walk of about 1/2 mile every day.  That was no where near his maximum capacity, but that was the sweet spot.  Any less than that, and he would start to exhibit unsavory behaviors, such as hyperactivity, pacing or even destruction.  Right after I had Eric via c-section, I wasn’t even up for 1/2 mile hikes, so I did the best I could to equal that amount of activity.  Short cuts, if you will, such as these.  Think outside the, uh…leash.  Agility, backpacks or playdates.  I had a client who, while pregnant with twins, trained her dog to run up and down the steps on command, just to wear him out.  No, this won’t work forever, but it’s not meant to.  It’s meant to be a stop-gap between the time you give birth and the time you are able to sleep more than 4 hours a night.

The same goes for Work.  Make sure your dog is still getting the mental Work they require.  Otherwise they will come up with something to occupy themselves, and believe me, you won’t like it.

Remember Whose Baby This Is.

I’m all for bonding kids and dogs, but the time to do that is a little bit later.  Right now Fido needs to understand that this is your baby.  And thank you for the offer, Fido, but I think I’ve got it.  Odds are Fido will ask you questions about the baby.  It’s natural to be curious about something new (and loud and smelly) that enters your life.  However, it’s up to you to set boundaries.  With my children, the boundary was roughly 2 feet.  My dogs were not allowed within that area of my child.  Mean?  Maybe.  But there were no bites – no issues with uncertainty around my children.  They were mine, and I’ll tend to them, thankyouverymuch.  I treated my infants as if they were a chocolate frosted cake I was carrying around.  Would you let your dog go nose-to-nose with that?  Nope, didn’t think so.

By making sure Fido understands that this is your baby, you are removing all his rights to correcting the child (read: nipping the child to get them to stop crying).  There will be no face licking when the baby spits up all over (a dangerous and repulsive behavior).

Once the child is about 6-8 weeks old, it’s a good time to start slowly introducing them.  If Fido is on the floor sleeping by you, and the baby is calm, take the baby’s foot and start slowly petting the dog with it, immediately giving calm positives when the dog remains calm, and giving a gentle, but firm, negative if your dog gets excited or hyper.  You are training your dog that calm interactions with the baby equal positives.  Add more stimulation to the situation as your dog grows accustomed to the interaction.  Gradually start to bridge the 2-foot perimeter you set up for safety previously.  Gently redirect your baby towards appropriate petting if they start to grab Fido’s fur.  Praise positive, gentle petting.  You are setting the flavor of future interactions.  Read: no pouncing on the baby.  No jumping on the toddler wandering with a handful of pretzels.  No pulling on Fido’s ears/tail/tongue.  You are setting the scene for future interactions between your child and Fido now.  Don’t wait until there’s a problem – establish calm as the go-to mode between them.

Abuse Your Dog (a little)

Yeah, this one’s a bit of a heartbreaker, but you’ve got to get Fido used to some things that babies may do.  Obviously it’s up to you to make sure that your children are acting appropriately towards your dog, but accidents happen in a heartbeat.  Set everyone up for success.

Start pulling on Fido’s tail (and then immediately giving them a reward).  Take a knuckle and “noogie” his ears gently.  Pry open his mouth, and then give a positive.  Get them accustomed to anything that a young child may do.  No, it’s not fair that your dog has to go through this to help de-sensitize him – it’s always up to you to make sure you child acts appropriately – but if you screw up (because, like, you’re human), then hopefully you’ve set the groundwork for success rather than becoming another statistic.

…And Protect Your Dog

Yes, kids can be jerks to dogs, knowingly or otherwise.  Make sure you handle it.  If a toddler-aged child is abusing an animal, give them a hardcore consequence – I don’t care what your parenting style is, drop the hammer!  A harsher punishment is nothing in comparison to a dog bite!

If it’s an 8 month old baby, that’s a different story.  No, a child that young doesn’t understand that it is wrong to yank fur off the dog, but your dog will need to see you are protecting them from the threat your child is giving.  Protect your dog!  (Another good reason for the “2 foot rule” regarding babies, as I stated above.)

In my house all the animals are mine.  Yes, my children will cuddle with whatever animal is available, but they are borrowing my animals.  Because let’s face it, elementary school kids don’t always take good care of what is theirs.  Toys get broken or discarded.  However, what belongs to mommy?  Well, that’s a different story.  What’s mine will be treated with respect and with the understanding that consequences happen if my things get broken, abused or disrespected.  If my kids treat the dog well, get him water if the water bowl is low or simply engaged appropriately?  That deserves some praise.

“Help” the cat down the back porch, though (as my daughter, River, did)?  That was a full week without any type of electronics.  My daughter almost died during that week.  I had the eulogy written out and everything….we were frankly surprised she was able to pull through, but miraculously she did. And has never done anything remotely disrespectful to the animals again.

River, aged 7, exhibiting advanced stages of "Not Allowed On The Computer-Itis".  Note the apathy towards life, the "I'm Bored" mantra, and the general distaste for ever disrespecting a cat again. Please also notice absurdly loyal cat patiently waiting by River's bedside for her recovery.

River, aged 7, exhibiting advanced stages of “Not Allowed On The Computer-Itis”. Note the apathy towards life, sulking under her covers, the “I’m Bored” mantra, and the general distaste for ever disrespecting a cat again. Please also notice absurdly loyal cat patiently waiting by River’s bedside for her recovery.

In short, use common sense.  We need to bear in mind what we are integrating: a young child and a dog.  Not two grown adult humans.  Misunderstandings happen.  It doesn’t mean that your dog is Cujo, or your baby will grow up to be Elmira.

Seriously, was I the only one who watched this show?!

Seriously, was I the only one who watched this show?!

Address the small issues as they happen, so they don’t grow to be huge incidents later on.  Above all, maintain a sense of humor.  Because when you look back, yes, these were  the good ol’ days…but only because you’re finally out of them.

Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio


Slimming Down


But in every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks – John Muir

Here’s your challenge: Take a good look at your dog. Pretend that you haven’t seen him in 6 months and look him over. Probably 2 ears, 4 paws, a tail, and possibly some puppy dog eyes. But how about that mid-section. Does your dog possibly look a little thicker around the middle than he did 6 months ago? It’s possible and quite honestly, it’s probable.

Winter creates so many issues when it comes to ensuring we’re giving our dogs the amount of Activity they need. One of those issues is that your dog may have gained a few extra lbs over the winter. I mean, who hasn’t? However, having an overweight dog is a serious issue. It can be hazardous to their health and eventually affect life spans. So, guess what… it’s time to get out there and help your dog lose that extra winter weight!

Here are 3 ways you can help your dog get lean again:

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

#1. Find some adventurous trails!

We live in the land of the CLE, which means we have the most amazing tool to help our pups lose that weight right in our backyard. The Metroparks are a great destination to get out there and get some walks in. The options are endless as to what park to go to and the scenery is gorgeous. Especially this time of year, as spring has begun and new flowers and buds are popping up everywhere.

Take some time and find a new park to visit! This will keep you and your pup interested and have an extra spring in your step. The key is to stay motivated to get out there. So new adventures can help keep the boredom at bay.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

#2. Substitute for some Veggies

Another option to help trim your pup down is to substitute his usual treats with healthy ones. Instead of handing out the bones, take some time to figure out what else motivates and interests your dog. Use veggies as a treat. Try giving your dog carrots, radishes or frozen green beans. You can always see if your dog likes ice cubes as well! It’s a good treat that they’ll love with no calories.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

#3. Change your routine!

Start a new routine! In addition to your daily walks, how about in the morning or when you get back from work you work on the “over” command with your dog. If you have that down, have your dog jump over a broomstick, yardstick, or a box 10 times. Start a small change in your routine that will help your dog’s activity level increase and help your bonding time!

Any steps that you can take to help your dog burn a few more calories will not only help his weight but also will help your dog feel more balanced and take care of the Activity part of the PAW method that your dog needs.

So, get outside and get creative! And get your four legged friend back to the lean and happy dog that they should be.

Keep calm and pilot on
Danika Migliore
Darwin Dogs, LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, OH


There’s always tomorrow, right?  And tomorrow has a tomorrow, too! – My Cousin Becky

Sparta and I had a huge challenge this morning.  I took Orion for his usual hike separately because he can go for about 5 miles.  Sparta’s good for about two and that’s it.  (I’ve lost a lot of weight since getting two dogs, needless to say.)  Today I had a late start, and Sparta and I didn’t hit the trail until close to 11:00 this morning.  So Sparta and I went to the Metroparks where there is a 1/4 mile track at the top of a hill.  One of my favorite places, actually.  Peaceful, quiet, and nobody around.  Just as Sparta and I got started, a car pulls up.  Out pops a German Shepherd (offl-leash) and her two owners. They headed right for the center of the track.

Now, if this had been Orion with me, I’d have been annoyed, but not concerned.  Sparta, though, is extremely dog-reactive.  Sparta went on red alert immediately, but I was able to Pilot her right back down to calm.  The Shepherd and her owners may have had their dog off-leash, but I don’t think the dog realized it. The dog was focused on everything the owners said and did.  It soon became obvious that they were training heavily with her, because they immediately went into practice mode: calling the Shepherd (Amber) and then having Amber stop and sit halfway to the human calling her.  I’d like to say it was fun to watch them work with her.  I’d like to say I could have shared in the exhilaration of watching Amber succeed.

Unfortunately, I had to be ultra-focused on Sparta.  She was rapid firing questions at me, and if I missed answering one, she would enter her panic mode, which some people refer to as “red zone”.  You know it.  I’m sure you’ve seen dogs do it before.  On two legs, lunging, snapping, growling at what they deem a threat.  Not a big deal if you have a Chihuahua, but Sparta is 100 lbs of muscle.  I had just finished a death march with Orion.  I was tired!

I focused on Sparta and answered her most pressing question:  Is that other dog a threat?

Some people get angry or frustrated when their dog asks the same question more than once, but I want you to look at it through your dog’s eyes.  Sparta is a Rottie/Shep.  Her parents both came from prime European stock (and both owners were ignorant enough not to have their dogs fixed, or at least under lock and key when the female went into heat).  Thus I have Sparta.  Each of her parents were worth thousands of dollars because of their pedigree.  She was worth an adoption fee because she’s a mutt.  But I digress.  Stupid dog owners have that effect on me.

Sparta’s parents were both bred for protection (*eye roll*).  That was it.  Sparta, being true to her nature, sees a potential threat (another predator).  That’s like a Border Collie seeing sheep but being told it’s never supposed to herd them.  A Lab being told it’s never ever supposed to go in the water.  In other words, I’m asking her to travel outside of who she is.  What she was meant to do.  What every fiber in her body is telling her: that the other dog is a potential threat that must be investigated.

To put it in human terms, imagine being thrust into a haunted house.  You know, the kind you pay a lot of money for so you can prove to your friends that you didn’t wet your pants. Now imagine nobody told you it was a charade.  You just suddenly ended up in one, and you’d never even heard of such a thing as a haunted house before!  You would be terrified.  Your friend who came with you keeps trying to tell you that’s it’s okay.  You’re trying to calm down, and listen to what they have to say, but OMG WHAT THE #$&!#&@!!! IS THAT THING OVER THERE?!!!!!!

Would you stop asking if you were safe after you were answered the first time?  Probably not.  What about the second?  How many times would you need to be reassured while going through the house?  Some of us may take quite a little while (*raising my hand*).  I would need constant reassurance from whomever I deemed the human “pilot” of this encounter.  I’d have to have a lot of faith in my friend that they were right.

That’s what your dog is going through if they’re dog-reactive.  It isn’t just another dog to them…it’s a potential threat.  Another predator.  They are truly terrified, for your safety, for theirs…it’s a stressful situation.  They aren’t trying to be bad, just as you weren’t trying to be difficult through the haunted house.

I’m not saying that you can’t get frustrated.  I sure get frustrated with Sparta.  I call her some very impressive names (I had inmates in the prison dog program keeping track of my swear words, as they were deemed “excessively creative”).  But here’s the thing: yes, I’ll call her names, but in a calm, bored voice.  I feel a release of stress, and she just sees me as speaking in my normal voice.  My body language doesn’t look stressed or angry.  I fake calm if I have to, but I will be Sparta’s Pilot.  If in order to fake calm I need to take a step back, then fine.  Rather than continuing to walk the track, I could have walked the parking lot.  I decided to go for the gold instead.

Today was trying at first.  But we did it.  We continued our walk.  It took us almost an hour to go 1 mile.  The first lap alone took us almost 30 minutes.  But I kept answering her questions.  I let her know that no matter what crazy things that dog was doing, it didn’t involve us.  The 4th and final lap took 6 minutes.

It can be hard to see outside of the present situation.  But compare.  Just because she isn’t perfect in a situation such as that doesn’t mean she isn’t making tremendous progress.  Yes, she’ll still be a $#&@*(!!!, but that’s a step down from what I was calling her 6 months ago.  And 2 years ago I could have been arrested in some countries for the names I was calling her.

Sparta is a work in progress, and always will be, just like me.  And every tomorrow is a chance to be better than yesterday.  Sparta and I will work on tomorrow together, because I love that little $#&#*!!!, despite her flaws.  The same way she loves me.

 Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

I Can’t Keep Him Anymore

You and I will meet again, When we’re least expecting it, One day in some far off place, I will recognize your face, I won’t say goodbye my friend, For you and I will meet again.

Tom Petty

An open letter to my dog’s new caretaker.  Not every relationship is forever.

I’d like to introduce you to my dog Darwin.  He’s a great dog.  I just can’t keep him here.  I know you’ll do a better job of caring for him, and I know he’ll be happy with you. I really don’t want to say goodbye to him, but I guess I must.  As I said, I can’t keep him here.

Before you take him, there are a few things I’d like you to know about my best friend.  I’ll never meet you before you take him, so I thought I’d write them out for you.  Please pay attention, these are important:

1) Never, ever, EVER leave him unleashed near any amount of water.  That goes for anything from the size of Lake Erie to that rut in the middle of your lawn that sometimes fills with water when it rains.  He will wallow in it like a pig.


Actually, scratch what I just wrote.  Some of my favorites memories of Darwin are of him wallowing in the mud, with a silly smile on his face, tail wagging.  Enjoy those time, too.  If you can’t find the humor in those moments, you don’t deserve my dog.

2) Darwin’s not as fast as he used to be.  He doesn’t get up to greet me anymore when I come home from work.  He still wags his tail when he sees me, but he has an embarrassed look on his face.  One that says, “I love you, Lady, but I’m afraid I might need some help getting up to greet you properly”.  Don’t make him get up…if he’s comfortable, and you make him get up to greet you, you don’t deserve him.  I’d ask for him back, but as I said, I can’t keep him here.

3)  Darwin has a sneaky sense of smell (it’s one of the few senses that haven’t failed him).  He can’t hear me unless I’m close to him, but damn!  That dog can smell a pill in an entire jar of peanut butter.  Mercifully, you won’t have the same problems with needing to give him pills.  But I’m sure he’d still love the peanut butter.

4) Affection.  Darwin is part Lab, part Care Bear.  Make sure you let him know you love him.  His favorite spot is behind his left ear, but recently he loves having his sides scratched.  He’s too old to get at them himself – his legs are so arthritic now, he can only give those areas a perfunctory swipe before he gives up.  Help the old guy out won’t you?

Darwin and Pirate

5) Let him know I love him.  Tell him every day that I didn’t want to give him up.  That I fought tooth and nail for him.  That I fought long after I should have stopped.  Because he’s ready to go with you now.  I can see that.  Like I said, I can’t keep him here.  It isn’t right for me to keep him here.  I know he’ll be fine with you, but it’s so scary for me to watch him cross that bridge, knowing it only goes in one direction.  Just let him know that I’ll be there for him, and that he’s still my boy.

Take care of him.  Tell him I love him.  But most importantly, tell him I’ll be coming for him when I can’t stay here anymore either.  You may have to care for him until I join him, but he’s always going to be my dog.

Darwin's last pic.

Darwin’s last pic. ‘Til we meet again, old friend.


Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

A Look at a Different Trail


Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man – Iain Duncan Smith

I’ve always been amazed by the pure power, determination and courage that dogs have. They are at their happiest doing what they love. Whether it’s playing fetch, soaking up some sun during a nap, hiking through the woods or pulling a sled across miles of cold and freezing terrain. They don’t shy away from hard work and that’s one reason that they are absolutely amazing.

Crazy Dog Kennel is a unique type of rescue organization. They are located in Alaska, and take dogs that other kennels don’t have the room for and they rehab them. And then, they teach them how to be sled dogs. Some are best for household pets, others are happiest pulling a sled around as a team, and others like to do it solo and as a recreational activity. Either way Crazy Dog Kennel takes a chance on these dogs when no one else will.

In January of this past year, photographer Diana Zalucky, visited Crazy Dog Kennel and even had the opportunity to go on a 4 day race with them. She captured images from her adventure and they are breathtaking and powerful. We often forget what our dogs are capable of. And sometimes, we need a reminder at how amazing and breathtaking these animals are. So, enjoy her photos here and give your dog an extra pat today just for being a dog.

Keep calm and pilot on

Danika Migliore
Darwin Dogs, LLC
Dog Training in Clevland, OH

Unconditionally Pavlovian

Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)

- Kenny Rogers and The First Edition


Cute-Dog-Reading-About-Pavlov-Funny-Picture-There have been many arguments about whether to use negative or positive reinforcement.  As I’ve stated in the past, absolutes are absolutely ludicrous:  both negatives and positives are needed.  You can’t have one without the other.  Only by using both appropriately can you help your dog thrive. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize how easy it is to confuse your dog with the wrong kind of positive reinforcement.

Prime example:  A shelter dog named Simba.  Simba, for whatever reason, had been improperly socialized as a youngster, and grew into a young adult who exhibited dangerous behaviors.  As a puppy he should have learned what is appropriate and inappropriate play.  Not to jump.  Not to bite.  He should have learned moderation and self-control.  Typically this is learned from other pack members as a young pup (why do you think we don’t take puppies away from their family too early – they’re learning!).  Simba wasn’t a bad dog, nor was he aggressive in the slightest.  His problem was that he was very demanding.  He was a spoiled brat.

Simba was very willing to learn…for a price.  If Simba wanted to play, he would grab your clothing and drag you to the ground to wrestle.  If he wanted to go somewhere other than where you wanted during a walk, he would drag you there, sometimes by an arm or leg.  If you did something he didn’t like, he would nip you.  Hard.  Now I want you think about what would happen if a child were to engage in this sort of behavior.  Odds are, you’d give them negative reinforcement of some sort to let them know that this behavior is unacceptable.  Unfortunately in the shelter environment that Simba was in, they only believed in positive reinforcement.

At first it looked as if it were working.  If Simba started to pull on a walk, his handler would whip out some boiled chicken to coax him back into a polite pace (Simba would not listen for anything less than boiled chicken – no Milkbones here!).  If Simba jumped up and grabbed an arm or pant leg, he was bargained with:  release my arm and I’ll give you some chicken.  Again, it seemed to be working!

Now, some of you may be noticing a problem here.  See, Simba was an extremely intelligent dog.  He started to figure out the system.

“If I bite someone or become violent with them, they give me a treat! I’ve finally got this whole human thing figured out!”

What happens if you don’t have a treat?  This:

The only pic I can, for decencies' sake, I can publicly post

The only pic of the volunteer I can, for decencies’ sake, publicly post Quite a bite, huh?

One of the volunteers was attacked by Simba.  She literally had her shirt ripped off by him and was bitten several times on the torso area.  Again, Simba wasn’t what you’d call aggressive (I know…biting not aggressive?).  He had humans figured out:  he sat when told, he’d get chicken.  He released someone when he was playing, and he’d get some chicken.  Well, the human ran out of chicken when he had a hold of her.  In Simba’s mind, she didn’t keep up the end of the bargain!  So he did it again, and again, expecting the volunteer to finally figure out what he was telling her:  give me some chicken like you’re supposed to!

Simba’s story doesn’t have a happy ending.  He was eventually quarantined, and only select members of the shelter were allowed to work with him (still using only positive reinforcement).  Eventually, it was decided that he needed to be put down.  He was euthanized because nobody cared to tell him “no”.

So how could this have ended differently?  You’re probably wondering, didn’t I state in the first paragraph of this post that both negative and positive were needed?

Yes, but only done correctly.

Let me give you a different scenario.  My daughter, River (age 6) and my son, Eric (age 9) have quite a few things expected of them with regard to chores.  For example, Eric has to do dishes.  River is in charge of keeping the baseboards in the house clean. They are children, so they have to be reminded to do it (that’s why they’re called “kids” and not “adults”).  But I simply tell them to do it, and off they run and do it.  Their reward?  A hug and a thank you.  About once a week we go on a cleaning spree.  They are expected to help me clean for a couple hours.  I give them age-appropriate tasks, which they complete without putting up a fight or complaining.  If they need help, I give it to them.  But typically they don’t.  And typically, they do a great job.  Again, no complaining, and their reward is a thank you and praise.


Yeah, I don’t know why they’re cleaning in their PJ’s either.

Now, sometimes I when give them the mandatory thank you and praise, and throw in an extra.  Some money.  A trip to the zoo when we’re done.  An ice-cream treat. Once it was a Nintendo DS.  It’s not a reward for doing what I told them to do:  that’s expected!  It’s merely added to the “thank you” they receive.  And it is never presented in the “If you do X, I’ll give you Y” fashion.  They never find out about it until after the task is complete.

Are you seeing how this should be applied to dogs?  If a dog is biting me, I’ll give him a negative, and then they stop.  I will not reward the dog for respecting me.  I expect respect from a dog.  I give it in return.  But sometimes you can see a dog is really struggling, and comes through with good choices.  For example, walking with Sparta, and there’s a suicidal squirrel who runs directly in our path and decides to hang out (really…WTF squirrel!!!).  That’s a hard one.  Sparta has high prey drive.  Yes, I tell her to leave it, but it’s a struggle for her.  That’s where Touch, Talk, Treat comes in to play.

I have her conditioned.  Every time I give her a treat, or even her enrichment toy, she gets a gentle scratch behind the ears, as well as gentle praise.  Very soon she linked the Touch and the Talk to the Treat/Food.  Once you have that Pavlovian response going, you can give your dog a hard-core positive without the food.  So when she passes by that squirrel without making a ruckus, she gets Touch and Talk.  The Treat is implied, the same way “jelly” is implied if I say I’m making a peanut butter sandwhich because jelly and PB are always linked together.  Maybe she’ll get a treat later.  But the thing is, she doesn’t expect it.  It’s like the lottery:  you have to play to win.  Yes, occasionally I’ll have pocketed some treats to give her, but it’s not an expected.

The problem with Simba was that conditioning works both ways.  “We had a deal … I do *this* and you give me a treat when I stop.”  So who was wrong?  He kept up his end of the bargain.


Who’s being conditioned?

Positives are tied for the most useful thing in training…with negatives.  Eventually, proper use of both will shift the tide of things:  pretty soon you are only giving positives.  Good positives, given in the correct instances.  Sparta has not had a problem with squirrels in quite a while. Every so often she still get a treat for passing one.  She’s on the right path and doesn’t need to be guided towards it very much any more, so I can reward her for choosing well. Same with my kids.  We’re heading out for ice-cream right now.  They don’t know it yet.  But they did a great job, and (as usual) didn’t complain once.  They deserve a treat.

River and Eric at their favorite ice-cream shop.

River and Eric at their favorite ice-cream shop.


Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Dawrin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

Generally Speaking

All generalizations are false, including this one.

Mark Twain

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

I went out to a local Thai restaurant a few weeks ago.  I brought home the leftovers, and when I ate them the next day, ended up getting food poisoning.  I decided that this was very dangerous to the health and safety of the general populace in my area, so I decided to take action.  I’ve started a petition to ban Thai restaurants in my city.  Public safety comes first.  That’s why I’m including any Chinese, Japanese and Cambodian restaurants in my proposition as well:  I’m mean, they’re basically the same food, right?  And I’d rather nobody had to experience what I went through.  It’s a known fact that people are more likely to get food poisoning from these styles of cooking than any other type of cuisine.  I’m going to include Indian food in the ban as well.  Better safe than sorry.

If you’re reading this and shaking your head, wondering if I’ve gone bonkers, you know how I feel now reading about breed specific legislation.

And both manage to avoid all rational thought.

And both manage to avoid all rational thought.

Yes, technically I did get sick from some Thai food that I ate…but my fridge malfunctioned and the food was left at room temperature for waaaay too long.  Essentially, because I did not harbor the food properly, it turned against me.  I didn’t take care to ensure it was in a safe environment, and against all precautions, ate it.  And paid the price for it.  However, I’m pretty sure that if I had chosen to eat the meatloaf that was left in similar conditions, I would have ended up with the same results.

I have indeed gotten food poisoning through no fault of my own – twice.  But considering how often I eat out (2x or more per week), having food poisoning a couple times in my life is a pretty amazing track record.

Let's stay positive about this.

Let’s stay positive about this.

Claiming that a breed of dog is inherently “bad” is about as sane and rational as declaring an entire cuisine poisonous based upon one bad experience, regardless of who is at fault. So I question the mentality of banning an entire breed, let alone lumping several in together because they “look alike”.

Currently, in the city of Lakewood, Ohio, the law reads:

 ”As used in this section, “pit bull dog” means any Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier or American Staffordshire Terrier breed of dog, any dog of mixed breed which has the appearance and characteristics of being predominantly of such breeds, any dog commonly known as a pit bull, pit bull dog or pit bull terrier; or a combination of any of these breeds. ” – LAKEWOOD, OH., ORDINANCES § 506.03(b)

Excuse me….did we just legislate against something using the word “appearance”?  Zucchini may have the appearance of a cucumber, but it ain’t the same thing. (As a matter of fact, my abhorrence for zucchini runs so deeply I had to spell it 5 times before finally running to spellcheck for assistance.)

Zuchini...zuchinni? Abomination That Masquerades As A Cucumber?

Zuchini…zuchinni? Abomination That Masquerades As A Cucumber?

 So lawmakers have opened that horrible floodgate of legislation based on appearance – one I thought we had finally closed years ago.  Do we really want to re-open that can of worms?  I didn’t think so.

Pit bulls (which are actually many breeds lumped together to form a “group”) have plenty of faults: most of which arise from the fact that they are dogs.  They are just like every other dog.  They can be sweet, they can sometimes be annoying.  They require Piloting, Activity and Work (or what we refer to as “PAW“) just like every other dog.  Mostly they’re interested in whatever it is that you are eating, and whether or not they can get a belly rub from you.  They will defend, they will run away.  It all depends upon the dog.

Members of Lakewood City Council are starting to realize the toxic nature of these laws.  jSam O’Leary, councilman for the City of Lakewood, has this to say:

“Lakewood’s BSL unfairly punishes a breed for the actions of irresponsible owners. Lakewood should hold the responsible party accountable: the owners of a vicious dog. When we legislate based on fear instead of the facts, we end up with policies that are ineffective, unfair, and fail to protect our neighbors and pets. Lakewood’s repeal of BSL is long overdue.”

I’m against judging a dog by their looks.  I like judging dogs by their actions.  Based upon who they are, not what they look like.  I believe in accurate breed profiling.  But most of all, I believe that the sum is worth more than the parts.  Case by case determination of what constitutes a “vicious dog”.  Repercussions for irresponsible owners.  I favor education over legislation any day.  I hope you do, too. I ask that you help make you voice heard by joining in our Pittie Parade – councilman O’Leary will be there marching with us.  If you can’t walk, join us for our after party sponsored by Quaker Steak and Lube in Lakewood (who will be donating a portion of their proceeds for the day to helping us eliminate breed profiling). Donations will be made to the participating shelters. Click here for more information.


Keep calm and pilot on


Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio


Your Superhero Powers

- Brittany Graham Photography

– Brittany Graham Photography

With great power, comes great responsibility – Uncle Ben

We talk about Piloting a lot here at Darwin Dogs. It’s so important. It’s necessary to make sure you have as much money in your Piloting bank as you can. You can earn Piloting money by going on walks and showing your dog that you can make sure you both stay alive, by teaching your pup new commands, working on agility and answering your dog’s questions. Each time you do one of these items, you add to your Piloting Bank. This is an awesome power you have. You’re gaining your dog’s trust. But like with all powers, Piloting powers comes with great responsibility.

Last weekend, Porter joined us for a hike. He loves hiking and seeing as it was the first hike of the season he was extra excited. There was a lot of pent up energy and I needed to exhaust him of it quickly. The easiest way to do that with Porter is to find some fallen logs and make him jump over and climb up them. (This is where working with your dog on agility and the “over” and “up” commands comes in handy! Remember: you don’t need an official agility course. Use what’s around you!) I found a large tree that had succumbed to the harsh winter we had and had Porter jump over the lower part of the log a few times. He still had a lot of energy so I figured I would have him jump to the part of the log that was off the ground.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

My thought process was, if I give him the command he’ll adjust his position to where he could jump safely to the top of the tree. Well, yes that was my assumption but we all know what you turn into when you assume.

Porter jumped immediately. He heard me say the command “up” and he went “Whatever you say Mom” and jumped right away hitting his head on the bottom of the trunk causing himself to fall and have to shake off the minor concussion. (No dogs were harmed in the making of this blog post)

Now, this was my fault. I forgot that with the amount of Piloting money I have in my bank, Porter will listen to me know matter what, even if it might seem a little against his self-preservation instincts. Porter shook it off like a champ though and we tried one more time, from a place that I knew would be a little bit safer for him to jump on to.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

It was a good lesson for me to remember. Once you get enough money in your Piloting bank, you have to be cognizant of the fact that your dog trusts you implicitly. A lot of responsibility comes with that power. And if you forget that every once in a while, and maybe your dog hits his head on a tree, just laugh it off. Don’t be too hard on yourself. We’re only human! Our dogs know that. And they’re okay with that.

Keep calm and pilot on

Danika Migliore
Darwin Dogs, LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, OH

Double Trouble

“Everything in moderation…including moderation.”  - Ben Franklin

So you’ve got one dog you’re having problems with.  Maybe Fido is hyper.  Maybe Fido is bored.  Usually Fido just won’t listen to you. You’re at your wit’s end trying to cope with this dog.  And then you stumble upon a wonderful idea….a second dog!  The logic seems sound – another dog will help with the separation anxiety.  It will help wear your first dog out.  Perhaps things will be easier with another dog to keep your first dog occupied.  It’s like communism – it only looks good on paper.

The same goes for multiple dogs.

The same goes for multiple dogs.

I have indeed seen quite a few instances where a second dog helped out tremendously with keeping the first dog occupied/not alone/stable. But only if your first dog is successfully Piloted.

Let me put it this way: suppose you have a child who is giving you no end of trouble.  They are constantly getting bad grades, not doing homework, and talking back all the time.  Would your solution be a second child?  Of course not.  You’d try to work with the issues you first child is having and then, perhaps, once those are sorted out, have a second child.  The same goes for your dog.

Once you have your dog successfully Piloted, a second dog may be a good idea, but only if your first dog is getting the Piloting, Activity and Work that they need. Only when you are consistently answering all of your dog’s questions.  Yes, it may take a lot of work, but you’re doing it, and you’ve got your dog at a pretty good place.  Now is a good time to consider a second dog to help you out.  Adding a second dog doesn’t negate your need to Pilot either of them.  You still must answer both of their questions, but instead of bringing in more chaos, you are controlling the situation before adding stimulation.

You’ll have an adjustment period where you have to answer questions for two dogs, which may initially be tougher, but keeping things running smoothly and answering questions as they arise is so much easier than trying to untangle a mess that a lack of Piloting creates.

Adding another dog isn’t like adding more sugar in your sugar bowl.  It’s more like adding another book to your library.  What kind of book are we talking here?  Dr. Suess?  James Joyce?  Are you looking for an adventure book?  Perhaps a self help or maybe Sci-Fi?  There are so many books to choose from!  Dogs have personalities, so you aren’t adding a dog so much as a new flavor to your pack.  You are trying to create a recipe of personalities, and just like those chocolate raspberry bacon mint cookies you saw on Pinterest may take some …uh, getting used to, some flavors are simply more difficult to palate when combined than others.

When choosing a new dog, don’t forget to make a checklist of wants vs. needs, but this time you are going to be taking into consideration your current dog’s personality.  It’s a balancing act.  Your dog has a lot of energy, perhaps another dog with a lot of energy will wear your Fido out, but it may also create a situation where all these guys want to do is play, including in the house (which is where your Piloting skills need to come in).  If you have a dog who has separation anxiety, getting another dog who is prone to it as well won’t help -you want a calming influence, not a partner in destruction (remember, separation anxiety isn’t about being left home alone so much as being left without a Pilot). Feel out your potential new dog’s personality, and consider how it will mesh with your current dog.

I personally have two dogs:  Sparta and Orion.  Sparta is slow, steady, calm and has no separation anxiety.  She does, however, have dog reactivity.  Orion is fast, hyper and has separation anxiety.  The two balance each other perfectly.  Sparta relies on Orion to give the alerts (which he never does).  Sparta has a calming effect on Orion.  However, both are Piloted by me.

 If your dog is depressed, due to the passing of another pack member, allow them time to grieve.   Dogs do indeed mourn, so don’t turn around the next day and get a new dog.  Your dog may have lost their Pilot (yes, you may be their Pilot as well, but there is a pecking order).  First make sure you have strengthened your bond with your current dog, and then consider adding to your pack.

When working with dogs, always remember to start with calm.  Only then can you add stimulation (or in this case, another canine).  If you start while you’re in a good place with your current dog, adding a dog will be a very rewarding (and entertaining!) experience.

Keep calm and pilot on