Child’s Play

Every child should have two things: a dog, and a mother willing to let him have one.

 - Anonymous



Yesterday at the National Dog Show in Philadelphia, this happened.  This little girl, handling this large hound.  She’s only 10 years old.  The look on her face says that she’s bonded with the dog, focused on him to the exclusion of the chaos around her, and as you can see here, things can get chaotic.  The dog looks at her with something akin to worship.

A ten year old girl holding her own against a crowd of people who “know better”.  Who have been working with dogs since before she was born.


People who have may have lost that innocent connection with the greatest friend man has ever had.   I’ve made my thoughts very clear about dog shows and breeders in general.  This little girl has it right.  The look on her face says she there not about a breed, not about the prize, or any of the other trappings that distance us from our pets and turn them into a commodity rather than a companion.  She’s there because of one dog.  The dog that has already one Best of Show in her world.

 Keep calm and pilot on


Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

The Buddy System

 It’s so much more friendly with two- A.A. Milne, Winnie The Pooh

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

If you pull up any article that starts with “The 5 Best Ways To Motivate Yourself To (Insert Hobby Here: Run, Lose Weight, Start Yoga, Learn to Knit, etc.)” usually, somewhere on that list is this advice: Don’t do it alone, grab a friend to go with you.

So guess what I’m going to tell you is a great way to start working on your walking skills:

Don’t do it alone! Grab a friend to go with you!

Doing a Pack Walk of 2 (or 4 once you add in the four legged ones) is extremely beneficial.

Make sure you go with someone that you’re comfortable with. It needs to be someone who has similar ideas on walking as you and is also a good Pilot for their dog. The main ingredient here is to choose someone that you can offer advice to and who can take advice from you. We’re not perfect and we need other people to help us out.


Brittany Graham Photography


Here are the top 5 reasons you should grab someone else, along with their dog, and go on a walk:

      1. You’ll feel more motivated to actually get out there

-          Right now, it’s freezing out. It’s dark. It’s pretty much miserable. However, if someone else is counting on you to show up, then you’re more likely to get out there and get your pup for a walk. Even though it’s gross out, your dog still needs his activity. This is a great way to make sure everyone gets outside and gets the activity they need. If someone else is counting on you, you’re more likely to go.

       2. You’ll be working on building your pack

-          When dogs go on a walk together, they become pack. By walking next to another dog and their owner, answering your pup’s questions (Is that dog walking right next to us a threat? No, Porter, no he’s not. Oh, okay, can I play with him then? Nope, not right now.) You’re making your dog accept the other dog as part of the pack. He will start to realize that this other dog isn’t so bad and you can all walk together in a leisurely manner. This builds on his social interaction skills along with trusting your Piloting.

        3.  You have someone to talk to when you decide your dog is being a jerk

-          Recently, Porter and I did our own little mini pack walk with my friend Karis and her dog, James Franco. When Porter was being difficult on the walk it was nice to turn to someone and say, “What a jerk right?” Instead of just being by yourself, talking to your dog, and letting people think you’re crazy. But, in all seriousness, it’s nice to have someone who can agree, let you know you’re not alone in how you feel, and move on. You don’t have to keep it inside and there’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing you’re not the only one who has these issues.

 Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

        4. You can switch dogs when yours is being too difficult

-          This is KEY. When your dog is really getting on your nerves, and you’re starting to get frustrated, switch dogs. You’ll be amazed at the difference. It’s easier for someone else to walk your dog than you. It’s also easier for you to walk someone else’s dog. Why? Because there’s less history. Your friend has given your dog less love and affection than you have. It won’t be perfect at first of course, but switching dogs allows you to focus on another dog that you don’t feel as emotionally connected with. Which means you’ll be less frustrated and able to focus on your Piloting skills. And you’ll see their results right away.

Karis and I switched dogs on our walk and it was great. She got a break from her 9 month old border collie and I got a break from Porter. Now, if you have a dog reactive dog like I do, just be aware of your surroundings. I saw a dog ahead of us that was on a retractable (friends don’t let friends use retractable leashes, by the way), so I asked Karis if she was comfortable walking Porter by the other dog or not.

She was honest and said that she wasn’t comfortable with that yet, so we switched dogs back. No big deal. You can switch dogs as much and as many times as you want and whenever you want. Keep it interesting, but also keep it within your comfort zone.

         5. You’ll want to go again

-          Going on a walk with someone else is fun! You can catch up on each other’s lives. You can complain about your dogs. You can talk about the latest episodes or bounce new ideas off of each other.


What all that talking does is, makes you forget about your dog. Your instincts will kick in and you’ll think less and just do. And the time will fly by. You won’t realize you’ve already gone on an hour walk. The whole experience will be more enjoyable which means you’ll want to go again. And once you make plans with your walking Partner, you’re back to reason #1: because someone will be counting on you to show up.

So, find someone out there that you can pair up with and get your Activity on. It will benefit you and your pup. Walking is so important for your dog. We know it’s hard to be motivated once the sun seems to be in slumber for a while and the weather is not enjoyable. But this is a great way to keep yourself motivated and work on those Piloting skills!

Keep calm and pilot on

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

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 word.

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 mold 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 an 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 persona 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 currently am boarding the world’s most adorable Labradoodle, Cody, in my home due to his owner’s recent 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

The Real Story

Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy. 

- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Remayah, aged 5

Remayah, aged 5

A little girl was mauled over the weekend in Florida.  Little 5-year old Ramayah was outside riding her bike when the neighbor’s dog rushed up and attacked her.  Little girl would have been brutally ripped apart if it weren’t for one thing:  her own dog rescued her.  Does the breed of dog matter to you?  Okay, fine, it was a pit bull.  No…not the dog who attacked the girl – the dog who saved the little girl’s life.  The attacking dog was a lab mix.  Is it important?  No.  Here’s why:

A little girl was mauled.

That’s it.  That’s the most important story.  Not what great dog pit bulls are and look how it saved that little girl’s life.  A dog saved his little girl’s life.  Furthermore, the attacking dog that authorities are claiming was a Lab mix?  Well…does it matter?

Another child was mauled.

Obviously a great debt is owed to little Remayah’s family pet.  After all, Remayah might very well not be here today if it weren’t for the bravery that the dog showed in defending his little girl.  Am I glad that it was a pit bull who was defending his little girl against the other dog?  No.

Because a little girl’s face is now disfigured.

I think there is a bit of a problem if someone takes the fact that a pit bull was the defender, and a Lab was the aggressor, as the main rallying point in this story.  That’s inconsequential.  If it takes an attack from another like this to show that pit bulls are not vicious and are bravely loyal companions, well, we already knew that.  And it’s not always the case, as we read here.  Sometimes pit bulls can indeed maul.  They are, after all, dogs.  Just like the Lab who attacked in this situation.  Dog is a dog is a dog is a dog, as Gertrude Stein might say.  So instead of turning this story into the glory that is pit bull, let me distill this into what actually happened:


A little girl was physically and emotionally traumatized when an unsecured dog attacked her.  Her own dog defended her, most likely preventing her from certain death. 

That is the take-away.  That is the real story.  The story is about a little girl whose name is Remayah, who will never be the same.  It is not  a story about glorifying pit bulls.  It’s about glorifying a little child’s dog, who bravely charged to her rescue.  More importantly, it’s about safety.  Why this never should have happened to begin with.

Who is at at fault?  Certainly not 5-year old Remayah, who was merely riding her bike.  What about the Lab?  Is it the Lab’s fault for trying to protect his own pack and family from what he obviously took as a threat?  You may automatically condemn the Lab for attacking the girl, but a child whirring up and down the street on a bike can indeed be a very scary thing for a dog.  No, I seriously doubt the Lab could have even been deemed “aggressive”, as you will read here.  It was most likely trying to protect his home, which is an intrinsic right for any living creature.

The fault belongs squarely on the shoulders of the Lab’s owner(s).  Any dog is can be a living weapon and must be secured at all times, including a Lab.  Also, in my experience (which isn’t minute), a dog does not just one day wake up and start exhibiting reactions to kids on bikes like this.  Questions had probably been asked by this dog for quite a while, giving the owners some indication that this was indeed a dog who needed to be more than adequately secured.  “I thought I had locked him up”, is not an acceptable answer, no more than “I thought I had put my car in ‘Park’”, just after it rolls down the driveway and crushes a child riding a bike.  It’s not the vehicle’s fault.  It’s not the dog’s fault.

So, at this point I’m sure some of you are angry that I didn’t make a bigger deal about the hero dog being a pit bull.  Honestly, I’m not surprised that it was a pittie doing the rescuing, and the amount of gratitude I have for that dog is tremendous.  He saved a little girl. They are great dogs, just like every other dog.   Faithful, loyal, and loving.

“With my last breath, I’ll exhale my love for you. I hope it’s a cold day, so you can see what you meant to me.
”  – Jarod Kintz

But that’s not the story here.

Because a little girl was mauled.  That’s the real story.

If you would like to donate towards Remayah’s recovery, please check out this link.

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

Dogs of Fame

Last, I would like to thank the dogs, not just the Vick pack, but all of them, simply for being dogs, which is to say, tolerant and perseverant; willing to connect with a world that does not always return their affection; and proving, time and again, that life, while messy, difficult and imperfect, has the capacity to exceed our expectations and feed our undying hope – Jim Gorant, author of The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption

From our Pittie Parade last March! - Brittany Graham Photography

From our Pittie Parade last March!
- Brittany Graham Photography

They’re some of the most famous dogs. If anyone mentions “The Michael Vick Dogs”, you know who they’re talking about. Yes, they had a terrible past. The things they went through were disgusting, horrid, and exemplify the worst in humans. However, when they were rescued, they had a whole new set of challenges.

Any pit bull out there is an ambassador for their breed. However, these dogs were in the spotlight. Of course, they didn’t feel the pressure, they didn’t know. They were just dogs. They had gone through traumatic and terrifying experiences and now they had to learn to trust humans again. Everyone working with them, the rescuers, the volunteers, the donaters, the pit bull community, felt the pressure. And all we could do was sit, wait, give them time and love, and hope they would get a chance to just be dogs again.


If you are looking for something to read, The Lost Dogs by Jim Gorant is one of the most powerful, difficult, and well written books out there. It starts at the beginning  of their lives, some passages are painful to read, you’ll cry. There’s no way around that. But then there’s the rescuing, the success, and the love these dogs give and receive.

To see these dogs have a second chance at life is amazing. This article followed up on these amazing dogs and gives a glimpse into their beautiful lives and beautiful hearts. Take a minute and smile at these success stories.

Some more Pittie lovers from our Parade -Brittany Graham Photography

Some more Pittie lovers from our Parade
-Brittany Graham Photography

Whether you’re a pit bull fan or not, it shouldn’t matter. These dogs were able to overcome great odds. They were able to show the world what a dog’s heart is made of. Only gold and love. It’s a testament to anyone in the rescue world,including volunteers, fosters and adopters.

And if you are a pit bull fan…. well, it’s just one more instance where they’ve shown the world what they’re made of. Exactly what every other dog is made of, gold and love. Nothing less.

Keep calm and pilot on

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

Point Taken Quite Literally

 It doesn’t take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go.

J. C. Watts

Dog-Sad-Depressed-SickMy neighbor two houses over and I have a nodding acquaintance.  She happens to own a rather large mastiff mix who I just think is the cat’s meow.  He’s big, sweet, and goofy.  He does have a small problem with other dogs, though, and is prone to barking at them and lunging.  No, I’ve never mentioned to my neighbor that I train dogs – it always strikes me as rude and presumptuous.  At this stage in my life, I realize that those who want help will seek it.

And seek it she did.  A few weeks ago I looked out my window to see that there was a gentleman in her front yard working with her to train her dog.  I was pleased – the dog would no longer be frightened of other dogs (which, as I explain here,  is the real reason the dog was reacting so badly).

But then I was horrified.

They were using a prong collar on the dog.  And lifting him off the ground with it. I watched out my window as this dog was having pain inflicted upon it merely for the simple act of being afraid of another dog.  The trainer had brought another little dog with him as bait, the same thing I do with Orion.  Every time the larger dog would show any interest in the bait dog, the larger dog was held aloft by the prong collar.  The worst thing was that this dog wasn’t even too terribly dog-reactive.  He had a simple question:  “Is that other dog a threat?” , and every time he even asked the question, instead of receiving an answer, he was stabbed by the collar all around his neck.

Kinda like my gently placing barbed wire around your neck and then suspending you by it.

Prong collar designed so people can't see you're using a prong collar.

Prong collar designed so people can’t see you’re using a prong collar.

I desperately wanted to say or do something, but I realized that wasn’t the time to do it.  Anything I could say would like like, at best professional jealousy.  At worst, I could come across as an extremist.  So I waited a few days.

The next time I saw the dog outside with his owner, I approached the owner and made the usual small talk.  Finally I broached the real reason I was there.  I asked if she was comfortable using the prong collar, because there were a lot less stressful ways to work with a dog that don’t inflict pain upon them.  She gave the me the usual rhetoric that it doesn’t really hurt them.  I chose a different tact, asking if she were even strong enough to life the dog off the ground with it.  She claimed that she didn’t do that, it wasn’t necessary.  I looked down at the dog, who was still wearing that offensive thing.  She wasn’t even using it “just to train”.  She was keeping it on him 24/7.  Meaning every time he would lay his head down, there would be that familiar prick in his neck.  Every time he turned his head, that familiar scrape of mettle across his flesh would be felt.  I realize at this point anything I said would fall on deaf ears.  I wished her luck with her training and left.

To be honest, I don’t have anything personally against prong collars.  I think they are an effective tool in working with dogs when used properly.  But that’s the problem.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen one used properly.  They are meant to be tugged and then released in a microsecond, causing a “tap” of a bite all around the dog’s neck, not a “my throat is being ripped open” sensation.  I cannot always use them properly.  Therefore I will never personally use one

There is no added measure of security with a prong collar: they only tighten so far.  You can’t actually incapacitate a very dangerous animal with one, say, if a dog were literally ripping another dog apart, or if a dog had such a high prey drive that it was dragging you across a busy intersection towards a rabbit on the other side of the road.  All a prong collar does in those situations is add more stress (and pain!) to an already stressful situation.

For safety’s sake I always use a nylon slip lead.  I never leave it on the dog; it stays on the leash at all times.  And if you’ve ever trained with me, you know my mantra:  if you choke your dog with it, you’re a jerk.  That’s not why they’re used.  I prefer them for a couple reasons:


- If something horrific happens, say, Fido gets terribly spooked and tries to flee into oncoming traffic, or is aggressive and decides he need to cross that intersection right now, sometimes there’s nothing you can do.  Rather than allow him to be killed by a car, I would keep the slip lead as tight as I could make it, forcing him to lose blood and oxygen, and he goes down.  He’s hurt really bad, but not dead. Again, this is only in a life or death situation. 

- More importantly, the main reason I use slip leads is because I’ve had dogs get out of every form of collar out there, from harnesses to martingales.  Some dogs have awkwardly shaped heads and not much stays around their necks (greyhounds, for instance).  Other dogs are just Houdinis getting out of everything (pugs, dachshunds and terriers).  No matter what, it’s my job to keep my dog safe.  That means leashed at all times.

So, next question: how do you use a slip lead correctly?  A flick of your wrist.  That’s it.  For a lot of dogs I work with I merely tap the leash with my finger, causing a tapping sensation on the collar, akin to tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention.  Never constant tension.  

The important thing to understand is that Fido has a question that still needs to be answered:  “Is that other dog a threat?”  Pain from a prong collar certainly does not answer that question.  Neither does a tap from a slip lead.  The slip lead is utilized the same way tapping someone on the shoulder is: to get them to look at you.  Remember, dogs are based upon body language.  If you have something to say to them, they have to be looking at you to see your answer.  Tap the leash, they look up, and they see your body language:  No, Fido, that other dog isn’t a threatRead here for exactly how to do it.

Back to the prong collar that my poor neighbor dog is wearing.  His owner may not even realize how painful it is to him.  For every ounce of force she puts on the prong collar, he feels it multiplied by ten on his neck.  She’s completely removed from the amount of damage she’s inflicting upon him, sort of like the President pushing the “nuke button”.  It’s just the simple pressing of a button to him, but the effects are far beyond that little bit of effort.  The input isn’t the same as the output.  I do not feel that a human should ever be so far removed from what they are doing to their dog.  I know exactly how much force I’m putting into the slip lead because I can feel it on my end.  It’s equal from me to him. There’s no barbs on the end of it.  I’m not keeping it engaged and tight.  More importantly, I’m answering my dog’s questions with body language rather than causing them pain for even asking the question to being with.

Every time I look out that window and see that poor dog trying to relax in the yard while wearing a prong collar, my heart breaks.  That’s not about Piloting your dog: that’s about dominating your dog.  I don’t ever feel the need to have such power over the pain my dog can feel.  I can’t dominate my dog Sparta – she’s 100 lbs. of muscle!  All I can do is Pilot her through the questions she may have, and make sure she has enough faith and trust in me to trust my answers to her questions.



No, I will never answer Sparta’s questions with violence.  I’m her Pilot because she trusts me.  And you can’t force trust with metal prongs.

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


Be grateful for the home you have, knowing that at this moment, all you have is all you need.

 - Sarah Ban Breathnach

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

So you’ve done your research and done a good job of it.  I’ve made an educated decision about which dog you’d like to adopt, and there he sits in the backseat of your car, on your way home.  You’ve got the the dog food, the vet appointment is set up, and perhaps you’ve even made an appointment with a dog trainer to get off on the right paw foot.

So now what do you do?

Here’s a step by step on how to acclimate your dog to their new home. It’s all about stages and not overwhelming a dog at any point.

1) On the way home, in the car, give your new family member plenty of time to sniff you. Give him a positive (a tiny reward or at least some praise and petting) every time.  What you are doing is linking your smell to a positive.  You’re a good thing.  That will translate later when he’s in a house that smells like, well, you.

Scent is a very important thing for humans.  We bond through scent.  We cradle babies by our armpits so they can smell us and be relaxed.  We hug for the same reason – sharing scent.  How often has a crying baby been brought in to snuggle with mom, and then, without nursing or anything, instantly falls asleep?  They smell mom and feel soothed.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

For a dog, nothing smells safer than pack.  Pack is like a security blanket, and the bigger that blanket is, the better it smells.  You are the dog’s new pack.  Familiarize him with the scent as much as you can.  Providing a lot of positive combined with your scent makes it a very comforting thing for new pooch needs.

2) Take your dog immediately into a quite, secluded area of the house.  If you’ve set a crate up for them, put them in the crate and just quietly hang out by them for a while, again, equating your scent with the safety of the crate.  The crate isn’t a bad thing, it’s their “bedroom”.  A place that is safe and entirely theirs.  Allow them to become familiar with it immediately.

3) Give frequent potty breaks.  A lot of shelters will say that a dog is housebroken because the dog never messed in their cage.  While they aren’t lying, the dog may not be housebroken.  A lot of dogs will not eliminate in their cage or crate.  Start off on the right foot immediately by following the basic rules for housebreaking, outlined here.

Don’t get upset if your dog marks in the house.  This can be quite normal for the first day.  A lot of dogs will do it once or twice, and then never do it again.  They are merely adding their own scent to the house, often as a way to self soothe.

4) Put yourself in the Pilot position.  I say over and over again that Piloting is a huge piggy bank, and whomever has the most money wins the position.  Start adding money to your bank immediately, before your dog has any chance to add money to their bank.  Don’t allow them to jump on you.  Don’t allow them to demand your attention (a dog version of “may I please be pet” should always be expected).   Start answering their questions now.  They’re going to want to know the rules of the house, so be kind enough to give them the answers.  Some answers are “yes” and some are “no”.  Read here to find out how to give it to them.

5) Take them for a (calm) walk.  No, not in the Metroparks, or downtown.  Try your backyard.  Somewhere that still sorta smells like pack, but will still require a leash (yes, even if your yard is fenced in).  You are adding even more money to your Piloting piggy bank.  If you need some help with leash walking, read this series on how to do it without drama.  Remember to praise and reward for any potty activity that takes place outside.

6) Put your dog on a leash and walk them around your house, allowing them to sniff and smell.  They are familiarizing themselves with the area, and it feels safer to explore if their Pilot/New Best Friend is doing it with them.  Remember, though, a lot of dogs have never been acclimated to living in a house.  Some may not know the rules.  They’re dogs not humans, so be prepared for some crazy behavior, such as jumping on tables or counters to investigate, etc. You have them on a leash so you can easily answer their question, which is, “Is this acceptable?”  Um….no, Fido.  Not in the slightest.

Do not allow your dog full run of the house immediately.  Start with small areas, and has your trust in them grows, go ahead and add areas of freedom for them.  Baby gates are integral for this.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

7) Bedtime.  Ah…this can be the hard part.  You’ve set yourself up as Pilot, your dog is (mostly) acclimated to the house.  But now comes the scary part…being alone all night.  If you want your dog to sleep in bed with you, go for it.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  However, if the dog is to sleep elsewhere, you have to help them prep for this.  The worst thing you can do is try to pop the pup in the cage for the night without any prep work.

You are going to do a crash course in separation anxiety.  The first time he’s alone in his crate shouldn’t be for 8 hours while you’re (trying) to sleep.  Put him in the crate for five minutes, leave the room, come back and let him out.  Now try for 15 minutes.  You are creating normalcy out of being alone in the crate. Pop him in and out of the crate all day, focusing on longer and longer periods of time.   Think of it as dress rehearsal for the big show.  Trust me, you’ll thank me for this when it’s bed time.  For a more detailed description on separation anxiety, read this article.

Wash, rinse repeat.  Some dogs take 5 minutes to feel comfortable in new home.  Other take a little longer.  Take your time.  Don’t rush them.  They’re worth the wait.


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

Brittany Graham Photography

A Little Less Thinking

Your mind knows only some things. Your inner voice, your instinct, knows everything. If you listen to what you know instinctively, it will always lead you down the right path. – Henry Winkler

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Recently, I had a walking session with a client, Jen. Jen and her adorable French Bulldog Mimi, were having some issues with dog reactivity on the walk and wanted to focus on making it a more enjoyable experience for the both of them. (Check out our series on walking here to get some refresher tips!) I asked a few questions about what happens when another dog is seen on their daily walks. Jen answered in respect to how Mimi would react. This is a perfectly logical way to answer the question and at the time, it was exactly what I was looking for.

But then, I had a light bulb moment. I asked Jen: how do you react when you see a dog coming towards you. I expected the answer of: I tense up and get nervous. The answer I received was: I am thinking about every step I need to take. When I need to answer the question that the other dog is not a threat, when I’ll slam the door, how I’m going to handle if she continues to react. And I realized, yes that is also making her tense and nervous, but there’s only so many times we can say “fake it until you make it”. So I tried to view the problem as more concrete. So, my response to her was: follow your instincts and let your body do the work.

- Brittany Graham Photography

– Brittany Graham Photography

What Jen was doing, what I do, and what I’m sure a lot of you do, is think too much. We think about our next move with our reactive dogs.

When will I slam the door?

What if the dog goes around to the left, then what?

How will the other dog react?

When will I keep moving again?

Guess what, we’re psyching ourselves out, making ourselves rigid, and just plain using our brains too much. You know what you have to do.

Answer the question: Is this dog a threat?

Slam the door: Nope, Fido, I need you to focus on me right now and not the other dog, so we’re going to stop our forward movement and take a minute to regroup.

Keep moving if the dog is in a stagnant place: We’re moving past the point of built up energy, instead of containing it all in a small area

Deep breath, and move on

We know. If someone asked, we’d be able to tell them hands down what to do. So your brain knows it, it’s time to let your body follow through on it naturally. Trust your instincts. There’s a reason you’ve been working on these skills for so long. It’s muscle memory now, so let your muscles take over.

- Brittany Graham Photography

– Brittany Graham Photography

The other day, while on a hike with Porter, we were starting to go up a set of stairs. Porter is not very good at stairs. First of all, he’s just absolutely uncoordinated when it comes to them because he never has to do them on a daily basis. Second of all, it takes a lot of Piloting to make sure he goes up the stairs at a pace that’s safe for me. So, as we’re walking up the stairs, I notice another dog on the landing. All of a sudden my brain started going into overdrive.

Should I move Porter to the other side of me?

What happens if this escalates, there’s nowhere to go?

I’ll make sure I keep moving and not slam the door

I should make sure I’m answering his questions as soon as he asks

As we walked by the dog, there was some minor reactivity. More than I had hoped for, but nothing to really worry about. We continued up the rest of the stairs and at the top, there was another dog. I didn’t have time to see him or prepare for him. As we got up to the top landing, I reacted without thinking. Quick tug, no tension, moving on immediately. Guess what, that interaction went a lot smoother even though the second dog was more out of control.

I didn’t over think it. I just did. I reacted to the situation. The less time I had to think about each individual movement the better the situation turned out.

- Brittany Graham Photography

Trust what you’ve learned and what you’ve perfected. Yes, in the beginning you’ll have to think about each individual step. However, once you’ve done this a few times it’s time to let muscle memory and your instincts take over. Have some confidence in yourself. You’ve put in the time and effort. You know how to handle your reactive dog. So just relax and then react.

Let’s say there’s a dog coming towards you. Instead of thinking about each step, just pay attention to your dog and answer your dog’s questions accordingly.  Trust all the work you’ve been putting into your walks and let your instincts take over. Less thinking and more reacting. You can absolutely do this. It’s time to have some confidence in yourself and act like the Pilot you want to be.

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


Bully Dogs

“If bullies actually believe that somebody loves them and believes in them, they will love themselves, they will become better people, and many will even become saviors to the bullied.”
Dan Pearce, Single Dad Laughing WA_bedhoggingI always see it played out in my mind before it actually happens.  In my head I think, “I’ll bet he does it to them all the time”.  Yes, I’m paying attention to what the humans are saying, but what they’re saying doesn’t coincide with the facts.  And then:  IT happens.

Their dog jumps up on the couch right on top of them, causing the human to get up and move to another location.  

And they continue without a pause, “But no, Mickey is really good in the houseHe just needs help with leash-walking”.  No.  It doesn’t work that way.  Mickey isn’t good in the house.  Mickey is a bully, and you’ve just trained yourself to tiptoe around the fact.

Bully dogs aren’t necessarily of the bully breeds (i.e., Pitties, Boxers, American Bulldogs, etc.), but they can be.  Bully dogs encompass all breeds.  All sizes, genders and ages can be bully dogs.  And usually a dog’s owners don’t even realize their dog is bullying them.

Dogs have a hierarchy:  the pack leader, or Pilot, as we at Darwin Dogs refer to the position, is in charge  of answering the rest of the pack’s questions.  It’s a tough job.  Questions can range from “Can I eat that?” to “Can you keep that other dog from killing us?”.  It’s a very stressful position.  The dog with the most self-confidence is usually the Pilot in the pack.  Size, gender or age have nothing to do with it, however, a dog must be Pilot in order to breed, hence “alpha male” and “alpha female”.  The other dogs in the pack help rear the young and contribute to the pack as a whole.  You see this frequently in packs of feral dogs, as well as with wolves.

So to put it simply: a dog takes on this stressful position in the pack to gain certain rights, such as breeding, rights to eat first, to choose where they want to sleep first, etc.  With great power comes great responsibility, oh…and some pretty cool perks, too.

Planning the coup

Planning the coup

So now take a look at that scenario again, the one where your dog just got you to move off the couch.  How does that look now?  Yeah… your dog just basically bullied you off the couch, and you didn’t think anything of it.  Would you allow another human to do that to you?  I didn’t think so.  Your dog just took a chunk of change out of your Piloting Piggy Bank, and remember, whomever has the most money is Pilot.

“Oh, but it’s no big deal”, you may say.  Maybe it wouldn’t be, …if it ended there.

Have you ever known a bully to stop at one point?  Of course not.  Your dog is bullying you on the walk, dragging you to whatever place he decides.  He’s bullying you while you’re trying to work at your computer.  He’s jumping on you.  Perhaps barking at you to get you to do something?

And what happens if you have food?  He wants it, like, now.

Bully dogs have a few favored methods of communicating their wants to you.

For example, has your dog ever just come up to you, maybe while you’re eating a sandwich, and swiped you with their paw?  Or have they ever started nudging you with their nose to get you to play ball with them?  Perhaps they’ll just suddenly jump in your lap.  Do you know what they’re saying to you?

Yo bitch!

Yes.  Darling little Mickey who “doesn’t have any problems” is very loudly using his body language to tell you what to do.  Yo, bitch, go get me my supper!  Yo, bitch, I want you to scratch behind my ears! 

I ask you: what would you do if a human used that language with you?  Exactly.   Can you imagine what would happen if one of my children came up to me and said, “Yo bitch, gimme a cookie”?  Aside from anything else that may happen, they are definitely not getting that cookie.

But what if one of my children asked, “Mom, may I please have a cookie?”.

No, honey, it’s too close to dinner.
Maybe later.

Key point is, “yo bitch” gets you nothing.  Your dog is perfectly capable of “saying” things in a polite manner as well. Sitting and waiting patiently, rather than jumping on you.  Climbing up on the couch next to you rather than on top of you.  Waiting to be invited on your lap instead of pouncing on you.  Not stepping on you.  All of these things are ways a dog shows they respect you.  The same way you respect them back.

So don’t accept the “Yo, bitch-ing” attitude from your dog.  No, it doesn’t mean your dog is bad if they do it.  It means they’ve never learned differently.  It also means they are getting mixed signals from you:  are they Pilot or aren’t they?  You want them to walk nicely on a leash, meaning they follow you, but at the same time, you allow them to “yo bitch” you.  It can be confusing to them.  They need a Pilot all the time.  Like Mr. Miyagi said:

indexsdfPiloting a dog is a little like raising children.  You don’t try it a couple times and then give up.  Just as you Pilot your children through to adulthood, you Pilot your dog.  Always.  Some dogs require more Piloting than others.  It’s about mutual respect.  It’s also about respecting yourself enough to never settle for a “yo, bitch” from your dog.


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

What Could Have Been

Do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others. He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind.

 - Buddha

This is Stan.  Stan is ridiculously perfect.  He’s owned by my daughter’s 1st grade teacher, who decided Stan should become a therapy dog.  *poof* Done.  Yes, it was that easy.  It was like deciding to try to make Halle Berry beautiful.  Yeah… not so much effort needed in that endeavor.
Stan’s owner had a lot to do with it:  she’s a damn good Pilot.  She did her homework and practiced leash walking with him until she had it down cold (if you could use a refresher on your leash walking skills, read this).  She asked me to check out Stan’s disposition to make sure he’d be suitable for a classroom therapy dog.  So I took him for a test drive.  We went shopping.  We went hiking in the deep, dark woods.  We went to school together and practiced walking by things that might be scary to a dog:  children in wheelchairs (putting my 7-year old daughter in a wheelchair and asking her to wheel around as bait, which was a sobering experience).  Stan hardly blinked at all of these things.  Steady as she goes.
Test drive through crowded, noisy pet stores, and scary automated doors.  No problem.

Test drive through crowded, noisy pet stores, and scary automated doors. No problem.

I believe in thoroughness.  I didn’t want Stan to enjoy being a therapy dog whether he liked it or not.  I wanted him to thrive.  And thrive is exactly what he did through these situations.  He was so….easy.

And I became jealous.

It made me think of Sparta.  My dear Sparta of the “Kill First, Bark Questions Later” mentality.  Sparta who has an endless stream of questions.  Sparta who I work with endlessly to ensure her questions are answered.  I love her so much, but why couldn’t she be easy.  Sometimes it seems as if I’m trying to carry water in a sieve with her.  An uphill climb.  Those of you who have worked with your reactive dogs know exactly what I’m talking about.  Why can’t Sparta be Stan?

But then I stumbled across these pictures, and it got me thinking.


Yes, she was holding the shower head for me while I lathered her up.

Yes, she was holding the shower head for me while I lathered her up.

This is Sparta getting de-skunked.  She didn’t even get sprayed.  I didn’t realize that our cat had actually gotten sprayed and then made himself cozy in Sparta’s bed.  I had told Sparta to go to her bed, which she dutifully did, and then stood stoically in the tub so I could bathe that smell she acquired out of her.  Sorry about that Sparta.

Which led me to pics of Sparta holding random objects.  I was bored, so over the course of a summer, I would take pics of her in various scenarios holding different things, including:

Styling hair at the local salon

Styling hair at the local salon

Doing the dishes

Doing the dishes

Playing bathroom attendant

Playing bathroom attendant

 She did over 130 of these shots, never once balking at what was next.  She IS pretty amazing.

And then today, I finished making dinner for guests, but forgot to grab a bottle of wine.  So I rushed out the door to go buy some, and neglected to lock up Sparta…leaving her with a freshly roasted chicken on the counter.  I didn’t realize my mistake until I came home – and saw the chicken just as I had left it.  What a wonderful dog.

Sparta would take a bullet for me.  She would defend my life with her own.  Hell, she’d give up her own life to merely keep me from breaking a leg!  She’s not perfect, but guess what: neither is Stan.  Stan happens to be easier in certain situations.  Sparta has made a tremendous amount of progress with her “aggression“.  My guests who came over today?  When they arrived, Sparta went to her room as soon as the doorbell rang (that takes a lot of faith on her part).  She stayed there, not showing interest in my guests until I called her out about an hour later.  She still didn’t even look at my guests (although she was staring me down, waiting to see if I had any orders regarding said guests  – good girl!).  She very politely took offered treats from them, eyeing me the whole time for further instruction:

“Mom, is this right?”
Well done Sparta.

She even suffered through some affection from said intruders guests.

“I’m trying, Mom”.
You sure are, Sparta. I’m proud of you. 

And do you know what?  I realized that Stan was bred to be a therapy dog.  Everything about him, from how he views the world, even to how he looks, is designed to be warm, loving, happy and carefree.  Stan was born with the equivalent of a silver spoon in his mouth.  Sparta was bred as a guard dog.  She was bred to protect.  To be wary of strangers, animals and odd situations.  Sparta would have thrived as part of a K9 unit.  Or as part of a team in military service.  But she’s here.  In the suburbs.  With strangers all around her.  It must be like someone who is terrified of heights living in a high rise.

But Sparta has become so much more than the sum of her parts.  She has moved beyond what she was meant to be, and has done so much more than the best she could.  She trusted me enough to do the best I thought she could do.  And she’s soared!  An off-leash dog on the street that a few years ago she would have mauled has come charging up at us with no more than a “Really?!” from her.

So rather than comparing the dogs, which I never should have done in the first place, what I should have done is compared where they started.  Sparta was quite literally the underdog.  But she’s come so far.  So what if she’ll never be a therapy dog.

Or maybe she already is.

My girl.

My girl.

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