Junkyard Dogs

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.   – Anon.

flat550x550075fJunkyard dog.  Nothing makes my eyeballs itch quite like those two words put together.  Technically, it’s just a dog who is set to watch over a person’s property.  Sparta has a similar job description:  please don’t let any burglars in.  However, therein lies the rub, as Shakespeare put it.  Sparta has sooooo many other, much more important jobs.  Afterall, you don’t have something precious guarded by something even more precious.  Sparta is our:

  • Pillow for reading
  • Tension reliever
  • Hiking buddy
  • Floor monitor
  • Trick learner
  • Darwin Dogs mascot
  • Friend

Most junkyard dogs I have known (and usually rescued) have one job, with little to no benefits.  At times they are literally chained to their post.  Most have never even been pet by the hand that (sometimes) feeds them.  Most are initially ill-suited to their jobs, but due to the torture of deprivation, solitude and exposure, become unbalanced, and can require training to readjust to the role of family pet.  There’s only so much an animal can take, after all.

The amazing thing is, though, that the number of dogs who have difficulty transitioning from junkyard dog to family pet is actually pretty small. Take Icee, for instance.  During my tenure as a trainer for a local shelter, Icee came in as a cast off.  Apparently this vicious looking beast was actually wearing an ill-suited costume: the outside may have looked a bit menacing, but inside she was 100% sweetheart!  Funny enough, that was the cause of her being at the shelter.  Her “owner” had a junkyard.  He bought Icee to guard it.  Unfortunately, he never told her what to guard it from, because apparently she let the place get robbed. Several times.  The owner brought Icee to the shelter and gave an ultimatum: either we take her in or he’d put a bullet in her head.

Well then.

Icee, the failed junkyard dog

Icee, the failed junkyard dog

Icee was such a trooper.  She was completely green – no manners, no leash training, nothing!  But she was game.  She was the perfect dog to start the new volunteers with.  She’d give you a run for your money, and would even drag people at the end of the leash, but even just a modicum of Piloting made her true manners shine through.  However, with just a bit of Piloting, she would put Miss Manners to shame in the etiquette department.  She handled like a Aston Martin.  She desperately wanted to please, and generally just being around her would please anyone.  Her attitude was a mix of Shirley Temple and Pippi Longstocking.  Impish, but wholeheartedly good.  She helped a lot of people see the results from just a little bit of Piloting.  She found her forever home not too long after arriving at the shelter.  Humble beginnings.  The regal happily-ever-after she deserved.

Recently I read an article about Elmer and Elsie, two junkyard dogs who were recently saved.  Their Cinderella story is pretty similar except for they are still looking for their happily ever after.  Not all dogs can come from grand origins, but that doesn’t mean  they aren’t worthy of storybook endings.  I urge you to overlook backstory on dogs, because they all start at the same place.  Once upon a time…the ending is up to you.

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


A Piloting Transfer

 The thrill of coming home has never changed – Guy Pearce


- Porter taking advantage of nature's agility course

– Porter taking advantage of nature’s agility course


Last week, I was able to go home to CT for a while. I spent time visiting family and friends which left Porter and Tall Guy to themselves. Each day I’d get a picture of their hikes, adventures or Porter not wanting to wake up. The two of them had a lot of time together. Tall Guy had an entire week to work on his Piloting skills. Which means, he also got to put a lot more money in his Piloting Bank.

Upon my return there was a very excited dog. All of those moments that we look forward to after  being away from our four legged friends for a while. There was happy whimpering, lots of kisses and a dog that could not get close enough to me. Nothing can compare to that feeling of getting a dose of unconditional love.

But then…. A walk happened. We decided to go on a hike right after I got home. When the 3 of us go on hikes together, I’m the one that usually handles Porter. So, I stepped right back into that roll. But, here’s what I forgot: I hadn’t put any Piloting into Porter for over a week and Tall Guy had.

All of a sudden he was looking to Tall Guy for direction and not me. At first, I was stunned. But then, I thought about it from Porter’s point of view. Tall Guy had made sure that Porter hadn’t died all week by himself. Even though the main Pilot (me) was gone, Tall Guy had made sure the both of them had made it through the week. They went on multiple walks and hikes where murder was inevitable in Porter’s mind, and they had made it through. Guess who put more money in their Piloting Bank than me?

Here we are having a heart to heart... I don't think he's listening

Here we are having a heart to heart… I don’t think he’s listening

Instead of becoming frustrated, throwing my hands up and handing Porter over to Tall Guy, I made sure I walked Porter on all walks and hikes. I made sure I followed through on everything and put some more money in my bank. There were times where I became annoyed. I’m not perfect! When you have a bad walking day with your dog it’s not fun. However, each bad day means there’s another good day out there. I pushed through daily walks and hikes with Porter until I felt more comfortable with the amount of Piloting I had done. It took a few days, but Porter and I were back to our normal relationship.

I’ll be going away again this weekend as well. Which means, another boys weekend for Tall Guy and Porter. When I come back, I’ll have to do some more Piloting right away. I know that. I’m well aware. However, the best part is it gives Tall Guy even more time to work on his Piloting. Between the two of us Porter has a pretty great pack. It takes hard work from both of us, but it’s completely worth it.

Are you done making fun of me yet Mom?

Are you done making fun of me yet Mom?


Keep calm and pilot on

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


Creating a Great Co-Pilot

Every pilot needs a co-pilot, and let me tell you, it is awful nice to have someone sitting there beside you, especially when you hit some bumpy air – Eric Wald

- Pete and Tank, Brittany, from Brittany Graham Photography's own dogs!

– Pete and Tank, Brittany, from Brittany Graham Photography’s own dogs!


When we first got Porter, car rides were not so much fun with him. There was constant whimpering, some occasional barking and just general hyper activity happening in the back seat. However, now, he’s not annoying to have in the car. Of course, he likes to look out the windows, but there’s less noise, less barking and less anxiety.

Here are some steps that I took, along with Tall Guy, to help him get to this point:

We Kept Taking Car Rides

Sure, he was annoying, but it didn’t make us stop taking him places. If we had just chosen to never drive him anywhere, we would have missed out on a lot of great adventures. Not to mention the fact that the more he’s in the car, the less scary and new it is. Good things happen when he gets in the car. Yes, there’s the occasional dreaded vet trip, but the park, family, friends trips outweigh the vet trips by far.

Positive Reinforcement for Positive Behavior

The moments that Porter was quiet and relaxed in the backseat he received positive reinforcement. Now, for Porter, treats only add way too much energy to the situation. So he received praise and a pet when he was calm in the backseat. Think, Touch, Talk, Treat. A pat, “good boy” and then if your dog is less of a jerk than mine you can pop a treat in his mouth. What we’re letting him know is that good things happen when he’s calm in the car.

Negative Reinforcement for Negative Behavior

When Porter would bark, he would get a negative. For him, that’s a snap from me since we’ve worked on a lot of Piloting in the house already. If you need to, have someone else drive and sit in the back with your dog. You can Pilot your dog the same way you do in the house, just use your upper body as opposed to your whole body. Use whatever negative sound you have correlated with your negative body language. If you feel like you’re giving a negative way too much and nothing is coming of it, then ignore the situation for a while. No positives, but no negatives either. Make sure you are not going to become angry or vocal with your dog. That won’t help the situation. Find your zen place in the backseat.

Shorter Trips

If you’re planning on working with your dog, try not to work on the car behavior while you’re on a long road trip. Go in short spurts to work on it. This will keep your temper in check and make sure you don’t get too frustrated. We’re looking for improvement, not perfection after the first time.

Exercise First

Make sure your dog is getting Activity before you work on the car behavior. This will release excess energy and the endorphins he will be feeling will help you in the long run. Do things to set yourself up for success. Make sure your pup has gotten a lot of PAW that day before working on the car situation.

 - Brittany Graham Photography

- Brittany Graham Photography


Improvement can take time, lots of time. But if you work on it, little by little you’ll realize that your dog’s car behavior has improved tremendously. Stick with it, and soon you’ll have the best four legged co-pilot ever.

Keep calm and pilot on

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

Ode to Frankenmutt

In the past, people were born royal. Nowadays, royalty comes from what you do.

Gianni Versace



Corgi vs. Shepherd Imgur

I love all dogs.  I really do!  From the purebreds to the mongrels and the in between hybrids (pssst….you’re still mutts).  I love them all.  I love that when someone tells me they have a Golden, I know what to expect:  a warm fuzzy ball of “please pet me!!!”.  I love meeting new variations on the term “mutt”, and seeing who their personalities are and trying to guess at their lineage.

Above all, though, I love the Frankenmutts.  You know, the dogs who are obviously mixed breeds, but rather than a blend of say, Corgi and Shepherd, it looks as if a Shepherd head and coloration were merely plunked onto a Corgi body.  Someone forgot to knead the dough properly and smooth it out!  So here’s an ode to my favorite dogs off all.  The funniest-looking conglomeration of mutts ever:  Frankendogs!

Papillion vs. Cocker?  Imgur

Dachshund vs. Golden.  How is that even possible?  Imgur

Dachshund vs. Golden. How is that even possible? Imgur

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


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.  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 he was 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).  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.

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

A Moment of Gratitude

The greatest gift of life is friendship, and I have received it. – Hubert H. Humphrey

- Brittany Graham Photography

– Brittany Graham Photography

So you’ve been working on your Piloting and you’ve finally started to see results. There’s less jumping, less barking and your walks are even better. Sure, you have to correct your dog, but from where you started there’s a huge difference. It’s easy to get complacent. It’s easy to get into a place where you forget how far you’ve come and you can only focus on the negative.


Fido pulled too much today.

Fido barked at the neighbor’s dog which he hasn’t done in weeks.

I had to slam the door on Fido multiple times on today’s walk.


And all of a sudden you start to feel dissatisfied with you and your dog’s performance. When these days happen, I try and let them go. However, it’s not always that easy. That’s why I’m going to share a trick with you. Something I look for on the walk that makes my heart grow bigger and happiness consume me.

There’s this moment when you’re walking your dog, not all the time, but once or twice a walk, where he’ll look up at you like you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to him.

 - Brittany Graham Photography

- Brittany Graham Photography

In technical talk: he’s looking to you for direction. You’ve set yourself up as the individual who is in charge of the walk, so every once in a while he’ll look to see what you’re doing up there, where you’re going, if you’re nervous about anything. Just a quick double check on his part.

In emotional talk: he trusts you. You’ve done something amazing. You’ve gained an animal’s trust. An animal who doesn’t understand your words, only your body language. An animal, that for some of you, may have never had a worthy individual to trust. Who may not have had a roof over their head or food in their bellies. You have gained the trust of an animal who may have seen the worst, but now is seeing the best of humanity.

When I catch Porter looking up at me like this, it amazes me. His warm brown eyes convey everything that he doesn’t need words to say. There’s a thank you in there, there’s a this is fun, a we can do anything together and a life is better now being said.

Please, try and catch this moment with your dog. It will make all of those trying times so worth it. You’ve done something amazing for your dog, and in return they’re saying thank you. Everyone needs a little hero worship every once in a while.

Keep calm and pilot on

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


Simply Put

If simple things amuses simple minds, image how wonderfully simple it could be to be happy.    – Me


I’m having a bad morning.  I’m out of coffee.  My son just informed me that he forgot to do his math homework last night, so I’m sitting here trying to figure out 4th grade math with him.  My daughter is crying because….?

Ugh.  Life sucks.

Orion is following me around like a shadow.  I trip over him.  I dub him with a few new names.  Sparta is hiding out in her room until another dog has the audacity to walk by the front yard.  She’s barking at the window full force.  I give her a negative signal, but she’s not having any of it.  She makes me get up and use my body languageWho invented dogs anyway? 

I’m going through my emails for the morning while trying to figure out Core Curriculum with my son (uh….?).  Someone has sent me a link, and out of character for me, I open it and am suddenly having a good day.  You will, too.

I’ve forgotten one of my basic mantras:  “If simple things amuses simple minds, image how wonderfully simple it could be to be happy.”  I’m focusing on the big things and forgetting the small things, and the small things make up the biggest thing in the world:  life.

So far I’ve had a 4 minor catastrophes this morning: Eric forgetting his math homework (he’s done now).  River is crying (she lost her favorite stuffed animal in her bedsheets – found).  Sparta barked out the window in her defense, the dog was on a retractable and almost to our doorstep). I tripped over Orion (but he forgave me instantly for the names I called him).

My kids are usually wonderfully easy and well behaved.  The same can be said for my dogs.  Everyone is allowed a slip-up, and my gang just had their slip-ups all at once.  Big deal.  As Elsa would say, Let It Go.  So many phone calls I get from my clients start with frantic speech:  “We were doing so well but yesterday Fido slipped up and lunged at another dog again he hasn’t done that in months are we regressing I thought we had this handled but OMG I was so worried he’s back to his old ways isn’t he?!!!!”  I always have them step back and look at what just happened:  Your dog, who couldn’t even see a dog on TV before without going berserk, barked and lunged while on a walk…  At another dog on a retractable coming right up to them.  You Piloted your dog out of the situation, and now the situation is under control.  You did it.  Your self confidence is shaken, that’s all.  You’re looking at the here and now and assuming this is forever (like I did this morning).

The moment has passed.  You’ll get your self confidence back (but fake it until you make it).  Remember, we’re only looking for progress, not perfection.  You’ve helped your dog be who they are supposed to be.  You know how to answer your dog’s questions now.  It’s a forever job, but the questions are no longer asked with such urgency.  You’ve done it, and you’ll continue to do it.  Slip ups are there to remind us how far we’ve come.

Life is good. It’s all about how I choose to look at it.  As the dog in the video figured out, either you can complain about getting wet, or revel while dancing in the rain.

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

Keeping Faith

Courage is found in unlikely places.

 - J. R. R. Tolkien

faith2Dogs are therapeutic, as we all know.  Some are trained to work in hospitals, or to read with kids.  Others have such a spark in them that they aren’t trained to do anything…merely existing can bring hope and courage to others.

That was the story of Faith, a Lab/Chow cross who was born deformed, without her front legs.  Whisked away by a caring human just as she was about to be smothered by her mother, she wasn’t expected to live very long.  Thank God the veterinarians were all wrong.

Faith did live.  And she thrived.  She inspired others to do the same.  She learned to walk on two legs and not only survive with her disability, but give courage and hope to humans who may be struggling accepting their disability.  She gave me hope as well.  I personally have no disabilities, but like all other humans in the world, I can get depressed, overwhelmed or just tired.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw her: trying to process the creature in front of me – a dog walking on two legs. At first it was disturbing, as my mind tried to categorize this creature in my head.  It’s a dog. That walks on two legs.  It doesn’t pace as dogs do, it was bi-pedal.  And ecstatic about life.  For some reason she brought tears to my eyes.  Just the way she would keep on keepin’ on .

We lost Faith this past week.  She lived to be almost 12 years old.  This saddens me deeply. She was a true role model and a hero for many who themselves were faced with a sudden disability, as she frequently visited our returning soldiers. She was also a hero for those who lead “normal” everyday lives.  She was a hero to me.  Her story may end, as all stories do, but the pages are filled with inspiration.  Goodbye Faith.  Thank you for the 12 years you gave to make this planet a better place.

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


Admitting There’s A Problem

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often – Winston Churchill

 - Brittany Graham Photography

– Brittany Graham Photography

There are many accomplishments I’m proud of as a dog owner. I’ve worked hard on Porter’s food aggression and the results are staggering. His dog reactivity has also extremely improved over the time that he’s been with us. However, the one thing I’m most proud of as a dog owner? The fact that I can admit when he’s being a total jerk.

The first step is admitting the problem right? Well, if I was never able to admit that Porter isn’t perfect then I’d never be able to work on his issues.

Hi, My name is Danika, I’m a dog trainer, and my dog can be a total jerk sometimes.

Imagine the first time that he tried to take my arm off while eating. Now, if I had just said “Oh, he’s just a stray, poor guy needs more food!” I would not only have a very fat dog, I would also have a very dangerous dog. Instead my thought process was, “Well, crap, we have to deal with some food aggression here” and I dealt with the situation little by little (if you’re having trouble with  any resource guarding/food aggression check out these articles and please give us a call).

Or how about the first time he lunged, growled and raised his hackles at another dog? If I had just said “Oh, he just wants to play and is just unsure of the situation” I’d have had a lot more trouble on my hands. My response, “Well, crap, now we have some dog reactivity. That’s unacceptable” and my Piloting kicked into full gear.

- He's not perfect, but I still can't imagine a day without him Brittany Graham Photography

– He’s not perfect, but I still can’t imagine a day without him
Brittany Graham Photography

My dog isn’t perfect. Sure, he has his moments of pure genius. Like the other day when we were able to place a bag of open chips on the floor next to him and he didn’t even think about making a dive for them. But, he also has his moments of pure assholery, like the other day when he would not calm down or stop jumping when I grabbed his leash. I praised the calm dog next to the chip bag, and gave the terror a negative and waited for him to calm down before we went anywhere. But, now I know we need to work more on pre-leash and door manners.

One of my pet peeves is owners that won’t admit that their dog might need some work and will only make excuses or stupid cooing noises. No dog is perfect. They’re not supposed to be! That would be just plain boring. It’s okay that they’re not perfect. It’s okay that they bark incessantly, they steal things off the counters, the pee on the carpet. But, it’s only okay if you acknowledge the fact that maybe there are some things (like the PAW method) that you can provide your dog to work on those behaviors and actually take steps to work on them.

If you admit your dog isn’t perfect you’ll feel better. I promise. And then, you get to work on those issues. It’ll be challenging of course, but it will also be so rewarding. It’ll be something you work on together and you’ll see the results. You can’t make your dog an even better dog unless you admit they’re not pure perfection to begin with.

The other day Porter and I were lucky enough to have a photo session with Brittany of Brittany Graham Photography. She is great with animals and is a level of sweet and nice that really makes me question if I’m a terrible person on a daily basis. Porter was up to his old tricks, beyond excited, super hyper, generally just a terrible dog. My Piloting went into gear immediately, however grass is super exciting apparently and when it’s taller than you are, all you want to do is stick your head in it and smell everything.

 - Porter eating the tall grass Brittany Graham Photography

– Porter eating the tall grass
Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany’s response to all of these general jerk dogness antics was “Oh! This is such good practice for me when I work with active dogs!”

My response: “Nope, this is good practice when you just work with jerks. Dog or not.”

I’ll always admit when he’s being a jerk. And then, I will work on why he’s being a jerk so that he can just be a goofy dog again.

Keep calm and pilot on

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

New Normal

“It always is harder to be left behind than to be the one to go…”
― Brock Thoene, Shiloh Autumn

Dog-Sad-Depressed-SickThere’s a reason why “Fido” is a popular name for dogs:  it means “Faithful” in Latin.  I’d be hard-pressed to find anything more faithful than a dog.  Their definition of loyalty is beyond the scope of most humans, which is why losing a pack member can be particularly difficult for them.

When my Darwin was about 11, I adopted a very young dog, Sparta.  Sparta grew up pulling on Darwin’s ears while he patiently tolerated her puppy antics.  Sparta was the annoying little sister, best friend, pack member and mutual protector of the house for Darwin, and in Sparta’s eyes, Darwin could do no wrong.  He was her confidant, her ally, her security blanket. Yes, I was the pack’s Pilot, but Darwin was definitely next in line.

When Sparta was a bit over a year, Darwin finally succumbed to his age.  He had lived a happy life, but now it was time to say goodbye.  I still miss him, and it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, walking into the vets office him following me like the good dog he was.  I walked in with my best friend and walked out alone.  But at least I understood why Darwin’s bed was empty that night.  Sparta knew something was wrong the moment I came home without Darwin – my body language told it all.  Sparta was spiralled into a deep grief right beside me.  She wouldn’t eat for close to a week.  My normally very active young dog would go outside only to relieve herself, and then come back inside and bury herself with her grief in her little corner.  She was grieving hard.

A dog feels the loss of a pack member in a much more profound way than we do.  We miss our friend. Sparta missed the security of one of her Pilots.  The pack was smaller now, meaning less secure in her mind.  She lost a hunting partner.  For a dog, it’s more than about the love and friendship: it’s about survival.  In a dog’s mind, the pack is less likely to thrive with the loss of a member.  The only comparison I can possibly give is the grief a blind person must feel if their seeing eye dog dies suddenly.  Of course they miss their best friend, but it is so much more than that. It is a bond very few of us will ever understand, myself included.  I am not dependent upon my dogs for my day-to-day lifestyle.  Of course they enrich my life, but I could easily get along without them.  Dogs require each other just to survive.  The loss of a member is catastrophic on so many levels, and even more so if the pack member was a Pilot.

 Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

You can help your dog get through this grief, though.  Resist the urge to act any differently than you usually would around them.  Don’t baby them.  Don’t talk to them in a whiney voice, telling them everything will be all right.  They don’t need baby talk; they need a Pilot.  Calmly hang out with them wherever they are grieving (I frequently hung out in Sparta’s little corner with her).  Take them for walks.  Exercise does indeed boost moods, for both of you.  You don’t have to pretend that you didn’t lose a pack member, but you do have to move on.  Slowly is fine.

Sparta worried me profusely when she wouldn’t eat for several days, but gradually she started eating again.  While I did give her a few treats during that time, which she refused, I did not offer her any different food.  We are trying to normalize a new situation, not change everything she was accustomed to. Sparta slowly picked up her regular meals.  Pretty soon she was bugging me to go for a walk instead of my having to retrieve her from her corner to take her.  In other words, we found a new normal.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Of course I still miss Darwin. Sparta does, too.  But our Pack has changed now, and includes Orion and two cats, Pixel and Echo.  Our Pack would be stronger with Darwin’s calm nature helping to lead it, but he’s gone.  Our Pack would be enhanced by his presence, but that won’t happen.  We find a new normal, and we make it work. And it works well.

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