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

Changing the Norm

Without the element of uncertainty, the bringing off of even, the greatest business triumph would be dull, routine, and eminently unsatisfying – J. Paul Getty

 Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Recently, my normal every day routine has been wildly different. I went to CT for over a week, I went to Nashville, and combined with some other (positive) changes in my life, things became hectic. My normal week day schedule suddenly became non-existent. For a while there was no pattern, and now, there’s a new pattern. However, the new normal has only been in effect for a little over a week.

What does this mean? Porter’s a little bit uncomfortable. Dogs are creatures of habit. When we first got Porter he would bark like crazy when we left for work. However, he soon realized that we leave every day at the same time, and then end up coming back. So, really, it’s not that scary. The barking then stopped. Porter’s anxiety about us leaving, even when it’s not for work, has gotten better. However, he will act out in other ways.

With my schedule so different, Porter hasn’t had a chance to feel out and get used to the new routine. This last week he ended up being a little more frantic. I would have to enforce commands before they were carried out. Instead of being able to just snap my fingers to have him stop barking, I would have to use my body language to tell him that he had done his job and he could stop now. Walks were tough. There were many corrections to be made (and names to be called). His energy level had skyrocketed. He was nervous. He didn’t know what was coming next. We can look at someone and say “I’m feeling very anxious about not knowing what’s coming next”. All our dogs can do is show us. This comes in forms of not being able to stop moving, whining, barking, and pacing to name a few.

 Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

The best way for me to counter Porter’s anxiety is to show him that everything is normal. I go about my schedule as though this is what it always has been. There’s no “I’m going to miss you so much” before I leave for work. It’s simple. I leave the same way I did before.

I’ve added more activity. More hikes on the weekend, and runs in the morning. The activity in the morning helps him not have to focus on what’s coming next because he’s already tired.

And of course, we’ve upped the mental stimulation. There’s more work to be done on commands. Just yesterday we worked on the come command a little more. This time, to make it a little trickier and to make sure he’s paying attention I would say a string of words that started with that hard “C” sound. (ex. Cooling, Colorado, Crayon, Cope, Come”) He would have to make sure he was coming on the correct word. If not, he would be put back where he started and we would try again.

 Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Anxiety is normal. We all get it. It’s how you react to it. There’s no babying. It’s isolating the problem and figuring out how to move forward. When you change your routine on your dog, it can be a very scary situation for them. The world is a scary place and if they’re not there to protect you, who knows what happens? Focus on giving them the PAW that they need and coming up with creative ways to work a little harder at it. Soon, the new abnormal will become the old normal and it won’t matter as much anymore.

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


 Stereotypes do exist, but we have to walk through them.
- Forest Whitaker

ht-funpics3466It’s Halloween!  Did you expect a post about Halloween safety for your pet?  That’s a bit cliche – here’s the basics: keep them inside, keep them safely contained, and Pilot them as needed.  Ta-da!  Halloween is handled!

October is Pitbull Awareness month.  Halloween marks the end of that month.  A month where we try to get people to look past the stereotypes of this breed and see who they’re really about: love, loyalty, and a whole lotta goofiness.  Maybe we need to do the same for humans as well.

When I was about 20, I was involved in a car crash.  Nobody was injured, but both cars were damaged.  My car’s tire was completely blown.  As usually happens in an accident, a group of people gathered around immediately.  Cops showed up.  While I giving my statement to the police, a very “rough” looking man pulled up to the scene on a bike.  He had the entire ensemble going: from biker boots to the head-to-toe leather…right down to the red bandana on his head.  He calmly walked up to me and asked me for my car keys.  Being very shaken up, I automatically gave them to him without thinking.  He silently walked over to my car, popped the trunk, and proceeded to remove the damaged tire and put the spare tire on my car.  He then handed the keys back to the cop (I was signing documentation) and left.  I never got to thank him.  Not just for changing my tire, but for changing my perception.

No, this is not the gentleman who fixed my tire, but it's a pretty good clone of him!

No, this is not the gentleman who fixed my tire, but it’s a pretty good clone of him!

Take a look at the first picture again.  The one at the top of this post.  That man, what did you think of when you saw him? Gang? Violence? Thugs?  Drugs and alcohol? But what about animal advocacy?  I’ll bet that didn’t pop up in your head immediately.  This is Danny Trejo.   You can read a little about him here.

Pic from the BAAC website's Rodeo.

Pic from the BAAC website’s Rodeo.

This is a picture from Bikers Against Animal Cruelty, a non-profit dedicated to animal advocacy.  Probably not what you expected. Check out their link…it’s a pretty amazing group of people doing a pretty amazing thing.  They certainly look different from me, and probably from you as well (if not, well then you’re cooler than I’ll ever be!).  But different isn’t good nor bad…it’s just, well, different.  Kinda like the message we’re trying to spread about Pitties:  judge deeds, not breeds.

Up until I was 20 years old, I might have been inclined to think that “biker-types” were usually involved in violence.  Were thugs. In general, just unsavory people.  That changed in a moment, when one of these “thugs” helped me out when I really needed some help, with no motive other than to just help.  No, I didn’t get to know him, and never saw him again, but I saw in that moment who he was, not what he was.  And my opinion completely changed about bikers.  When I see one on the highway now, I think of that man all those years ago.  Opinions can change for the better.  That’s what October is all about: education about a breed that is misunderstood and maligned based upon a culture that thinks if something looks big and bad, it must be big and bad.  But we know better.  It’s up to us to change opinions.  Because it feels wonderful to have your stereotype lifted and to find commonality where you were certain there was none.  I can speak from experience.

Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

And so we end October, National Pit Bull Advocacy Month.  I truly wish that the gentleman who assisted me on that day 17 years ago is reading this.  I would thank him for changing my tire.  And I would thank him for changing my mind.


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

The Little Things

  “Judge me by my size, do you?”
Yoda – The Empire Strikes Back

10385367_10204184623834452_9168845168471881616_nConfession:  I’ve always been afraid of small dogs.  Not necessarily afraid of them…more like afraid to be around them.  Or more importantly, on top of them.  I’m about as graceful as a giraffe on roller skates, so the little ones always put me on edge a bit.  I knew deep down that they were just like every other dog, and I could see how they responded just as quickly to a bit of Piloting as the large dogs did, but still, they looked so…delicate.  Even if I were working with a dog deemed “aggressive“, if it was a Chihuahua running up to me Cujo-style, it instantly put me on edge, more so than even a Rottie or other large dog.

Then a couple of years ago it became more and more apparent that I needed a “bait” dog.  A dog that could help me out with the dog-reactive dogs.  It had to be a dog that was friendly, but aloof unless given permission to be pet.  A dog who wasn’t dog reactive, and would trust me completely.  The dog needed to be intelligent, healthy, and above all, non-threatening in looks.  Enter all 5 lbs. of Orion.

I hear you have a job opening?

I hear you have a job opening?

Growing up I did indeed have a small-ish dog named Pebbles.  She was a 20-ish lb Aussie mix we got from a shelter when I was in preschool.  But there’s a difference between a small-ish dog and a tiny dog.  Or is there? And so I present:

The Little Things That Make Little Dogs Great.

1) They can go anywhere with you.  Easily.

Sparta desperately trying to fit into the mudroom she loves so much.

Sparta desperately trying to fit into the mudroom she loves so much.

As I discovered after trading in a minivan for an Elantra, size can indeed matter…and bigger is not necessarily better.  While all 100 lbs. of Sparta fit nicely in my van, the same doesn’t hold true for my new car.  Not so much now.  Actually, Sparta doesn’t fit anywhere nicely.  A small dog doesn’t have the space problems that a larger dog can. Yes, I know what you’re going to say: a Great Dane is a better apartment dog than a Jack Russel (and you’re right), but if your floor plan only has 700 square feet, you’re taking a pretty big chunk out that with a Dane.  Any dog who is given the appropriate amount of exercise is good in an apartment.  Unfortunately, you can’t exercise the size out of a large dog.

2) They aren’t big eaters.

They're really only about a mouthful.  Wait....that's not what I mean.

They’re really only about a mouthful. Wait….that’s not what I mean.

The cost of feeding a small dog is drastically less than a larger dog.  For example, Orion eats between 1/4 – 1/2 cup of food per day, depending on how hard we hike.  Sparta, on the other hand, eats anywhere between 5-7 cups per day.  A Mastiff can eat up to 10 cups per day.  The cost of keeping a smaller dog is significantly less.

3) People aren’t as easily spooked by a small dog.

Awwwww....he's so cute!

Awwwww….he’s so cute!

Now, if you’ve been around dogs enough, you know very well that the little Yorkie is just as likely to bite you as the German Shepherd, but a lot of people don’t see it that way.  They see small dog, they automatically think of it as a friendly happy puppy.  So much that landlords typically don’t discriminate against any small dogs.  Ergo, it’s easier to get an apartment that allows dogs.

4) It’s easy(ish) to travel with a small dog.

I'll bet I could fit him in there....easily

I’ll bet I could fit him in there….easily

On a recent flight to Austin, someone brought a small schnauzer on board the plane in a carry-on.  The little darling easily fit on is owner’s lap for the entire duration of the flight instead of being regulated to the cargo hold.

5) Life span. 

photo 4(2)Smaller dogs live longer than larger dogs.  Orion’s projected life expectancy is 13-15 years.  Sparta’s is about 10-12.  Sad but true.

6) No counter surfing.

Brittany Graham Photography

Guess which one of us can reach the counter? Brittany Graham Photography

I’m all about training your dogs, but isn’t it nice when an issue isn’t even on your radar?  Sparta had to be trained to leave things on the counter alone.  Orion thinks the counter is Mt. Everest.

7) Eliminating the negative.

Eric, age 8, on poop patrol

Eric, age 8, on poop patrol

Ever clean up after a 100 lb dog?  Exactly.

8) Easier to manage.

Size never takes the place of training, but when dealing with difficult dogs, obviously a smaller dog is easier from a safety standpoint.

Size never takes the place of training, but when dealing with difficult dogs, obviously a smaller dog is easier from a safety standpoint.

Okay, a dog who is behaving aggressively needs to have the situation addressed, no matter the size.  But let’s face it: if tiny little Fifi the toy poodle decides she wants a piece of the mailman walking by, odds are she isn’t strong enough to literally drag you across oncoming traffic to get to him.

9)  Portable.

This is where Orion hangs out in the car. Passenger side on the floor.  His little den.

This is where Orion hangs out in the car. Passenger side on the floor. His little den.

When Darwin was a senior, I had a tremendously difficult time transporting him. Getting him into the car turned into an ordeal simply because of his size.  Smaller dogs are so much easier to care for as they age, requiring less muscle.  Similarly, on a hike, if Sparta gets tired, we have to stop and rest.  Orion, on the other hand, is easily portable.  Not that I’ve ever seen Orion get tired.

10) They’re dogs.

My ,majestic Papillon.

My ,majestic Papillon.

I mean, isn’t that what it all boils down to?  Dog is a dog is a dog is a dog.  They’re just like every other dog.

Sure I’ve stepped on Orion and tripped over him, but not very often.  Orion is a lot tougher than he looks: he has chased deer away from us, he has caught many a chipmunk in my yard, and he has remained courageous when helping me rehabilitate a dog-reactive dog who outweighs him by 90+ lbs.  I do indeed wrestle with him.  He hikes with me for miles and miles, never tiring. He has mettle. He truly is a mascot for Darwin Dogs.

Treating a dog like a dog.  What a novel concept! I treat Orion just like Sparta, and guess what:  both are well-adjusted, wonderful, polite dogs.  Small dog syndrome is indeed a real thing, but it’s something that we humans have created in our small dogs by treating them differently.   We don’t cipher out humans based on size. Danika is roughly 12 inches shorter than me (I’m 6ft tall)… but if you test our mettle, it’s neck-and-neck.  She and I are capable of doing the same things. Our clients don’t say they prefer me because I’m bigger than Danika.  I see people in shelters a lot looking for a new dog, but eliminating a certain dog from the running because they’re “too small” or a “sissy dog”.  Usually it’s a man, and usually I stand right next to them, look down towards them, and ask if that makes them a sissy man in comparison to me.  They usually turn red and walk away.

Small dogs, big dogs…  let’s just remember the best part: dog.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio