“Mine” Craft – Working with Food Aggressive Dogs

“People aren’t against you; they are for themselves.” – Anon

A shelter dog undergoes the SAFTER test.  Food reactivity is guaged when the fake hand tries to take away the food.

A shelter dog undergoes the SAFTER test. Food reactivity is guaged when the fake hand tries to take away the food.

A few days ago I had a very difficult situation to work with.  The dog in question, a Shar Pei mix, I’ll call Lisbon, was food aggressive (had actually bitten people and other dogs in the house) as well as resource guarding (resource guarding is the same as food aggression, only in place of the food, she was aggressively guarding areas in the house she deemed as her own).

If a dog is reacting with aggression over anything other than their safety (i,e., they’re scared of you), or the safety of their pack, that’s trouble.  That’s the sign of a dog who is in the Pilot position, and who is frequently more than happy to try to take money out of your Piloting Piggy Bank.  Remember, whomever has the most money wins, so frequently these dogs are indeed the Pilot in the house simply because snapping and growing over a resource works.  Essentially, they tell you “no”, and it works because, well, teeth can be scary!  The more often they tell you “no”, and the more often you accept that as an answer, the more money the dog has taken out of your Piloting Piggy Bank.

Most other things aren’t quite so dangerous to work with because we are working with questions that the dog actually hopes end in a “no”.

Will that other dog kill me?

No, Fido.

Have any dogs ever died in a thunderstorm before?

No Fido, and I doubt you’ll be the first.

Resource guarding is different.  A dog has decided that something is theirs, and no matter what, they are keeping it.  Sometimes when I come into a house a dog is resource guarding, but their heart really isn’t into it.  They’ve accidentally become Pilot in the house because the owner has never properly communicated with the dog, letting them know that they don’t have to be Pilot.  Hint:  most dogs don’t even want the job!

These dogs aren’t resource guarding so much as taking all the perks that come with the Piloting position.  For a dog, being Pilot can be scary, terrifying, and generally sucks.  Just like not every human feels comfortable leading, the same is true for dogs.  If they’re going to be Pilot, there had better be some perks that come along with it!  These include the right to eat first, the right to sleep where they want to…basically, the right of first refusal for anything.  For the dogs who aren’t even really into the Pilot position, and didn’t want the damn job to begin with, merely Piloting them and taking the money out of their bank is sufficient.  They aren’t true resource guarders.

As Danika mentioned in her blog post On Food Reactivity….Nothing Personal.  Really.,   they aren’t doing it because they hate you.  Or because they want to hurt you.  In their minds, you are asking a question:  Can I have that back? They are answering your question (No), but you aren’t listening, apparently, so they have to answer it with more force, until you finally back down.

Dogs and wolves are a pack. They are a single entity driven towards one thing, survival and continuation of the pack.  In the pack, only alpha male and alpha female breed.  They are the Pilots.  They have (for the moment) the best shot of perpetuating the pack because they are the best dogs/wolves in the pack.  Obviously this can change.  Dogs and wolves don’t vote in who they think is the best for Pilot.  There’s no bribes.  Either you are or you aren’t and accepting another dog’s “no” to a question you asked can take enough money out of your Piloting bank to no longer make you Pilot.

Wolves deciding who's eating first. The wolf on the left is giving typical "back off, it's mine" body language. The wolf on the right is submitting.

Wolves deciding who’s eating first. The wolf on the left is giving typical “back off, it’s mine” body language. The wolf on the right is submitting.

So back to resource guarding.  It isn’t a bad behavior.  Remember, nothing a dog does is bad; it’s always perfectly correct.  For a dog.  However, as humans, we can not safely tolerate resource guarding.  It’s dangerous, and for kids, it’s the second biggest reason I see them get bit, (first is teasing or torturing the dog).  The difference is, a bite because a child is manhandling a dog is usually a sudden nip.  Yes, it may cause blood even (remember, you’re supposed to be covered in hair and loose skin, like a dog, not soft vulnerable flesh), but it’s typically not that bad unless the dog hit a lucky spot.  With resource guarding, it can be a lot, lot worse.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  resource guarding is one of the few things (the only?) that I will tell a client to put a dog down for.  Yes, they can be worked with, and you can indeed take the Piloting position back, but you will have to defend it the rest of your dog’s life.  They may challenge you at any moment.  You may absent-mindedly drop food on the floor, lean over to pick it up, and the dog decides at that moment to claim it, meaning a bite.

These dogs can be the sweetest, kindest dogs on the planet, as Lisbon is.  Wonderful, loving family pets.  But once the food comes out, they are like a vampire who hasn’t fed being led through a blood bank.  Yucky, ugly things ensue.

So back to Lisbon:  how did things end?  Well, they haven’t yet.  They never will.  Some dogs you can slack with on the Piloting and still be fine.  Lisbon’s owner will always be on alert for any sign Lisbon is trying to take money out of his bank.  Lisbon’s owner is single with no kids, so he doesn’t have to worry about a child being bit.  He also understood the severity of the issue.  He is dedicated to the training regime, which includes:

- Feeding Lisbon after a successfully Piloted walk.  A walk done correctly (read: you are leading, not your dog) takes money out of their Piloting Piggy Bank.  We want to empty Lisbon’s account out as much as possible before feeding.

- Lisbon will always be on a leash during feeding times, just like you always wear a seat belt in the car.  You may never truly need it, but there’s nothing like feeling safe to help bring out the Pilot inside of you.

- Hand feeding Lisbon.  Food only comes from him, and no other source.  We want to remove everything as a possible option for Lisbon to acquire food.  She need to be dependent upon her owner for all food. Food is placed on the counter, and Lisbon will be seated and fed one handful at a time, and only if she is calmly waiting.

- Removing signals that may increase energy during feeding time.  For example, when Lisbon sees her owner grab her food dish on the counter, she knows her owner is about to feed her.  Her energy level goes way up, and she can be difficult to manage.  Lisbon will never be fed out of a bowl again.  Even the vessel used to contain the food while she is being hand fed will be switched out frequently so she never knows if food is coming or if her owner is merely grabbing a cup for some coffee.

- Dropping food on the ground doesn’t mean it’s yours!!!  Lisbon’s owner, while hand feeding Lisbon, will occasionally gently place food on the ground behind him, moving very slowly.  If she lunges for the food, he can redirect her with the leash, wait until she’s calm, and then slowly pick the food up and throw it away.  Lisbon will never have the right to food on the floor.  Ever.  If she remains calm during that little exercise, she will get another handful of food.

- Never toss food at Lisbon.  The very act of snatching food in the air is aggressive.  In some dogs it’s not a big deal, and is even amusing (Darwin could catch food out of a dead sleep!), but those dogs aren’t really jockeying for Pilot position.  We are driving the point home that calm is the only thing that gets Lisbon food, and lunging towards food won’t be accepted any more.

- Getting her used to disappointment.  A lot of resource guarding dogs get upset and retaliate if they think they were about to get food but don’t.  For example, the now-defunct food bowl.  If Lisbon’s owner simply picked up the food bowl to move it without feeding her, Lisbon might retaliate.  You were supposed to feed me, remember?  Touching the food bowl is a visual marker that is supposed to end a certain way, and if it doesn’t…bad things happen.  So he’s going to get her used to disappointment.  Dropping the food on the floor is a good start, but sometimes putting food in a cup on the counter, creating calm with Lisbon, and then dumping the food back into the bin, all in a controlled manner.  Calm doesn’t always get Lisbon food.  It’s merely the only way she might get food.  It’s like the lottery:  you don’t always win, but unless you play, you aren’t going to win.

Hand feeding... in the good way

Hand feeding… in the good way

I have great hopes for Lisbon and her owner.  Lisbon is a great dog, and they made wonderful strides in the two hours I was with them.  Lisbon’s owner is dedicated, and he understood the severity of the problem.  If anyone has a chance at a safe, wonderful bond with a resource guarding dog, it’s him.

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


   The man with insight enough to admit his limitations comes nearest to perfection.

  – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sparta guarding our house against, um, ...what was it you were guarding against, Sparta?

Sparta guarding our house against, um, …what was it you were guarding against, Sparta?
Brittany Graham Photography

My Sparta.  The most beautiful, obedient dog I’ve ever worked with.  Over 100 lbs. of pure physical poetry. She’s the type of dog who we can leave the Thanksgiving turkey out on the counter right above where she’s sleeping, and she’ll leave it alone (we do).  She will follow any command, no matter how scary, because she trusts us (she does).  In short, she is practically a machine when it comes to her obedience.  It’s sorta creepy, now that I think of it.  Sounds like the perfect dog, right?  Except she has one big problem.  As my husband likes to say, she reads too much Guns and Ammo.

Sparta is a Shepherd/Rottie mix (not a guess, but verified truth), with emphasis on the Shepherd.  Ah, suddenly it clicks why she’s so obedient.  Shepherds have been used for many years for a myriad of reasons: search and rescue, guide dogs, drug dogs, war, peace, agility and everything in between.  I truly believe that while they may not be the smartest dog (looking at you Border Collies and Poodles), they are probably the most willing to accept whatever training you wish.

However, I’m a firm believer in breed profiling.  It’s called “breed standard” for a reason.  Imagine going into a car dealership and saying I need a car, but having no idea what you want.  Mini-van, Corvette, Jeep?  What will you be using this car for?  If you don’t know what you want, you won’t know what you’re getting.   Pound puppies can follow some form of breed standard as well. If you adopt a Pit/Aussie mix, prepare for a lot of enthusiastic cuddling.  A Basset/Poodle?  Probably a lot of sedentary mind games, like chess. Not always the case, but a good general rule. Of course there are Frankendogs.  The dogs that you have no idea what breed(s) they can be.  Simply find out who they are, rather than focusing on what they are.  (Hint: here’s an article that can help with that.)

Back to Sparta.  She’s predominantly Shepherd, and boy does she show it.  Obedient, trusting…every command I give her, I feel as if her response is Sir, yes sir!  No, I didn’t make her that way; she just is.  The problem?  Shepherds were originally bred to guard livestock (not manage it….that’s you, Border Collies).  She has it ingrained in her DNA to guard her pack, flock, family – whatever you want to call it.  And she will do it with her life.

There’s an old joke about Shepherds:  How many Shepherds does it take to change a light bulb?   First you secure the perimeter.    That is exactly who my Sparta is.  That can make living with her in a very dense population a bit of a challenge.  If a zombie apocalypse were ever to happen, she’s the dog you want.  However, a walk through Downtown Mayberry?  Yeah, that’s some Piloting that needs to happen there. Yes, it can be done, and I do it, but I realize that I will be Piloting her and answering her questions very frequently.

 Is that a threat? No, Sparta.  Should we reinforce our rearguard?  No, Sparta.

I’m not angry with her, I’m never punishing her.  I’m merely answering her (legitimate) questions. However, I know my limitations, as well as hers.

I recently (foolishly?) decided to completely renovate my bathroom.  My family was out of town for about a week, and I thought it to be the perfect time to do it.  However, I needed some help.  I called a friend of our family, Sam, who generously came over every day to help me tear apart the bathroom, put in a new sub-floor, new tile, new vanity, new everything.  Obviously, very involved, and a lot of noise to go with the project.  Sparta happens to not like Sam.  I don’t care if she’s best friends with him or not.  She’s allowed to ask the question:

Can I kill him?
No, Sparta.  Not today.
Okay, then.  I’ll be in the mudroom if you need me to kill him.
You enjoy yourself there, Sparta.  And put down the Guns and Ammo magazine.  How about some Vanity Fair mags for a bit?

Problem is, she will be asking that question frequently.  Sometimes Sam might need to go downstairs by himself.  Sometimes he might need to come in and out of the house while cutting tile.  In Sparta’s mind, each instance is always a separate question.  And yes, she will immediately accept the answer, but only if I give it.  And right there is our limitation.  What if Sam runs downstairs, just one time, and I don’t notice, and don’t answer her question?  Sparta would do what comes naturally to her: defend the flock.

So instead of constantly being on alert for Sparta, she has spent a relaxing week at my mother’s house.  She got to play with her “cousins”, Louie and Kiwi.  More importantly, she had little to no questions to ask while she was there (thanks, Mom!).   When she comes back today, she will notice that there is a new bathroom.  Odds are, she’ll want to check it out to make sure there are no threats to our family in there (Sir, no Sir!) and all will be right with our little pack.

Sparta stoically securing the perimeter

Sparta stoically securing the perimeter
-Brittany Graham Photography


Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio




Just a Bit Off the Top

  Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.

   – Thomas Merton


If you know anything about Darwin Dogs, you know that we don’t cotton much to extremes of any kind.  Extreme thinking is, well…rather extreme.  Not every behavior issue can be resolved with a click and a treat, and not every dog behavior requires a shock collar.  There is plenty of room for moderate, balanced training.

A few years ago I was presented with a very difficult dog named Chex to train.  Chex’s owner was very forthcoming with the issues.  He bit.  Everyone.  And not just a nip, it was all out aggression.  His owner, we’ll call her Annie, was concerned because she had already had another trainer out there.  I assured Annie that it was a situation that could be worked with.

I walked in the door and met Annie’s partner, Susan.  Susan was being followed by a very docile looking Border Collie mix.  This looked so much easier than what I had been preparing for!

“Oh, this isn’t Chex!  This is Sadie, my dog”, Susan informed me.  “Annie is in back with Chex.  She wanted to make sure you were safely here before she brought him out.”  Great.   I asked her to bring out Chex.

Out came a writhing 35 pound mass of dog, dragging his owner at the end of a harness.  Chex was out for blood. There was an intruder in the house (me!) and Chex felt the need to let everyone know that this wasn’t okay, and the situation was dire!

This is what Chex looked like to me.  Only a little less stable.

This is what Chex looked like to me. Only a little less stable.

Chex was in full-out panic mode.  His choices of flight or fight having been reduced by the fact he was restrained by a leash, he went all out on fight.  I knew I had to get him under control as quickly as possible.  That’s where I made a mistake.  See, Chex was on a harness.

Harness. n
1. an arrangement of leather straps buckled or looped together, fitted to an animal in order that the animal can be attached to and pull an item more easily and efficiently, such as a cart, or a human.

A harness offers no control (read: safety) for a human.  The dog is able to go teeth first towards whatever item they want.  That’s one of the reasons we use collars, so when held at arm’s length, a dog can’t put teeth to flesh quite as easily.  Unfortunately, Chex was looking for any place to put teeth, making this a very dangerous situation.  My choices:  ask them to take him into the back room again and put a collar on him that I had, or simply take the dog and work with him immediately, knowing full well I’d probably take a bite.

Of course I chose the latter.

As Annie tried to hand Chex over, he jumped up and bit me on the thigh.  It took some effort, but I managed to disengage him from my leg and kept him at arm’s length while using my body language to keep him from connecting.  After “dancing” with him for about 5 minutes, he calmed down enough for me to have his owners place the safety collar around his neck, and then we went for a walk.

The aftermath.  I called this bite The Eye of Sauron because of how it bruised.  Yes, I name any bites I receive. Hobby needed - pronto.

The aftermath. I called this bite The Eye of Sauron because of how it bruised. Yes, I name any bites I receive. Hobby needed – pronto.

Chex tried to attack me at least 5 more times during our walk.  I maintained calm boredom in between attacks, but when he did attack, I gave him a negative answer.  You simply can’t put a positive spin on, “Can I attack you now?”.  The answer must be a negative, and it must be given clearly.  The first attack inside the house was the worst, and resulted in an impressive bite.  By the time he attacked for the 5th time, it was a half-hearted attempt on his part…at best.  After our 10 minute walk, Chex and I went back into the house to meet with his astonished owners.  I explained to them that Chex was trying to protect them from everything.  He was actually a very frightened dog.  Nobody made him that way. Dogs have personalities, too, and they run from Hippie to Rambo, just like we all do.  Let’s just say that Chex wouldn’t have been caught dead at Woodstock.

Rambo_DogAnnie and Susan were amazing.  They understood how important it was for them to get this right.  Their dog wasn’t attacking people because he was a jerk – he was frightened!  After explaining the need for positive and negative reinforcement, and the proper times to give each, I took Annie on a walk.  We passed by a crazy old woman with her dog  off-leash lunging at us – a situation that would have set Chex to nuke-mode.  Chex merely eyeballed the other dog, eyeballed the old woman (who yelled at us for walking our dog on the sidewalk in front of her house and thereby making her dog go ballistic).  It was extremely anti-climatic from Chex’s and Annie’s point of reference.

After our session, they mentioned the other trainer they had gone through.  It was a click-n-treater.  Positive only.  They said she came in for 1/2 hour and was greeted with the same reaction from Chex that I had been treated to.  She refused to go near Chex, and proceeded to diagnose him from a distance.  Her expert opinion?

He’s bi-polar.  Oh, and probably had a bad past life.  That’ll be $75 for the visit, please and thank you.

I’ve heard from Annie since our session.  She said he’s a different dog now.  She answers his questions, and he doesn’t seem fearful any more.  He’s a dog now, instead of a mess of teeth and hate.

I train dogs.  I don’t train puddles of pudding with no personality.  Each dog I work with has a definite personality, from the “No-No Bad Dogs” to the heavy hitters like Chex.  The object is to retain the dog’s personality, but moderate it to accommodate a human world.  The “No-No Bad Dogs” need to have their questions answered (“Can I jump? Can I race around the house knocking things over?”) just as much as the Chex dogs do (“Should I attack that person before they attack us?”).  The nuance is not to create a robot in the process.  Chex is still Chex.  He hasn’t been turned in to a perfect little machine covered in fur.  He has his personality intact.  We’ve just skimmed the unsavory stuff from the top, and left the happy, mischievous dog in place.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

No Other Option

When something scares us our first response is to run, very fast, in the opposite direction. The second response is actually much harder. It’s where you ignore every instinct and instead of running you stay and fight. – Dance Academy

Fight or flight?  Lady or the Tiger?  Both may be good choices…both may end the same way: badly.  It’s a choice your dog is always making.  For some dogs, the choice is difficult.  We label these dogs as “aggressive” or “dog reactive”.  Let’s take a look at what goes through the mind of a dog-reactive or aggressive dog.

Technically speaking, there is more than fight or flight. 

  • Ignore:  Right now, Sparta is ignoring the yarn I have on my coffee table.  It is of no interest to her.
  • Accept:  Orion was originally engaged with said yarn.  I answered his question (“Can I play with it?”), and he’s accepted the answer (“No.”) and is drifting off to the “Ignore” category, which is right where I want him in relation to my yarn stash.
  • Avoid:  Pixel, my kitten, thinks I’m stupid.  He thinks he can get at the yarn if he goes around the coffee table, where he thinks I can’t see him.  He doesn’t want a direct confrontation, but he’s not quite ready to give up.

Accept, followed closely by Ignore, are generally the places you want your dog to hang out.  The path to those places is sometimes paved with Avoid (sometimes you have to answer their questions more than once).  But where does it all start?  You guessed it:  Fight or Flight.

‘Shall we fight or shall we fly? Good Sir Richard, tell us now, For to fight is but to die!’ – Tennyson


Flight is typically any animal’s first choice.  It’s the one that keeps them alive.  You may call it cowardly, but it’s actually rather rational:  live to procreate another day.  Pass along those flight genes, and you’ve got Natural Selection working in your favor.

Look at it like this:  a dog decides to kill a mouse, for no apparent reason.  The mouse, though losing the battle, manages to nip the dog on the muzzle, giving him a small wound.  Mouse is then promptly turned into lunch.  That wound festers, and the dog dies.   That’s a small case scenario.  Imagine the life span of a dog who decides to fight with everything.  Other dogs. Larger prey.  Just for the heck of it.  Pretty short.
Welcome to Fight Club. – Tyler Durden
There are very few reasons why a dog would choose Fight over Flight.   Typically, those revolve around resources (they need to eat or you’re trying to take what they need to eat), breeding (Hey! That’s my potential mate!), or defending their young or pack (don’t get too close to my family!).  Typically, the need to eat and the need to defend their young/pack are the strongest motivators of Fight.
Imagine what it would take for you to become aggressive and decide to Fight.  What if someone broke in your house, would you shoot them?  What if they were taking family heirlooms? What if they started up the steps towards where your children were sleeping?  What is your breaking point, in other words.  We all have it.  Some would have pulled the trigger with the first provocation.  Others would only wait until they were certain they or their loved ones were in mortal danger.  Dogs are the same way:  we all perceive the same scenario as a different threat level, and will respond with violence when that level has been breached.
Fight Club.  Or as I refer to it, Some Movie Starring Brad Pitt's Abs, not to be confused with That Other Movie Starring Brad Pitt's Abs

Fight Club. Or as I refer to it, Some Movie Starring Brad Pitt’s Abs, not to be confused with That Other Movie Starring Brad Pitt’s Abs

“So if every healthy animal would choose flight over fight, why is my dog reacting to other dogs/people aggressively?”
- Brittany Graham Photography

– Brittany Graham Photography

 Because you’ve removed options.  They no longer have the option for Flight; they’re only left with Fight!  You have them on a leash. You have them in a crate.  Heck, you have them surrounded by the walls of your house!  Their option to run away is gone!  Ever notice how some dogs are crazy-reactive to other dogs when you take them for a walk on a leash, but at the dog park they’re fine?
For some dogs, even if you take them to a field and have them off leash, they still may be aggressive.  Why?  Because now they have pack to defend.  Meaning you.  You’ve made it abundantly clear that you aren’t going anywhere.  They can’t move you.  Again, their only option is to defend you.  Their young/pack.
 Now take a look at your “aggressive” dog.  Are you seeing things a little differently now?  That other dog walking right towards you isn’t a cute little Golden Retriever.  It’s another predator.  Heading straight towards you.  Your dog starts to give “back off” body language.  The other dog doesn’t back off because they’re tethered to a leash as well.  Your dog realizes their warning is unheeded, and therefore decides to step up their game to all-out aggressive mode. A simple miscommunication between owners and their dogs has resulted in at least one dog being tagged as “aggressive”.
So, what is the answer? The answer is the answer!  Let me explain.
That scenario with the other dog coming towards you?  Your dog is actually asking a question:  “Is that other dog going to hurt us?”.  When that question isn’t answered, it can escalate to another question, “Should I back him off?”.  Obviously the answers are “No” and “No”.  To successfully work with dog-reactivity:
1) Control yourself.  If you are angry, tense, upset, yelling…basically anything other than bored and calm, your dog will pick up on it.  It’s okay to feel angry, upset, nervous.  Just don’t show it.  Take a deep breath, and release those clenched muscles (take a look at your arms…I guarantee they’re clenched with the leash as taunt as you can make it).
2) Control the situation.  You can not add stimulation to a situation you’ve already lost control of.  So, your dog regularly pulls you on a leash…how do you think it’s going to play out when you add the stimulation of another dog?!  Get control of the current situation.  Work with your dog on leash skills.  (If you need some help, read Danika’s 3-part post on leash walking 101.)  Gradually add stimulation as you can handle it.  Hint: Don’t try walking past the dog park on the first day you’re working with dog reactivity.  Remember, we’re looking for progress, not perfection!
2) Answer the question. “Is that other dog going to kill us?”
“No, Fido, it isn’t.”  The more often you answer these questions successfully, the easier it will be to answer the next question and the next.  You are building up trust.  To answer a dog’s question, read about the PAW Method here.  Remember, your dog will be asking questions with body language.  Answer as soon as you see them asking!
Stiff tail, alert expression, standing on their toes.  We refer to this as "Meerkating" or "Prairie Dogging It".  I don't know what the question is this dog is asking, but the answer is "no".

Stiff tail, alert expression, standing on their toes. We refer to this as “Meerkat-ing” or “Prairie Dogging It”. I don’t know what the question is this dog is asking, but the answer is “no”.

Again, stiff tail, "Meerkatting", body shaped like a letter "T", wrinkled or furrowed brow.  This dog is asking a question.

Again, stiff tail, “Meerkatting”, body shaped like a letter “T”, wrinkled or furrowed brow. This dog is asking a question.

More meerkatting by the inventors of the sport.

More meerkatting by the inventors of the sport.

Finally, you don’t always have to know what the question is to answer it.  Sometimes you won’t be able to identify what your dog is concerned about.  That’s fine – just answer “no”.

Congratulations!  You have successfully Piloted your dog.

Teach them to trust you.  Trust for a dog means trusting you not to do crazy things, like, oh, …get angry because they are legitimately frightened.  Remember, they aren’t doing it because they are bad.  They are doing it because they are scared.  Let them know that yes, you see that dog, too, but you will protect them.  You will answer their questions.  You will Pilot them so they don’t have to be afraid any more.

And remember:

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


Time to Say “Goodbye”

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

“Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than to remember me and cry.”
― Dr. Seuss

All dogs can be rehabilitated.  I have never come across a dog that with the right mix of Piloting, Activity and Work, couldn’t be transformed into a dog who could properly bond with their human.

Unfortunately, sometimes the proper amount of Piloting is well-beyond what any human can reasonably be expected to give.  But that sure doesn’t stop them from giving.  At what point is it okay to say, “I can’t do this any more”?

Take, for instance, Sparta.  She is a wonderful dog, and I love her very much.  However, the amount of Piloting she requires is astronomical.  She is very dog aggressive, combined with a very fierce tendency to guard her “flock”.  Of course that doesn’t make her a bad dog….there is no such thing as a bad dog.  Unfortunately, though, that makes it very difficult for her to live in a human world without a monumental amount of Piloting.  I will never be able to be off-guard when taking her for a walk. I will never be able to have a friend of the family let themselves in our house.  Luckily, this is what I do for a living!  Piloting her is (relatively) easy for me because I have been doing this with dogs for over two decades.

But there is a promise between me and my family:  if I ever die, Sparta will be euthanized. Not because I don’t love her, but because I love her so much.  Nobody else in my house can safely walk her.  Nobody else in my house is as obsessed with Piloting her as me, and without a Pilot, Sparta is terrified.  Her terror then turns to aggression.  I answer every one  of her questions, no matter how many times she asks it, because I know that if she were to try to answer her own question (“Is this person a threat?”), the results would be disastrous, and would most likely involve severe injury to another dog or even a human.

Sparta is not a bad dog. She’s actually a great dog. Unfortunately, she is a horrible human.    No, she wasn’t abused, and nothing happened to make her this way.  It’s just who she is, and I love her for who she is.  The dog I have.  Not that dog think I should have.  

Huffington Post recently published an article by Trish McMillan Loehr about such issues, only in the reverse. A dog who had a horrible life, but was able to work into a family situation, quite well actually.     Lines that reverberated with me:

Ask any behaviorist what’s more important — nature or nurture — and they’ll answer “both.” Some dogs can be raised by the book, socialized to everything, and still become dangerously aggressive.

So please, pit bull lovers, stop saying “it’s all how they’re raised.” I know you mean well. But if you truly believe your words, no fight bust dog would ever be able to be adopted. And just look at the success of Michael Vick’s former fighting dogs.


If you truly believe “it’s all how they’re raised,” no stray shelter dog or abused dog would be safe to place in a home. I’ve worked with many animal victims of abuse — some have issues, it’s true — but many of them are just as resilient as Theodore.


Occasionally, an idyllic puppyhood still results in a dangerously aggressive adult dog. I’ve met those, too. And most dogs fall somewhere in between these extremes. Environment counts, but so do genes. Ultimately, all dogs are individuals, and that’s where we need to meet them.

“So just train it out of her”, some may say.  Training is different than Piloting.  Training involves a set of responses that are cued by a set of circumstances.  For example, when I say “sit”, Sparta sits.  The word triggers the action. Piloting involves questions.  You can’t always train questions.  Remember, you can’t train a dog, especially a naturally protective one, to accept every single other dog as part of their pack.  But what you can do is Pilot them, and answer their questions about this dog or that dog.  In other words, it isn’t all encompassing.  In human standards, it would be the same as my training you to trust all humans merely because they are human.  The thought is silly, and quite contrary to the interest of self-preservation.

Sparta was trained to hold random objects.  She was Piloted through her questions on how to do it.

Sparta was trained to hold random objects. She was Piloted through her questions on how to do it.

Usually, the more you Pilot a dog, the less you have to Pilot a dog.  Sparta and I have passed a great many dogs on our walks without incident because I have always answered her questions about them.  Sometimes it is literally just a tap on the leash with my ring finger (“No, we aren’t hunting that squirrel”) to “shutting the door” on her.  The very act of answering a question makes her more in tune with me.  She naturally starts to look at me, rather than that other dog she’s just spotted, to gauge my reaction.  I look bored, so she figures it’s not a big deal.  Again, sometimes that’s not enough of an answer for her, so I have to use more Piloting.

Sparta is a dog, and her reactions to other dogs and other humans (read: non-pack) is well within normal and healthy for a typical canid.  Just as all humans don’t exhibit the same amount of sociability, neither do dogs.  The difference between humans and dogs in this instance is that humans are living in a human world, one that we understand.  We know that the man coming to our door isn’t going to kill us… he’s merely delivering the mail.

Not every dog lives with someone who is willing Pilot them so readily.  Most dogs haven’t been abused or taught to react this way.  There was no trigger for them to start asking so many questions, with such dangerous results if they answer the questions themselves.  So at what point is it okay to say “goodbye”?  That’s the question I started off with.

When is it okay to put a healthy dog down due to the level of questions being asked, and the intensity with which they answer their own questions?  I firmly believe the humans come first.  The concept of euthanizing an otherwise healthy dog is always tragic, but sometimes necessary.  Rehoming is not always an option.  That’s like handing over a lit stick of dynomite to someone without warning them what happens when the fuse runs out.  That isn’t solving the problem, it’s shifting responsibility.  The dog typically still ends up asking a question that isn’t answered, and it ends badly.  Sometimes the end result involves a child.

Yes, it feels good to save these types of dogs, be can’t, and shouldn’t, save them all.  There aren’t enough facilities for the “low-key” dogs.  The ones whose toughest questions are “Can I play with that?” or “Can we go for a walk?”.  These dogs are being put down.  If these dogs can’t find a home, why would someone take such a risk as to try to rehome a dog who is known to be aggressive?  Again, that is merely shifting responsibility.  The problem is that we want to save them all. The result is we can’t.  It’s like trying to shove ten pounds of gold in a five pound bag.  There just isn’t room.

Some people will get judgemental about this post.  Saying that you never give up on a animal.  That they never gave up on their animal. Ah…if only everyone could be in the same situation they are, able to never give up on their animals.  But we all aren’t.  Sometimes there are young children in the house.  Sometimes someone becomes ill or infirm.  Sometimes that beautiful, adorable puppy grows up and has severe guarding issues. Sometimes thing just can’t safely work out.  Again, this isn’t about giving up.  This is about knowing when it’s time to say a necessary “goodbye”.

This post is to a dear friend, “M”, who today will be saying goodbye.  She is a true Pilot, and a wonderful human being.  Please share your support for the difficult, painful decision she has had to make today.  Thank you, M, for your dedication to your dog. Just because the ending isn’t how you expected it to be doesn’t mean you didn’t see it through to to the end.

My girl Sparta.  I will love you forever.  I love you enough to never leave you without a Pilot.

My girl Sparta. I will love you forever. I love you enough to never leave you without a Pilot.

Keep calm and pilot on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

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

A Little Bird Told Me…

  My dogs are a priority and a big responsibility… but the payoffs are well worth it.

  – Will Estes

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

I recently had a training session with a tiny, spunky little Chihuahua mix named Bird.  Bird’s owner was concerned about the level of energy her dog was exhibiting, as well as some other issues.  Bird’s owner, Kim, was impressive to watch as she basically went from being her dog’s doormat to a true Pilot:  a calm, benevolent leader.  I received this email from her a few days later:

Hi Kerry! I wanted to thank you and to let you know how well Bird  is doing since our session!  My mom even commented on how much calmer and more respectful she is now that she knows I’m the pilot (or at least getting there).  I’m so grateful for what you have taught me.
Today, though, I had a very frightening experience with Bird.  I was at Lakewood park with a friend and we were reading on blankets on the grass.  Bird was laying next to me on a leash.  I noticed she was growling a little bit at every dog that passed by so I tried the fake “bite” with my hand which don’t seem to stop her from growling. Then before I could stop it, another little dog (off leash) ran up to sniff her.  Bird freaked out, snarled and almost attacked the other dog.  When I grabbed her to pull her away she snarled again and almost bit ME. She has NEVER done anything like this before.  I was so embarrassed and sad. I felt like such a bad dog-mom.
So, for future notice, I’m wondering what I should do when Bird growls/barks at other dogs.  I tried the pretend “bite” with my hand which didn’t seem to work.  I tried standing between her and the other dog, which seemed to distract her a little bit, but nothing really stopped it. Like I said, this is the very first time this has ever happened.  She has never shown aggression toward another dog beyond growling at them.
Thank you again for all your help.  I think you are wonderful at what you do and I’m so happy to have you as a resource. – Kim
Aggressive dog?  Just because  a dog shows teeth doesn't mean they're aggressive.  Sometimes they are merely trying to protect themselves or their owner.  Photo: Brittany Graham Photography

Aggressive dog? Just because a dog shows teeth doesn’t mean they’re aggressive. Sometimes they are merely trying to protect themselves or their owner. Photo: Brittany Graham Photography

So it looks as if Kim is doing just about everything right, so what happened?!  Read on for my response:

Hi Kim – let me rephrase what happened from Bird’s point of view:  She gave an alert about potential danger while you were lying prone on the grass.  While she was still trying to get handle on the situation, a predator ran right up to your prone form, forcing her to protect you.  While she was busy trying to defend you against the unanswered question, another hand came out of nowhere, whereupon her adrenalin (which was already kicked up to begin with) forced her to react to this new danger, whereupon she realized right before contact that it was only your hand.

That’s exactly what you stated above, but only from her perspective.  At no point did she do anything wrong, nor is she a bad dog.  However, as I mentioned before, you can give a negative to her if you happen not to like what she is currently doing.

So, playing this scenario out again, with what you can do next time.

1)  Use as much “no” as is necessary.   You “bit” her using your fingertips, but she wasn’t able to accept the answer to her question.  It’s okay to add layers.  Remember, the fingertip-bite is only there to get her attention so she can see what you’re “saying”.  Dogs are based on body language, remember.  The moment she looked at you, use your negative body language.  If that didn’t work, stand up and do it.  Remember, that tiny little girl was trying to protect your prone form from passing predators.

2)   Sometimes you need to walk it off.  Your Piloting was tested when she wouldn’t stop the growling after you answered her question the first time, thereby refusing to accept your answer to her question.  Meaning she took some money out of your bank… Take it back!  The best way to add Piloting to your piggy bank is to go for a very short walk, answering her questions as you go along.  Maybe even as little as 800 feet.  When you feel you’ve got your money back, add a little more than she took, and then you’re done.  Try the scenario again.  Remember, whomever has the most money in their Piloting Piggy Bank gets to be Pilot.  Be stingy in giving money back to her.

3) Position matters.  What was the positioning?  Was she hanging out in front of you, otherwise known as the “Sentinel Position”, wherein she has inadvertently been asked to keep a lookout?  If so, change her position.  Things you are supposed to protect belong behind you.  Things that are protecting you are in front of you. If she’s having problems, try positioning her so you are between her and the perceived threat.

Watch your positioning.  Your dog may not always feel comfortable being in the Sentinel  position  (in front of you).  Brittany Graham Photography

Watch your positioning. Your dog may not always feel comfortable being in the Sentinel position (in front of you). Brittany Graham Photography

Lastly, always keep in mind the steps to working with a dog:

- Control yourself. No anger. No excitement.  Acting calmly bored is best, no matter how your dog is reacting.

- Control the situation.  This includes proper positioning, if necessary, as well as layering on the negatives as necessary.  Some questions are bigger than others, and may require more layers of “no”.  “May I have a piece of your pizza?’  takes only one or two layers of “no”.  “Is that dog going to kill us?”, obviously is a harder question requiring more layers.

- Answer the question.  Layer on the “no”.  Gentle tap with your fingertips on the ribs, confident body language directed at her, standing up, moving into her, gentle tap on the leash, moving into her.  These are all layers of “no” that can be used.

Your situation at the park was a perfect example of how you can have everything under control, and then suddenly lose it.  Dogs live in the here and now.  Shake it off and move on.  Don’t carry any of that last experience in the park with you on your next experience.  In other words, set yourself up for success next time, paying attention to body positioning, etc., but don’t go into the situation expecting a battle.  You’ll get one if you do.

Add some positives to the situation next time.  If she sees a dog and she growls, answer the question first (always answer the question!), but once the accepts the answer, give her a gentle pet, a calm word, and/or a treat.  Touch Talk Treat.  You working to establish that Being Calm = Good Things.

Judging by what I saw Kim do during our training session, I have full confidence that she will soon have Bird feeling safe and protected, no matter what the circumstances may be.

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

Reality Bites

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

 -Winston Churchill


Clockwise from the munchkin: Orion, Sparta and Cody

Clockwise from the munchkin: Orion, Sparta and Cody

Orion bit Cody (the dog I’m boarding) today.  Orion started with a low growl, worked up to baring of teeth, and then, for the grand finale, bit Cody square on the nose.  And what did I do during this entire engagement?

I watched.  It wasn’t my place to intervene at that moment.  Cody was actually being a twerp, and totally deserved that bite.  Orion had a Kong and was engaged with the peanut butter inside.  Cody came bounding up to Orion, stuck his nose right between the Kong and Orion, and proceeded to just be an absolute pest.  Orion gave him ample warning before finally resorting to “violence”, if that’s the correct word for a 7 lb dog defending his toy from 40 lbs. of annoying, 8-month old, Labradoodle.


Now that’s not to say that in my pack my dogs are allowed to just “have at”, snarling and fighting over anything they think belongs to them.  I will have peace in my house.  But just like any other family, frequently there are misunderstandings.  And let’s face it: it does take a village, and Cody had not been part of a healthy village when I met him. He would invade your personal space, jump on you, grab other dog’s toys from under them, etc.  He’s a wonderfully sweet dog, but he was like a child who had never heard the word “no” before: in other words, a total brat.  His owner had a serious injury just a few months after she got him, and he had been boarded at a regular doggie daycare for weeks before he met me, as she was essentially bedridden and unable to care for her beloved puppy.  Daycare is fine and wonderful for exercise, but not so good for Piloting your dog, as she realized, which was why she called me.   So, how do you un-brat an 8-month old puppy?

Well, if it were indeed just me, that would require my having to answer every one of his questions, which is the basis of Piloting.  Any behavior that was unacceptable, well, that was up to me to address. That can be a bit of an overwhelming job.  So I farmed out some of the work to Orion, and eventually to Sparta.

To make these types of situations work safely,  I need to be Pilot over both Sparta and Orion completely. In other words, they need to check with me frequently to make sure that whatever type of “answer” they are offering Cody is acceptable to me.  So when Orion first growled at Cody over the Kong, Orion frequently looked at me to make sure this was acceptable for him to do this.

Mom, can I handle this problem?

I neglected to answer Orion’s question (and remember, the absence of “no” is “yes”), so Orion continued.  Unfortunately, Cody didn’t catch the drift, so Orion had to escalate to a snarl (Cody is kinda dense sometimes).  Yes, Orion continued to keep an eye on me in case I had an answer different than the one I had previously given.  Nope. I didn’t.  Cody still didn’t get the idea that this behavior was unsavory.  So Orion leaped 1.5 feet in the air and nipped Cody squarely on the nose.  Cody caught on.  Finally. No blood, no mark, not even a scratch.  Problem handled – safely.

Now, letting Orion help me “raise” Cody for a few weeks is a lot different than letting Sparta do the same thing.  I work with Orion in a work setting very frequently.  I know how far Orion is willing to go to make his point, and exactly what means he will utilize to get that point across.  Orion is tremendously professional.  He never overdoes it, but he is willing to get his point across.  Sparta, on the other hand, is a bit totalitarian.  It also took a lot longer for her to accept Cody as Pack. She required frequent reminders.  That’s not to say she isn’t well behaved.  My girl will accept an answer to one of her questions instantly.  She’s freakishly well-behaved in that regard.  One just needs to bear in mind that, as a Shepherd, she was bred to protect the Pack (be it humans, sheep, etc.) from other predators.  Meaning I needed to be on top of all of Sparta’s questions as soon as she asked them. It took about a week before she was able to instantly identify Cody as Pack rather than something to annihilate.  But finally she accepted him and stopped asking questions.  And, of course, Cody decided to test his bounds with her as well.

When Sparta were first allowed run of the house together, it was for short, heavily monitored amounts of time.  I watched them like a lion eyeing a wounded gazelle, my gaze never lifted from them, all the while appearing “normal”.  Sitting on the couch, reading a book.  On my computer, all the while stealthily running surveillance.  Cody decided to try to trample Sparta while Sparta was calmly resting in her favorite spot  Not a bright thing to do.

Now, thus far, Sparta had shown a remarkable amount of patience with Cody, putting up with him crashing into her, getting underfoot, and even jumping off the back steps and landing on her.  Honestly, she had more patience than I can muster sometimes.  But there’s an end to patience, and a time when questions need to be answered with a “no”.

And that’s just what she did.  Obviously the game dynamics change when the dog answering the question is 100 lbs. instead of 7 lbs., but the rules are still the same.  Sparta jumped up, nipped Cody, who immediately backed off. Sparta went right back to sleep.  Question answered.  No blood – not even a scratch.  Merely a question that has been answered, in a dog-appropriate fashion.

Now there are some situations where it would probably be safe to let Sparta answer Cody’s question, but I’m not going to chance it. Instances where both dogs are exhibiting energy (even positive) or if it involves food.  There’s no reason to take a chance, as minute as it may be.  I’m a perfectionist: I’ll only allow my dogs to answer another dog’s question under perfect circumstances.  That’s why it’s always very anti-climatic when they finally get to answer.  That’s also why my pack is calm.  If things ever escalate (which they did when I first added Orion to my pack), then I answer everyone’s question.

Dogs are like children in that you can rely on them to set up their own little social regime.  If they have a kind, benevolent leader who answers questions (such as a parent), then children’s social interactions will be handled in a healthy, appropriate manner among themselves.  I see this with my own children.  Yes, they have disagreements, but they understand the rules I have set forth for them to manage these disagreements on their own.  Occasionally they have difficulty, so I step in.

A lot of people are quick to blame a dog who bites or nips another dog, especially if they’re larger.  I see this a lot.  A typically normal “argument” among dogs blown way out of proportion.  Before deciding if your dog is being aggressive, ask yourself a few questions:

What was the fight about?

If the fight appeared completely unprovoked, or with very slight provocation (i.e., one dog just entered the room and the other dog attacked), then there is a problem.  But if, like in Cody’s case, the dog was being a dofus, well, then…perhaps it was justified.

How long did the fight last, and how severe was the fight?

A nip on the nose?  That is how one dog tells another dog “no”.  Stitches and medical treatment?  You have a problem.  Also, bear in mind how easily the fight was broken up.  A few days ago Sparta started to answer one of Cody’s questions, but I didn’t want her to. I gave her a negative and she instantly backed off.  In other words, she was still being Piloted by me, not answering her own questions.  I will never allow things to escalate to where my dogs are on auto-Pilot.  I won’t even toe the line and let them co-Pilot.

Was there a change in circumstances beyond your control?

Darwin bit Sparta once, and had escalated to a very dangerous point.  No, still no blood involved, but it took me a moment to Pilot him.  He went to the vet that same day.  Sparta had been acting normally (she was 6 mos old at the time, Darwin was about 12).  So she was being annoying as a young dog will be.  Darwin had never shown her anything but patience, and was smart enough to remove himself from a situation if it got out of control or to “ask” me for assistance by placing me between him and Sparta.  So the intensity of the disagreement merited a vet trip.  Yes, there was a problem. Darwin had been battling some health issues, and they had increased in size. That was the start of his declination, and it wasn’t too long afterwards that we had to say goodbye to him.  Any behavior that is out of the ordinary is grounds for a vet trip.  Because we went early, we were able to give him relative comfort for the last six months of his life.


 I’d like to continue this blog post, but Cody is asking Orion a question about who has rights to the bed Orion is currently occupying, and considering how much help the little guy has been to me today, I’ll let him take a pass on answering it.  Cody could use another walk after I answer the question, anyway.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs LLC
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



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