The Worst Four Words and How They’re Impeding You and Your Dog

“The meaning behind the words, the feeling is more significant than the words themselves, so listen.” Anonymous

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

I use a lot of strange lingo here in my blog posts.  Words you might not think belong with a dog training site.

Piloting: The act of answering your dog’s questions; guiding their voyage through life.

Rapunzel Syndrome: A dog who hasn’t been acclimated to a set of stimuli; for example,  a puppy mill dog who is finally get out of a cage for the first time, or simply a dog who isn’t walked very much and hardly leaves their own back yard. Overwhelmed, terrified, excited, terrified, excited….

Yo Bitch:  A certain unsavory behavior some dogs give.  Read about it here.

Paris Paw: As in, Paris Hilton’s dog.  The most frightened dog in the world.  Always has his paw up by his chest, denoting his level of terror and uncertainty.  We humans do it when we aren’t sure or aren’t wearing our Piloting uniform.


There are a few words you will never hear me utter, because they have absolutely no place in dog training.

Dominant/Alpha Male

I see on tv all the time, or hear from people, “You just need to show him who is alpha male of the pack”.  Probably some of the dumbest words I’ve ever heard uttered.

David Mech coined the term over 50 years ago when describing behavior of captive animals. In his book published in 1970,  “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” he describes how fights among the wolves determined who would control the pack, thus making them Alpha Male.

In 1999, Mech published a paper recanting his original term, and describing it as incorrect.  Based upon more evidence, he realized that the proper term should be “breeding pairs”, if anything, and that his original observations were based upon wolves kept in unnatural circumstances.

So the gentleman who coined the phrase no longer uses it, and claims its an obsolete notion; why are you still using it?  There is no concept of “alpha” in your dog.  Same goes for “dominating” a dog so they “know their place”.  Their place is asking questions, of you or of themselves, and you Pilot them by answering their questions.  “Can I bark?” No. “Can we play fetch?” No, not right now.  “May I please have a treat?” Yes you may.  At no point is domination needed.  The more you answer their questions, the more questions you look for them to answer.

Think of it like a contractor.  I recently discovered water dripping from my ceiling in my kitchen (!).  Obviously, I knew I needed to ask someone about that.  So I called the gentleman who had laid the tile on our entire first floor of our house last year. He also did a lot of other work for us through his contracting company.  Could he handle this issue?  I don’t know, but the fact that previously he had answered questions and handled other situations for us made us want to speak with him again regarding this.  And yes, he is able to handle the situation.

So you don’t ever show your dog that you’re alpha/dominant.  You prove to them that you can Pilot them. You have to earn that ability, just like anything else.  Read how here.

Bad Dog

Good grief.  By whom’s standards are you judging your dog?  Because your dog is not bad.  They’re a great dog!  They just reallllllly suck at being human.  See, it’s right there in our tagline, at the top of this page. So rather than trying to train them and declare what behaviors make them “bad dogs”, let’s work on communication.  Helping them live in this alien world we call suburbia.  Pilot, don’t berate.

You’re Doing it Wrong/You’re a Bad Owner

Oh my…didn’t we just address this?  Yes, you agreed that your dog isn’t a bad dog, but rather a mess of a human.  You’ve shown them sooooo much patience for their lack of humanity, and are working towards communication with your dog. 

And then you go and lay an egg like that.

My dear, you aren’t a bad owner.  You aren’t doing it wrong.  You are a perfectly wonderful human….who really sucks at being a dog. You’ve cut your dog some slack for not being human, now how about a little patience for yourself as well.  Your dog has already moved past any faux pas paws you may have made.  Now forget what has been going on in the past; as long as you were acting through love and concern for your pet, I already forgive you for not being a good dog ;).  And get frustrated.  You have my encouragement.  Just do it appropriately.  Read here about How Not To Kill Your Dog Through Frustration, Even Though He Chewed A Hole in your Sofa, a guide to surviving your bad dog.


Right along with the last two terms I hate, “punish” has no place in working with dogs.  No matter what your dog did, they acted as a dog.  They don’t need punishment; they need answers.

To help understand this, you need to understand that dogs live in the here and now.  (I’m envious, actually).  They have no concept of always, never, nor forever.  It’s literally “yes” and “no”.  Meaning Fido can ask me if he can jump on me.  I give him a negative.  He accepts that negative.  Whose fault was that?  Nobody’s, right?  It’s just a question, and I answered it for him.  What happens if he jumps on me again, though? Then whose fault is it?

Nobody’s. (I set you up for that one.)

It’s a brand new question.  Each and every time.  Remember, dogs don’t understand always, never, forever…they understand “yes” and “no” in response to their questions.  Does that make them stupid?  No, it makes them perfect and guileless.  However, dogs are extremely intelligent (yes, even yours).  And what they do understand (after a bit of repetition) is that the same question will yield the same answer.  So for instance, it took my Sparta about 6 times of answering her question, “Can I hang out in your walk-in closet?” (she’s weird), but now she anticipates that the answer will be “no”, and she rarely, if ever, has asked that question since.  It took only a few times of me answering my Orion’s question, “Can I go on the couch?” before he realized that I’ve been saying “yes” every time, and now doesn’t ask permission anymore. However, when he asks about my bed, the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no, so he knows he has to ask every time, and not just jump up there.

So you can teach your dog a rough translation of always, never and sometimes by answering their questions.  Just keep your eye on the ball and answer the important questions.

Learn how to answer their questions while maintaining your sanity here.

That handles all of the words that I abhor.  The ones that should be stricken from the dog-dictionary, if you will.  The way to start communicating and working with your dog is to start by jettisoning those words from your vocabulary.

I’m sorry… I have no idea how that got there!!!!!!!

Movingrightalong…..let’s talk about  an iffy word. A word that I don’t hate, but I don’t love.


This is a weird one, isn’t it?  Wondering if you’ve stumbled on the wrong site?  This is dog training after all, right?

Well….yes and no.  “Training” is a word that is over used. Let’s go over the mantra again, and perhaps you’ll see where the problem is.

“Your dog sucks at being human.  And you aren’t the best dog.”

So what exactly are you “training” your dog to do?  Let me put it this way: do you “train” your kids?

Um, hopefully not.

What do you do with children, though?  You answer their questions. Big, little, easy, difficult… you answer them to the best of your ability.  Just today, these were the questions I answered from my kids:

Mom, can I have a Klondike bar?

Mom, what time is it?

Mom, can I play on my 3DS?

Mom, why did Aunt Donna get cancer?






Just like with kids, you do the best you can.  The more you answer their questions, the more they look to you for answers, and the more they start to trust your answers as solid, even if they don’t like your answers.

So you aren’t really training your dog any more than you are training your kids.  You are helping to Pilot them through life with big, little, and difficult answers.  The difference between kids and dogs, however, is that you will be Piloting your dogs for the rest of their lives.  Children we start to back off the answers as we encourage them to find their own answers so we can finally let them go as fully functioning adults.

And finally, let’s talk about words that I love.

Anything positive.  Seriously.  If you see a behavior your dog is giving, and you like it, give it a positive.  Catch as many as you can, be it through words, affection or an occasional treat.  I want you to be the positive-fairy, spreading positives where ever you go. Spread it like glitter.

There’s a saying about not saying something you will regret, but I think the reverse is true as well.  Make sure you say something you will regret not saying.  Because a day will come, and you won’t realize it, but it will be the last time you will ever tell your dog that you love them.  The last time you scratch them behind the ears.  Or the last time you say, “Good dog!”.  Catch up on the positives, and if you find yourself  crying at the other end of the rainbow bridge, when asked when you last gave your dog a positive, can you honestly say it was today? Or would you have to struggle to remember the last time you let your dog know how good and wonderful they are?  Because he lets you know each and every day. Every minute.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training Communicating in Cleveland

The Danger of Negative-Only Training

The art of communication is the language of leadership.

- James Humes

wordsMy 12-year old son flipped me off the other day.

And I did nothing about it.

Probably not how you expected this blog post to start. Definitely not how you may have expected me to react, either. Let me set the scenario for you, though.

Eric is the most well-behaved child I have ever met.  He’s always been that way.  Does what he’s told.  Takes responsibility for his actions.  He’s currently maintaining a 3.8 GPA.  I totally don’t deserve this kid, and I know it.

My daughter, well…I should have named her Karma, because I earned her.  I know that, too.

The other day, the kids were home on a snow day, and I was trying to use my one day off to clean the house.  They were helping me, as they always do.  But Eric just kept messing up.

Spilling the entire bucket of water on the floor.  Eric go clean that up now!

Tripping over the vacuum  cord and unplugging it.  Eric, you’re not helping; go plug it back in!

Using oil soap to clean the stainless steel appliances.  Nice…now you have to go clean it twice as hard.  

It was this scenario all day.  The final straw was when I turned a corner the same moment he did and we crashed into each other, causing him to drop the garbage bag he was holding, spilling its contents everywhere.  I rolled my eyes and told him in an exasperated voice to clean it up now.

My immediate reaction was extreme frustration.

I blushed right down to my pretty little danishes.

I swear by the danishes on my head….!

As he was walking by me, I saw him with his middle finger pressed up against his chest, as if I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t believe he would flip off his own mother!  Especially Eric.  It would be like hearing Shirley Temple drop an “F” bomb.



Yeah, I was furious.  But I had sense enough to never engage with anything when I’m furious.  As usual, I recited my Darwin Dogs’ mantra:

Step one - Control yourself; 

Step two - Control the situation; 

Step three - Engage.

Damn.  I wasn’t even within shouting distance of step one at that point.  I retired to my room to collect myself and left the kids downstairs to finish cleaning, and busied myself with writing blog posts instead.

I came back downstairs about an hour later.  They had finished cleaning the house.  Alone.  Without my constant nagging.  It was at that moment I realized that I had been making the situation wretched.  I had two kids who had a day off of school cleaning my house without complaint.  I had accidentally asked them to be adults, and then neglected to treat them with respect.  Was it my fault? Yes and no.  A certain number of things need to be done.  But how I went about them?  Completely wrong.

Yes, Eric needed to be Piloted, and have his questions answered, be they asked in a verbal or non-verbal fashion.  But how had I reacted all day?  With constant negatives.  Nit-picking, if you will.  His body language should have told me how he was starting to feel, but I didn’t pay attention.  I didn’t notice he looked dejected.  He had no respite, and I had essentially backed him into a corner to the point where he flipped me off (albeit, incognito).  He felt he had no voice. That’s not normally how I do things.

My kids are a constant source of learning for me.  You’ll see them splashed all over the Darwin Dogs’ blog as well as on the Facebook page.  They have made me a better dog trainer, and my dogs have made me a better parent.  That’s why I didn’t react when Eric flipped me off: I’ve been working with dogs in a flight or flight state for many years.  I recognize the reaction when I see it.  When you feel as if you can’t take any more stimuli and you’re stressed beyond all belief.

And I was the one who put Eric into that state.

Technically, you can say he should have spoken up.  Problem is, he’s only 12.  Second problem is, he never advocates for himself.  He takes orders and requests to heart, completing them no matter how crazy they sound.  He’s like a tiny little soldier.  I had just pushed him to far.

What would I do differently next time?  Still correct him, but realize that when I engage while frustrated, I’m merely chucking my emotions onto him, which is unfair.  Nothing is of such extreme importance that it can’t wait for me to regain my composure.


So yes, I’m allowed to get angry, frustrated, and upset, but it’s my job to set the example, starting with Step 1: Control yourself.  Also, even if he did need all of those negatives, why didn’t I throw a positive in there?  Stop and reboot. A simple deep breath followed by a , “Hey kids, let’s take a break and have some wine cookies”, would have prevented the entire instance.

I talked with Eric, and told him that while flipping me off was not the appropriate response, that I realized why he did it.  He felt he had no voice.  He was trapped, so he became aggressive (for Eric, anyway).  I apologized for my inability to control neither myself, nor the situation.  But part of my raising Eric includes helping him learn to advocate for himself.  Let me know when you need help, even if it’s help from me. Because another part of raising kids is letting them know it’s okay to not be perfect.  Just do better.

The last several weeks I have had many opportunities to use the lesson Eric taught me that day. Dogs can’t speak, though, so it’s up to us to know and read their language (hint: body language).  In my head, I call it “a little bird told me”. 

- Working with a Buddy, a rottie who is dog reactive, and owner who was giving the correct (non-emotional) negatives, but failed to give their dog any positives when they calmed down just a little bit. I had visions of my son flipping me off.

“A little bird told me a bit of positive will help reduce his stress level in this situation…yours as well. The moment his energy drops, even a little, sneak in a gentle scratch behind his ears.”  Dramatic decrease in negative energy from both dog and owner.

- Hanging out with Wesson, a ridiculously adorable terrier mix who was experiencing separation anxiety.  His owners underestimated the power of positive in the situation. That little bird had more information to give.

“A little bird told me once it’s best to wait until he’s quiet(er) and walk up to the crate and pass him a treat. Next time he’s quiet(er) give him a gentle scratch through the crate.  Final time, let him come out.f  Let him know he’s on the right path: calm.”  Slow, but steady progress was made. 

- Or my all-time favorite: a woman named Ann who owned a Cane Corso named Coco, who would go bananas at anything and everything: door, other dogs, people.  Coco was an unholy and snarling mess of anxiety.   Ann was terrified to go out the door with Coco because she had behaved so violently in the past, dragging Ann down the street.  Ann was visibly shaken at the thought of going for a walk with Coco.  Up until I met her, she had been only allowing Coco to potty in the back yard, and then returning her to the house, yelling at Coco if she even looked at anything

So what did I do?

I realized that Ann was the one who needed a positive. Ann was the one who was terrified.  Yes, Coco was, too, and was only trying to protect Ann from Everything In The Whole Wide World, but Ann was doing the best she could, and she just couldn’t anymore. Ann needed a pep talk, and a very small walk, just to get her feet wet (literally out the front door  with Coco and then right back in).  Now I had my opportunity to dole out the positives for both of them.  Ann felt as if she had accomplished something.  And sometimes it’s not about accomplishing it all. Ann is creating a small series of “somethings” and positives. Life is a series of small somethings bundled up together.  It’s up to you if you want the bundle to contain mostly negatives, or mostly positives.

A little bird told me that.