Finding the Best Dog Trainer for You

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.  -William Arthur Ward

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

So Fido chewed your new shoes.  Or maybe Fifi decided she wants to kill every dog she sees.  Perhaps you’ve stepped in a puddle on your new rug (barefoot, of course).

What do you do?  Onto Google.  Searching for “a dog trainer near me.  Local dog trainer.  Dog whisperer.  Dog shouter.  Dog guru….”  anything to help you out.  But you need to ask yourself, are you actually helping yourself, or are you stepping into an even worse pile than you just stepped in?  How do you know if the person you are hiring to help you with your dog is actually going to help or hurt your dog.  Here are some important questions to ask yourself.

1. Initial Contact. 

Perhaps a phone call, email, or even a text.  How quickly did they respond (bearing in mind weekends and evenings…dogs trainers have lives too, ya know).  But did they get back to you within a reasonable time?  The saying goes that if a professional has immediate availability, it’s usually because nobody else wants them either.  Yes, perhaps you may need to take an appointment that is a week or so out, but did they show you enough courtesy to return your call?  If they don’t return your calls with questions before they have your money, how readily do you think they’ll call you back once they’ve cashed your check?

2.  Questions.  

Did they answer the question you asked during initial contact, or did they give you some vague, one-size-fits-all answer.  Every dog trainer and dog behaviorist of course has their general speech (myself included) that goes over fees, what to expect, and our techniques.  But if you ask a specific question, are they able to answer it, or do they stumble back into the same speech?

Along these lines, make sure you ask the correct questions.  What methods do you use?  How does a training session break down?  What will we be covering?  It helps to have a list of behaviors you feel are important to address, but a good trainer will be able to spot problems without your bringing them up.  For example, I had a client mention that her dog counter-surfed and would run around like a maniac during the day.  She failed to mention that the dog was horrible when answering the door, jumping and barking, but I knew already that would be added to the list.  This ain’t my first rodeo, as I”m fond of saying.  I know what behaviors travel together, and when you mention one behavior, I know I’ll be addressing accompanying behaviors as well. Like Lannisters and, well, other Lannisters, some things just go together.

3.  Ask about follow-ups.

You aren’t going to understand every single concept your trainer presents to you.  There’s just no way.  You may think you understand what you’re doing right after your training session, but once reality hits…it may be a different story.

Yeah, you definitely worked on Rover’s dog-reactivity during your training session, but now you’ve forgotten what to do when you pass by two other dogs. Maybe you don’t remember if you’re supposed to let your dog on your bed or not.  Whatever your question is, your trainer should be available for answers.  Ask what their policy is on follow-up questions, and if they’re available for phone calls, emails, texts, etc.  after your training session.

4. Reviews.

Do a simple Google search of the trainer’s name and/or company.  What do the reviews say?  Pay attention to negative reviews, but remember to put them into context.  For example, I personally have 2 negative reviews through one source.  All the other fifty are 5 out of 5 stars.  The two negatives?  Both were people I’d never worked with before.  One was left by someone who didn’t like the fact that I stick up for pitbulls, another by another trainer.

When reading negative reviews, keep an open mind.  Same goes for the positive reviews. Did 6 out of 7 positive reviews happen within a 1 month period of time?  Odds are someone asked their friends to leave a review.  If you’re concerned about a specific review, ask about it when you contact them.  Check a few different source materials, as well.  Facebook, Thumbtack, even Google all have their own reviews.  See what’s out there.

5. Methods.

Ooooh….this is where it gets tricky.  You’re asking for help from someone about your dog because you have no idea how to deal with your dog’s behaviors.  If you knew what method was best, you wouldn’t be looking for a dog trainer/behaviorist, now would you?  How are you supposed to know which method is best?  I personally think the PAW Method is best, but I may be a little biased.  Of course I think my method is the best.  If it weren’t, I’d be using another method.  

But I’m sure other trainers think the same thing about their method.  So while I prefer using the PAW Method, there are plenty of other methods utilized to train a dog.  Shop around.  See what makes sense to you.  If you don’t feel a certain method is right for you, move on.  What’s right for one person may not be right for you.  Even my method has adapted and changed over the years.  What I did ten years ago may vary slightly from what I do now, because you learn and grow.  If a method is inflexible and immutable, it won’t work.  No method is perfect, and therefore, room to improve must be acknowledged.  Ask your trainer what they do differently now vs. when they first started.  If they say, “nothing”, move on, because they have stopped learning.

Regardless of what trainer you use, using what methods, it all comes down to one thing:  will you follow through.  Because the most frustrating thing is when a client tells you “it isn’t working”, and when you ask them which part, all they can tell you is that they aren’t sure because they haven’t really followed through. Dog trainers and dog behaviorists aren’t here to pour magic potions on your dog to make them “good”.  News flash:  your  dog is already a good dog.  He’s perfect, as a dog.  He just sucks at being a human. Always remember that when going into training.  You aren’t training your dog to be a good dog, you’re training them to be a good human.

And you’re learning how to be a good dog.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
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

Word Games

One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes… and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.

Eleanor Roosevelt


If you’ve been around the Darwin Dog’s blog post a bit, you’ve probably figured out that we are a bit quirky. Okay….I’m  a bit quirky.  Danika is the more serious of the two of us. But that’s not really saying much.

Danika and I at a recent event.  There was absolutely NO alcohol involved in the making of this pic. Nope.  None.

Yeah, we’re kinda like the Oz Couple.  

We’ve also developed our own lingo here at Darwin Dogs.  You hear words thrown about, like, “Piloting”, and “slamming the door”, but what does it mean?  Well, here you go, a list of words that are commonly used, along with links for more information about each term.

 Darwin Dogs’ Dictionary

Activity Exercise!  Fundamental for a happy, healthy dog.

Think outside the, uh, leash, too!  Orion is doing agility over my leg for a bit of Activity.

Think outside the, uh, leash, too! Orion is doing agility over my leg for a bit of Activity.
Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

Cobra-ing When out on a walk, your dog find something terribly interesting and keeps trying to look around you, from one side to the other, like a cobra or a pendulum.
Houdini or Copperfield As in the magicians.  A dog whose owner thinks that their dog’s behavior will never change, but 2 hours with Darwin Dogs and –poof!- behavior problem is solved.  Example:“Hey Danika, how did your session go yesterday?”
“The dog just had a lot of questions, so I showed the owners how to answer them. It was really easy. A total Copperfield session, Kerry.”
Lap Shark This:

Natural habitat: Grandma's lap.  Also found being carried *everywhere*

Natural habitat: Grandma’s lap. Also found being carried *everywhere*

Meerkat-ing or Prairie-dogg When your dog suddenly looks like he rubbed Viagra all over his body: he’s alert and all his muscles are stiff, ears rigid, and perhaps a little furrow between his brows develops.  He’s asking a question about something.  Answer his question.home_meerkat
Negative Reinforcement Answering any of your dog’s questions in a negative fashion, from “Can we go for a walk now?” or “May I please beg?” to “Should I attack that other dog?”.  Not to be confused with “punishment”. Ever.
No No Bad Dog session A dog who jumps, barks, walks terrible on a leash…but deep down is a wonderful dog, who happens to think his name is “No No Bad Dog”. When writing descriptions of the dogs we are working with on our schedules, Danika and I frequently refer to some as “typical ‘No No Bad Dogs’”.55df2e62e7e3343e85c98fcd236fc915
Pavlovian Response (aka, Classical Conditioning) Linking two things together so tightly that when one happens the other is implied.  For example, “salt and __________”.  If you immediately thought “pepper”, you’ve been classically conditioned to always think of those two things together.  Anything can become a Pavlovian response, from a doorbell (indicating someone is here), to my snapping my fingers (which in my house, stand for “no” to my dogs).  See also, “Touch Talk Treat” for another example.
PAW Method Combining Piloting, Activity and Work together to create a happy, healthy relationship with your dog.
Piloting One the three basic things required when working with a dog.  Piloting a dog is merely answering your dog’s questions, so they don’t have to. Answering questions puts money into your Piloting Piggy Bank.
Sparta is asking as simple question ("Should I get up?").  I Pilot her by answering her question (in this case, with a negative). Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham
Sparta is asking as simple question (“Should I get up?”). I Pilot her by answering her question (in this case, with a negative).
Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham
Piloting Piggy Bank The more questions you answer for your dog (i.e., Piloting them), the more money you take out of your dog’s Piloting Piggy Bank and deposit it into yours.  The more money you have, the easier it is to Pilot your dog.
Positive Reinforcement Simply giving a positive answer to a question, or rewarding a dog when trying to catch a behavior so as to have the dog repeat said behavior.  Example: housebreaking a dog requires positive reinforcement. See also, Touch Talk Treat

Orion gets some positive, this time a treat. Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Orion gets some positive, this time a treat.
Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

Slamming the Door Using your body language to answer your dog’s questions while on a leash (such as, “Can I react to that other dog?”) by pivoting on your foot, swinging your body around to face your dog entirely.  You look like a door slamming in your dog’s face, thereby answering “no”.
Touch Talk Treat Every time I give my dogs a treat, I give them a gentle pet or touch, along with a soft “good dog”.  Pretty soon, a pet, or a “good dog” tastes like a treat, freeing myself from always carrying around treats in my pockets. It also allows me to mark the precise behavior I’m looking for.  For example, teaching “Sparta” to play dead.  While she was learning, I could tell her “good girl”, and she knew she was on the right track and would be receiving a treat soon if she continued.  See also, Pavlovian Response and Touch Talk Treat
Work Mental stimulation, enrichment…are you making your dog think?
Yo, Bitch-ing When your dog is trying to take Piloting money out of your Piloting Piggy Bank.  Symptoms include: slapping you with their paw, trampling you, pushing you out of your seat on the couch.  Basically, any behavior that would translate to : “Yo bitch, give me a cookie”, or “Yo bitch, pet me”.  Detrimental to your healthy relationship with your dog, as it would be in any human relationship!

Our vocabulary is enriched by each session we do.  It will forever be a growing, living language, formed by our interactions with so many different dogs.  Kinda like….

Only less take-over-the-universe and more dog hair

Only less take-over-the-universe and more dog hair


Now, on to the words that I detest.

Bad Yuck.  Your dog isn’t bad.  Your dog simply sucks at being a human.  And guess what….you’re not always the best dog.  Avoid this word (and this train of thought) at all times.
Clicker Dogs communicate with each other without the use of a clicker, we feel you should be able to as well.  A clicker is merely a Pavlovian response.  Click equals treat. Sound theory, but it’s like Communism; it only works on paper.  Where is that clicker when you need it? See Touch Talk Treat or Pavlovian Response.
Dominant, Pack Leader, Alpha, …bleh bleh bleh We’re secure enough in our, uh….masculinity (yeah, or, um, something) not to feel the need to “assert our dominance” over our dog (or anything else).  We are here to answer our dog’s questions about a confusing human world, not to make them “understand their place in the pack”.o094d
Punish Sick, gross, and completely unnecessary.  Punishment is only there to make a human feel better, not to train a dog.  See also, “Bad”.  Just don’t step in it.

The work we do with dogs enriches our lives.  It shines through to our day-to-day lives.  From the fun session we had with a crazy puppy, to the sad, scared, newly-rescued older dog, every training session leaves us enriched, and that has permeated through to our vocabulary, and made its way directly to our hearts.  Open the doors to communication, and amazing things can happen.

Keep calm and pilot on


Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio


I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.

Mahatma Gandhi


Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

Sun Tzu, the master of strategy and war, was born in ancient China, roughly 544 BC. He has been the messiah of many a general and businessman, as his tactics and philosophies are still in use today.  He was described as a very genial and merciful man…off the field.  On the battlefield, however, he had only one objective: win.

Sun Tzu.  The most badass general ever to wear a skirt.

Sun Tzu. The most badass general ever to wear a skirt while contemplating the world’s largest blunt.

There is a story about him that goes something like this:

Sun Tzu was tested by the  King Helü of Wu, and ordered him to train a harem of 200 concubines, turning them into soldiers. Sun Tzu put them in two groups, naming the king’s favorites as the company commanders. Sun Tzu then commanded the concubines to face right – but they just giggled.  In response, Sun Tzu said that a general, (himself) was responsible for ensuring that soldiers understood the commands given to them. Then, he reiterated the command, and again the concubines giggled. Sun Tzu then ordered the execution of the king’s two favored concubines, to the king’s protests. He explained that if the general’s soldiers understood their commands but did not obey, it was the fault of the officers. Sun Tzu also said that, once a general was appointed, it was his duty to carry out his mission, even if the king protested. After both concubines were killed, new officers were chosen to replace them. Afterwards, both companies, now well aware of the costs of further frivolity, performed their maneuvers flawlessly.(1)

Apparently the ends justified the means.  Or maybe not.

There is no argument that shock collars work.  Of course it works.  You are causing an animal intense pain to keep them from a behavior.  Whether or not it works has never been the question.  Whether or not we should use such extreme measures has been the real question.

Just an average day with your typical Shock Jock.

Just an average day with your typical Shock Jock style trainer.

I found this video below on Your Good Dog’s Facebook page.

Owner Shannon Duffy’s comment perfectly sums up exactly how I feel about it as well.

Although I do not agree with the method I do understand why some of my friends use shock collars to help dogs exist in situations where failure would most likely cost their lives.

What is 100% unacceptable is using these collars for basic obedience training. Please watch this video. Every time this PUPPY (they start at 4 months) shakes his head he is being delivered a shock. Watch when he lies down and rubs his face trying to either ease the pain from the shocks of remove the collar. This is unacceptable for training a dog to do what amounts to circus tricks.

To my friends (there are quite a few) that are now using this method to train I beg of you to see that this is inhumane. If you do not feel that it is then put a collar around your neck and you take the same level shock every time that you shock the dog. And not just the one time “I held it in my hand and it’s not so bad” shock but every time, same level. I guarantee you learn better training methods.

What do you think?

I had a very difficult time getting through the video, and I hope you did, too.  Here at Darwin Dogs, we firmly believe in balance.  Not every question your dog asks can be answered with a treat.  However, I feel that only a very, very small number of questions can be answered with pain, but I still can’t think of a legitimate one.   If pain is your first response, to a puppy’s questions, then perhaps you need to rethink your tactics.  If you’re looking for devotion through pain, well…wrong movie.

Fifty Shades of Jabba-style

Fifty Shades of Jabba

So I urge you, if someone suggests using an instrument of pain, such as a shock collar or a prong collar on your dog, tell them you already know how that ends.  Shockingly.


Keep calm and pilot on


Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio


  1.  Bradford 2000, pp. 134–135.

Unconditionally Pavlovian

Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)

- Kenny Rogers and The First Edition


Cute-Dog-Reading-About-Pavlov-Funny-Picture-There have been many arguments about whether to use negative or positive reinforcement.  As I’ve stated in the past, absolutes are absolutely ludicrous:  both negatives and positives are needed.  You can’t have one without the other.  Only by using both appropriately can you help your dog thrive. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize how easy it is to confuse your dog with the wrong kind of positive reinforcement.

Prime example:  A shelter dog named Simba.  Simba, for whatever reason, had been improperly socialized as a youngster, and grew into a young adult who exhibited dangerous behaviors.  As a puppy he should have learned what is appropriate and inappropriate play.  Not to jump.  Not to bite.  He should have learned moderation and self-control.  Typically this is learned from other pack members as a young pup (why do you think we don’t take puppies away from their family too early – they’re learning!).  Simba wasn’t a bad dog, nor was he aggressive in the slightest.  His problem was that he was very demanding.  He was a spoiled brat.

Simba was very willing to learn…for a price.  If Simba wanted to play, he would grab your clothing and drag you to the ground to wrestle.  If he wanted to go somewhere other than where you wanted during a walk, he would drag you there, sometimes by an arm or leg.  If you did something he didn’t like, he would nip you.  Hard.  Now I want you think about what would happen if a child were to engage in this sort of behavior.  Odds are, you’d give them negative reinforcement of some sort to let them know that this behavior is unacceptable.  Unfortunately in the shelter environment that Simba was in, they only believed in positive reinforcement.

At first it looked as if it were working.  If Simba started to pull on a walk, his handler would whip out some boiled chicken to coax him back into a polite pace (Simba would not listen for anything less than boiled chicken – no Milkbones here!).  If Simba jumped up and grabbed an arm or pant leg, he was bargained with:  release my arm and I’ll give you some chicken.  Again, it seemed to be working!

Now, some of you may be noticing a problem here.  See, Simba was an extremely intelligent dog.  He started to figure out the system.

“If I bite someone or become violent with them, they give me a treat! I’ve finally got this whole human thing figured out!”

What happens if you don’t have a treat?  This:

The only pic I can, for decencies' sake, I can publicly post

The only pic of the volunteer I can, for decencies’ sake, publicly post Quite a bite, huh?

One of the volunteers was attacked by Simba.  She literally had her shirt ripped off by him and was bitten several times on the torso area.  Again, Simba wasn’t what you’d call aggressive (I know…biting not aggressive?).  He had humans figured out:  he sat when told, he’d get chicken.  He released someone when he was playing, and he’d get some chicken.  Well, the human ran out of chicken when he had a hold of her.  In Simba’s mind, she didn’t keep up the end of the bargain!  So he did it again, and again, expecting the volunteer to finally figure out what he was telling her:  give me some chicken like you’re supposed to!

Simba’s story doesn’t have a happy ending.  He was eventually quarantined, and only select members of the shelter were allowed to work with him (still using only positive reinforcement).  Eventually, it was decided that he needed to be put down.  He was euthanized because nobody cared to tell him “no”.

So how could this have ended differently?  You’re probably wondering, didn’t I state in the first paragraph of this post that both negative and positive were needed?

Yes, but only done correctly.

Let me give you a different scenario.  My daughter, River (age 6) and my son, Eric (age 9) have quite a few things expected of them with regard to chores.  For example, Eric has to do dishes.  River is in charge of keeping the baseboards in the house clean. They are children, so they have to be reminded to do it (that’s why they’re called “kids” and not “adults”).  But I simply tell them to do it, and off they run and do it.  Their reward?  A hug and a thank you.  About once a week we go on a cleaning spree.  They are expected to help me clean for a couple hours.  I give them age-appropriate tasks, which they complete without putting up a fight or complaining.  If they need help, I give it to them.  But typically they don’t.  And typically, they do a great job.  Again, no complaining, and their reward is a thank you and praise.


Yeah, I don’t know why they’re cleaning in their PJ’s either.

Now, sometimes I when give them the mandatory thank you and praise, and throw in an extra.  Some money.  A trip to the zoo when we’re done.  An ice-cream treat. Once it was a Nintendo DS.  It’s not a reward for doing what I told them to do:  that’s expected!  It’s merely added to the “thank you” they receive.  And it is never presented in the “If you do X, I’ll give you Y” fashion.  They never find out about it until after the task is complete.

Are you seeing how this should be applied to dogs?  If a dog is biting me, I’ll give him a negative, and then they stop.  I will not reward the dog for respecting me.  I expect respect from a dog.  I give it in return.  But sometimes you can see a dog is really struggling, and comes through with good choices.  For example, walking with Sparta, and there’s a suicidal squirrel who runs directly in our path and decides to hang out (really…WTF squirrel!!!).  That’s a hard one.  Sparta has high prey drive.  Yes, I tell her to leave it, but it’s a struggle for her.  That’s where Touch, Talk, Treat comes in to play.

I have her conditioned.  Every time I give her a treat, or even her enrichment toy, she gets a gentle scratch behind the ears, as well as gentle praise.  Very soon she linked the Touch and the Talk to the Treat/Food.  Once you have that Pavlovian response going, you can give your dog a hard-core positive without the food.  So when she passes by that squirrel without making a ruckus, she gets Touch and Talk.  The Treat is implied, the same way “jelly” is implied if I say I’m making a peanut butter sandwhich because jelly and PB are always linked together.  Maybe she’ll get a treat later.  But the thing is, she doesn’t expect it.  It’s like the lottery:  you have to play to win.  Yes, occasionally I’ll have pocketed some treats to give her, but it’s not an expected.

The problem with Simba was that conditioning works both ways.  “We had a deal … I do *this* and you give me a treat when I stop.”  So who was wrong?  He kept up his end of the bargain.


Who’s being conditioned?

Positives are tied for the most useful thing in training…with negatives.  Eventually, proper use of both will shift the tide of things:  pretty soon you are only giving positives.  Good positives, given in the correct instances.  Sparta has not had a problem with squirrels in quite a while. Every so often she still get a treat for passing one.  She’s on the right path and doesn’t need to be guided towards it very much any more, so I can reward her for choosing well. Same with my kids.  We’re heading out for ice-cream right now.  They don’t know it yet.  But they did a great job, and (as usual) didn’t complain once.  They deserve a treat.

River and Eric at their favorite ice-cream shop.

River and Eric at their favorite ice-cream shop.


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

Simple Dogma

And be a simple kind of man.
Be something you love and understand.


So many religions out there.  Varying philosophies. Ways to go about living your life “right”.  So many different thoughts about how to be the best person.  Rules deciding who isn’t a good person. Who we should emulate, and who we should eradicate.  Some are good, some are, uh…gooder.  Some are flat out wrong.  I can’t always tell them apart.  Sometimes they’re good and bad.  So many confusing thoughts and ideas out there, it’s how to deduce the best way to live; what philosophy is best. I think maybe a different dogma is in order.  Something much simpler.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

I’ve long maintained that dogs are very, very simple.  Not stupid, just simple.

For example, one of my favorite foods – fresh tomatoes out of the garden, still warm from the sun – is about as simple as it can get.  Nothing complex.  Nothing weird lurking under all that deliciousness.  Probably won’t give me cancer, cellulite, bad hair days or an unsavoury reputation.  Just sweet simplicity.

Frequently we assume that simple can’t be good. At least not as good as something more intricate…more complex. The more engineered, the better.  Why?  I’ve never seen a tomato engineered to adequately replicate a sun-ripened tomato I’ve just picked from my garden.

Dogs are good because they’re simple …or they’re simple because they’re good.  You can’t redesign them or re-engineer them to be more simplistically perfect than they already are.  Go ahead.  Try.  I see people do it all the time.  It makes my eyeballs itch.

“I make Fido sit every time we stop while on a walk.”

“I don’t let him go swimming because his fur smells funny afterwards.”

“I only stay on the path so his paws don’t get muddy.”

“Fido isn’t allowed on the bed because it’s bad.”

Who came up with these ideas?!  Your dog is a dog. Not a machine.  Treat them like a dog, and you’ll have 10+ years of an imperfect being in your life, loving you as perfectly as only a dog can. A wonderfully smelly beast full of nasty fur, drooling mouth and sloppy kisses. If you want something pristine, I’d suggest a pet rock.


Brittany Graham Photography

Dogs love you because you’re simply there.  No reason is needed.  You exist, and they love you, whether you haven’t showered after your workout yet, or your socks don’t match.  They are so accepting of everything about us, they don’t even fetter us with descriptions of “good” and “bad”.  Rationalization and categorization are not a strong points with dogs (mercifully).  Why are you rationalizing them?  Over thinking everything?

Dogs ask simple questions:  yes or no are the only answers to these questions.  How simple is that? Dogs have simple needs:  Piloting, Activity and Work.  Give them that, and you can return their love as much as you want. Such a simple way to attain limitless affection!  They make it so easy for us, and we still try our best to mess it up.

We create back-stories for our dogs: “He’s afraid of men because he was a rescue, and I’m sure he was abused by a man.”  Nope.  It’s just who Fido is.  Don’t try to pick his brain apart.  Just answer his questions!

Should I be afraid of this man?

No, Fido.  I’ll protect you.

That’s all he wants to hear – the answer to his question.  Simply stated without all kinds of bells and whistles.  The same way he would answer it for you.

Even when it comes to commands I teach my dogs, I still keep it very simple.  Sit, Stay, Come, No.  That’s it.  Every single situation we run into can be covered by these simple commands.  I never taught my dogs “lie down”.  I never found it necessary.  Why waste time on something like that when I can train them to do something fun like this?  While you’re training your dog to sit at every stop sign or corner, Sparta and I spent a summer doing this!

Keep it simple.  I have a favorite phrase that I like to use when I find myself over-complicating things:  Eschew obfuscation.   That’s my dogma.  No, Sparta doesn’t sit every time I stop during a walk.  But she has learned some pretty amazing tricks that make both of us happy.  Orion never learned to lie down, but he’s a lot of fun to do agility with.  Our energy is going towards simple, easy goals: companionship.  Bonding. Joy.  And simply put – love.

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

Time Out

All punishment is mischief; all punishment in itself is evil.

Jeremy Bentham

Brittany Graham Photography
Brittany Graham Photography

So you’ve just caught your new puppy chewing on something in appropriate.  Or perhaps you’ve just cleaned up yet another mess on the floor that your Dachshund has left for you.  Maybe your Beagle won’t stop barking.  Whatever the behavior, I’m noticing a trend among how to handle the situation, and I hate it.

Put the dog in a time out.

You are punishing your dog by putting them “jail”.  For a crime they don’t even realize they committed!  Remember, you are asking your dog to be a human.  To insinuate themselves in a human world with human things and behaviors.  And you are punishing them for failing to be human.  

Is it symbolic?
Is it symbolic?

Ask yourself why you’re putting your dog in a time-out.  Is it so they know what they did was bad?  But was it?

Dogs are incapable of being bad.  There is no such thing.  They know love, devotion and happiness.  They know fear, hunger and pain.  However, they have no concept of bad.  Something is either accepted or it isn’t. It’s an unemotional answer to an unemotional question.  So rather than punish your dog for asking a question, such as “Can I chew on this?”, why not just answer their question?  And then be done with it.

For example, the puppy who is chewing on something inappropriate, simply use your body language to “claim” whatever it is they are engaged with, (as in, “No, you may not have that”).  Once they accept the answer, you are done  Now, in the case of a puppy, they will probably go right back to the thing that is verboten.  Puppies have the attention span of a Bartlett pear – that’s why they’re called “puppies” instead of “adult dogs”.  Answer their question again using the body language. Once they accept the answer, immediately remove the item.  Take your G.I. Joes and go home, in other words. You’ve now removed their opportunity to ask the question again, which would force you to answer the question.  Again.  Ad nauseam.

Your puppy is still going to want to have something to do, so let’s give them something appropriate.  This is a great opportunity to show them exactly what will earn them some positive attention.  Pick a toy and engage them with it for a bit (ie, play with it), and then let them have it.  If they start chewing on it, reward them with some positive attention.

Engage with your pup
Engage with your pup to get them interest in a more appropriate item
Allow them to play on their own
Give them a chance to go it alone.


Now for some positive
Give positive reinforcement for their ability to occupy themselves with an appropriate toy.

Tip: when I have a dog under 12 months in the house, I only keep 1/3 of all toys out for them.  The rest are kept away.  I then rotate the toys every 3-4 hours.  Result – everything old is new again, and nothing inappropriate gets chewed. 

Now, that’s not to say I have never locked my dogs up.  Sparta gets sent to her mudroom.  But it’s not to punish her.  It’s so I don’t punish her.  Remember that part where you take your G.I. Joes and go home?  Well, if Sparta is barking out the window (let’s face it, the weather has warmed up and there is a lot of activity outside for the first time in a while), then I will answer her question (“Can I bark?”) using my body language.  Once she accepts the answer, I take my G.I. Joes and go home.  In this instance, I know Sparta’s limitations – that’s why I’m her Pilot.  Rather than giving her negative body language for every threat person who walks by our house, I simply remove her from the situation. I let her calm down a bit so I don’t have to give her negatives.

That’s different than simply sending her there because she’s barking. I answered her question before putting her in her mudroom, rather than avoiding the question she’s asking.  In a little bit, I’m going to let her back out.  When I’m prepared to answer her questions again.  I’ve controlled the situation before adding more stimulation, as outlined here. If I simply try to blunder my way through it, continuously answering her questions without a break, I’m going to lose my temper. realize nobody likes you when you're angry.
Yeah…you realize nobody likes you when you’re angry.

So instead of Hulking it out, I’m going to give myself a time out by removing Sparta from the situation.

...and that it's okay to take a break!
…and that it’s okay to take a break!

While we’re both chilling in separate areas from the house, I’ll give her something to do. Maybe a bone.  Maybe a Kong.  After a bit, I’m calmed down, and she isn’t as focused on the people outside.  She may eventually ask again about the people outside, but I’m in a better frame of mind to answer her questions unemotionally, which leads to a better experience for all of us.

Which is more my cup of  tea
Which is more my cup of tea

So before you send your dog to time-out, ask yourself a few questions:

1) Am I doing it to punish?  If so, rethink.  Dogs don’t need punishment.  They need answers.

2) Have I answered my dog’s question?  If you’ve already answered your dog’s question, and are removing them from the situation to prevent Hulking out on them, you have my blessing.

Bear in mind the more often you answer your dog’s questions unemotionally, the less likely they are to ask them again. We Pilot our dogs by infusing them with our own calm.   Now when someone is walking in front of our house, Sparta merely whines a little.  That’s it.  No, it didn’t happen overnight, but it definitely didn’t take a Hulk to make it happen.

Keep calm and pilot on


Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
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

Chew on THIS

   Satan knows that youth is the springtime of life when all things are new and young people are most vulnerable.

  – Ezra Taft Benson

My name is Izzy, I love to chew paper. I love when mom puts a fresh roll out. I will probably chew this note if mom doesn't get it away from me.

My name is Izzy, I love to chew paper. I love when mom puts a fresh roll out. I will probably chew this note if mom doesn’t get it away from me.

Most of the dogs entering a shelter are under a 18 months old.  The majority of these dogs are owner surrenders.  There’s a reason for this:  juvenile and adolescent dogs can be notoriously difficult to manage without a plan.  They chew, they bark, they can be downright disobedient.  As I recently posted, there is a reason for this.  It is an important change they are going through.  But that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it, or stand idly by while your life is turned to chaos by the dog version of Miley Cyrus.

If you don't know what this is, consider yourself very, very fortunate.

If you don’t know what this is, consider yourself very, very fortunate.

For me, the chewing was the most annoying aspect of my dogs’ adolescent phase.  It was non-stop!  Entering the phase accepting that some things will get destroyed is the best mindset.  Nobody gets out of adolescents unscathed.  However, the amount of destruction and frustration can be lessened.

How To Mitigate the Chewing Damage

You must answer your dog’s question.  Help your dog choose proper things to aggress upon!  So you leave the room for 30 seconds to use the loo, and your dog is chewing on your favorite shoes.  They are asking a question:  “Is this appropriate to chew on?”  Of course the answer is “No”.  So give them the answer in a way they understand, using the PAW Method.  Do not yell (although you’ll want to).  Do not punish (although you’ll really want to).  Simply claim the item they are chewing on until they are no longer engaged.

So you’ve told them “No” for that object, but there’s still that mass of “chew” that needs to be done by your dog!  Once you’ve claimed the inappropriate object, offer them something appropriate to chew on!  Nyla bones, peanut butter Kongs, raw marrow bones from the butcher (my dog’s personal favorite), deer antlers.  There are so many options out there now for dogs!  (I personally stay away from rawhide…to many intestinal issues have arisen).  You have now replaced the inappropriate with the appropriate.Resist the urge to do the bait and switch, your shoes for the Kong.  You must answer their question about the current, inappropriate chew article (your shoes) before giving them the appropriate chew object (Kong).

Now take it a step further.  You leave the room for 30 seconds, you come back, and your dog is chewing….their Kong!   This is a huge moment that should not be wasted.  Give them some positive reinforcement:  Touch, Talk, Treat!  

Catch that moment to reward wise choices!

Catch that moment to reward wise choices!

Rotating your dog’s chew toys helps tremendously:  have a variety of choices out at all times for them, but the more frequently you take some out of reach and replace them with toys they have seen in a bit, the better.   My dogs only have about 1/3 of all of their toys available to them.  Every few days I swap them out.  That which was old is new (and interesting) again. When I had Cody as a foster, I would swap out the toys every few hours.

Adolescence is tough, more so than when they were puppies. Your dog is capable of massive amounts of energy.  They have the size and the speed now.  Invest in a good whiskey, a good sense of humor, and a good plan of action, and you will get through this.

E=MC2   The equation for how much damage your dog will be doing during their "precious" teenage phase.

E=MC2 The equation for how much damage your dog will be doing during their “precious” teenage phase.



Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio



A Simple Matter


  Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

 - Leonardo da Vinci

Dogs are simple.  Not stupid…definitely not stupid.  But they keep things very simple and streamlined in their world.  Their communication is based upon a binary system of “yes” and “no”.  They don’t complicate their emotions.  Have you ever heard of a dog questioning why they love you?  They accept their emotions, be it love or fear, completely, without judgment or reason.  They feel a certain way because they do.  No need to siphon out a reason.

That’s why it makes my eyes itch when I see people overcomplicating their dogs.  No, your skittish dog probably wasn’t abused before coming to a the shelter.  No, your food-aggressive dog wasn’t starved before you got him.  Behavior doesn’t necessarily need a reason.  It just is.  And that is completely wonderful.  As I’ve stated countless times, dogs are incapable of doing anything wrong.  They are absolutely perfect…for dogs.

Now, unfortunately, not all behaviors are appropriate in our human world.  Take food-aggression for instance.  In the not-so-long-ago days when dogs lived in the wild, food-aggression was merely a way for a dog to keep whatever nutrients might stumble its way.  Dogs didn’t necessarily live in the land of milk and honey.  Sometimes each calorie was hard won, and therefore vigorously guarded.  In the wild, we call that survival.  (Regrettably, in the human world, I call this one of the very few good reasons to rehome a dog in certain situations.  Yes, this behavior can indeed be managed, but it is like keeping a loaded gun in the house.  With a family of children.)

Back to simplicity.  The simple, wonderfully brilliant thing about dog is that you don’t have to know why they are evidencing a certain behavior to help them modify that behavior to be suitable in a human world.

Example:  I had a client named Claire, and her beautiful Rottie named Bubbles (I kid you not).  Bubbles was a lovely, happy, drooling bubbly ball of fun with one pretty big issue.  On the walk, Bubbles would be going along just fine, with his head right by his owner’s leg, and the leash slack.  Suddenly, Bubbles would rear up like a dinosaur, desperate to get away from his owner, the leash, everything.  He turned into a snarling, writhing mess.  It was all the Claire could do to keep Bubbles under control during one of these “episodes”.  Medical issues were ruled out.  She couldn’t figure out what set Bubbles off.  Some days would be fine, others, she could barely make it around the block.  When Claire called me, she was at the end of her rope.  “I’ve tried everything.  I can’t figure out what’s making him react like this!”

“Who cares why he’s reacting like that.  All we need to do is answer his questions. Obviously, something is scaring him, but we don’t need to know what that “something” is to answer a question, do we?  And the answer is definitely ‘no, Bubbles, nothing is going to hurt you.”  I calmly stated back.

So we went to work.  Bubbles tried to react with me on the leash, but here’s the thing… I could read his intentions early.  Dogs are wonderful at projecting their thoughts.  Bubbles was no exception.  His ear pricked forward, a series of wrinkles developed along his forehead between his ears.  He stood on his toes and leaned forward as his tail (undocked!) when straight up. All of these signals of his intentions happened in less than 5 seconds, but I was ready for him.  I didn’t blink.  Just was quickly as he started to ask the question, I answered it.   I didn’t wait until Bubbles was in a full on tantrum of terror, lunging and growling.  I answered his questions the second I saw he was asking it. I honestly didn’t know what the question was, aside from a general, “Will that hurt us?”.  I didn’t need to know what that was.

I do that to my kids a lot.  “Mom, can we-”   “NO.”  End of discussion.

Bubbles and I went around the neighborhood with no instances of lunging, but quite a few questions answered.  Then I handed the leash to Claire, who also started to answer Bubbles’ questions.  Everything went beautifully.  Bubbles’ now had his questions answered.  Claire realized that she didn’t have to know what Bubbles was reacting to in order to give him a “no”, making him feels safe.  I didn’t get Rottie drool on me (by some sort of divine intervention).  The whole situation ended with a “happily ever after”.

A Piloted dog is a happy dog

A Piloted dog is a happy dog


Claire called me about 6 months later.  She was excited on the phone. “I think I finally figured out what originally set Bubbles off!  I think I finally figured out the exact question he was asking me!!!!”   Of course I was dying to hear this.  “Well, as you know, I live in a rural area.  Mailboxes are at the end of the driveways.  I knew it wasn’t the mailboxes that were setting him off.  However, I finally discovered that if the red flag on the mailbox was up, he’d flip out. He was terrified of the little red flags!”

And that’s a Rottie for you.

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