Watch Dog – Learning To Do Better

I praise loudly. I blame softly.

- Catherine the Great

I hate blame.  Especially when it comes to dogs and humans trying to co-exist.  Let me tell you a little story that highlights why.

I recently acquired to adorable watches.  One is a vintage Timex from the 50′s, the other is a Lady Hamilton that’s just a bit older.  Neither one was working, and I was hoping the problem was that they each needed a new battery.  So I went to a local jeweler and explained the problem to the gentleman who worked there (and looked all of 19 years old).    He then disappeared in back with both of my watches, returning only moments later with good news.

“It looks like the Lady Hamilton does indeed need a new battery, so we put one in and it’s good to go.”


He then continued, “The Timex doesn’t take a battery.  It’s a wind-up watch. It, uh, just needed to be wound-up.”

I blushed right down to my pretty little danishes.

I blushed right down to my pretty little danishes.

He actually managed to get this out without any trace of sarcasm, condescension nor laughter.  I felt like an idiot already, and I truly appreciated his not adding to my embarrassment.

I personally have never owned a wind-up watch.  I have a general idea of how watches work: you look at them, take them off when showering and doing dishes, and if it stops working, you got to the jeweler to hopefully get a new battery.  Well, now I know more.  Ignorance is a very acceptable excuse in my opinion.  Determination to stay ignorant isn’t.

If I take another wind-up watch to the same jeweler and ask them to put a battery in it to fix it, I’m now a moron.  I deserve blame for not knowing better, because I have learned better.  The same goes for dogs.

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

For some reason, people constantly try to blame themselves for their dog’s behavior. I hear a lot of “I tried to do such and such to fix it, but it didn’t work”, and my personal favorite, “I know I did everything wrong”.

First, kudos to you for trying.  Seriously.  You may not know what to do, but you gave it a good effort and a lot of Google searches.  It didn’t work (and maybe it did make things worse), so you called me to help.  I’d call every step of that a success.  Sometimes learning what not to do is just as important as learning what to do.

My mother has a saying:

“You’re really going to wear that?

If you keep doing the same thing, and you keep getting the same result, try something different.”  

Combine that with my favorite Maya Angelou quote:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

I apply Angelou’s quote to every aspect of my life, including when I’m working with dogs.  The methods I use now are a little different than what they were when I first started training dogs all this years ago – a tweak here, a different word there.  That’s because along the way, I learned a little bit more. I suspect that in another 20 years, my methods will look slightly different than they do now, too. And I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

So stop being hard on yourself.  Yes, maybe you did end up having to call someone out to help with your dog, but now you know better.  And now you’ll do better.

Keep calm and pilot on

The Case for Negatives

She Speaks Eighteen Languages, and Can’t Say “No” in Any of Them – Mae West

The PAW Method:  Piloting, Activity and Work.  That’s all you need to raise a well-adjusted puppy.  It’s what keeps your adult dog happy and sane.  It’s what enables your senior dog to feel safe while in your care.  You can not remove any of these key components from your dog’s life, nor can you attempt to substitute love and affection.  Love and affection are what you want.  Give your dog the Piloting, Activity and Work that your dog needs, and then you can give all the love and affection that you want.  

Some dogs are easy.  Some dogs are harder, and require a lot from us.  Just always remember, they aren’t trying to make your life harder: they’re trying to make theirs more comfortable.  Again, give them what they need, and you get what you want. Sometimes those things conflict.  You want to give them love and affection, but right now, what they need is Activity.  You want to try to soothe them in a scary situation, but what they need is for you to Pilot them through a very scary situation.  That’s how we get well-adjusted, happy pets, who trust you to take them through even the scariest vet trip.

Unfortunately, the more regimented a training method is, the better we think it is.  Here’s the thing, though:  dogs are simple creatures.  Not stupid, but simple.  So when working with a beautifully simple creature, I like to take a cue from their behavior and keep it simple.   I loathe rules that govern your every move with a dog.  From how you’re supposed to feed them (when you’re ready!) to which side you keep them on during a walk (I recommend the outside).

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.  Inside a dog, it's too dark to read. - Groucho Marx

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read. – Groucho Marx

Seriously, let’s loosen the corsets, let your hair down, and relax.  Working with you dog isn’t that complicated; it just involves logic. Let’s start with HOW you communicate with your dog.


I’m going to throw you a curveball here:  dogs don’t use noise to communicate.  I know what you’re going to say: your dog makes a lot of noise, right?  Well, let’s look at the times your dog makes noise:

  • When there’s someone at the door, they bark, which causes you to move towards them to investigate.
  • If you accidentally step on a dog, they squeal, and you instantly jump off of them.
  • When a dog growls at you, they’re trying to back you off.
  • When a dog wants you to start playing, they do that adorable butt-wriggle while doing short yippy barks.
  • When dog is alone, they start howling and crying to try to bring you back.

What do all these things have in common?  Movement.  Energy.  The more noise a dog makes, the more energy they are trying to evoke in you.  Noise = energy.  Think about the kind of music that’s played a nightclub vs. a funeral home.  The more noise, the more pumped up you are. Or talk to my mom on the phone for 5 minutes.

Yeah Mom..but- Mom I gotta g-... Mom, I need to hang u-....but, but....

Yeah Mom..but- Mom I gotta g-… Mom, I need to hang u-….but, but….

Noise equals energy.  We don’t want more energy in our dogs, we want mobile area rugs.  Dogs who are content to just lay in one place for hours because they’re not full of energy form all the yelling.  Dogs don’t communicate with noise, it’s only there to give energy.  Less noise (i.e., talking, yelling, shouting), the less energy you’re giving to your dog. Got it?

No joke!

No joke!

Dog’s don’t communicate using noise, they communicate using body language.  (Hint: so do we).  So let’s use our mutually agreed upon language: body language.

The good news is that dogs are binary creatures: they live in a world of hot or cold, true or false, yes or no.  There is no other option for them.  So every question they ever “ask” you will be a yes or no question, and every answer will be yes or no.  And no does not mean they are bad…”no” is simply the opposite of yes.  Try playing “Hot or Cold” by only using “hot” or “cold”.  No is simply a viable answer.  For example, if I asked you if I could pull off a mullet, your answer might (and should be):


Perfectly reasonable answer.  Or if I asked if you knew Vader was your father:

Yeah, I didn't see that coming either.

Yeah, I didn’t see that coming either.

So “no” is kept unemotional.  There should never be anger (looking at you, Skywalker), frustration, or punishment associated with “no”.  It’s merely an answer.

“Can I have that food on the floor?”

“Is that other dog a threat?”

“Can I chew on this cord?”‘

Obviously, the answer to all of these questions is “no”.  Give your dog the answer they need, rather than the answer you think they want, and you’ve unlocked the key to Piloting a dog. And good news:  the more often you Pilot a dog (answer their questions), the more they start to actively look for you to answer their questions.  Then you have a virtuous cycle started!

Check back on Monday for our post on how to tell your dog “no” in a humane, respectful way. Hint: if you’re using punishment, you’re doing it wrong.  Until then,

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training In Cleveland, Ohio