Knowing Your Limits as Pilot

Men must know their limitations.  – Clint Eastwood

Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – By Brittany Graham

Two sessions today.  One was a pair of Yorkie mixes who just couldn’t stop trying to kill each other.  Second session is a new Husky.  Awesome lineup, in my opinion.  People sounded wonderful on the phone, and I love the feeling of accomplishment after a session. Both were later sessions, so I had most of my morning off.

Problem arises about 3/4 through my first session.  I start to get that sparkly vision in my peripheral.

It can only mean one thing: migraine.

I tend to get migraines when the barometer changes, but also when I’m stressed and not taking care of myself properly.  Over the past few months, business has picked up dramatically for me.  January through March is usually my slower time; yet this year I’ve had more sessions than I typically do in my busy season!  Rather than booking out a bit farther, I decided to double my workload so my clients wouldn’t have to book out so far.  Hence the stress migraine today.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with migraines calling them headaches is like referring to childbirth as some mild cramping.   Fortunately, I usually get plenty of time to take some meds before the actual headache kicks in.  Too bad they only work 70% of the time.

So I have about an hour to get to my next session, and I can’t see out of my left eye, and my brain feels like it’s trying to squeeze through my eyeballs.


Actual footage of my brain right now.

What to do?  Apparently, if you’re me, the answer is to beat yourself up mentally for the next 20 minutes, vacillating about whether you should contact your upcoming client or just yuck it up and do the session.

So let’s pause this narrative for a moment. How does this relate to dogs?  In every way possible.

Think about the two steps involved when you’re working with your dog. Everything from the come command  to aggressive  behaviors.

1) Control yourself.   If you’re angry, rushed, hyper or out of sorts, it’s not gonna work.  There is nothing so urgent that you can’t take a moment to collect yourself, even if it’s just a deep breath before you engage.  Calm yourself.  Walk into another room if necessary.  Or take Liz’s advice:


2) Control the situation.  You can’t add energy nor stimuli to a situation in order to control it.  One of my favorite quotes is an African proverb:  Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet.  Control this moment before you add the next moment.  Sometimes that means waiting for energy to subside.  Sometimes that means taking a dog for a run before I try to work on commands.  Most of the time it just means something as simple as not opening the front door to let your guest in while your dogs are still going ballistic!

Now, as I mentioned, these are the two steps you must adhere to if you want to accomplish anything with your dog.

But I also use this as a mantra for my life.  When I address behavior from my kids.  I ask myself if I’m calm, and then survey the situation before acting or speaking.  When I leave to train for the day, I stop, close my eyes and breathe deeply before mentally running through my day and making sure I have everything.

I apparently I’m not so good at doing that when I’m sick or not feeling well.

I was about to do the dumbest thing yet.  I couldn’t see out of my one eye, and my headache, while finally subsiding a little bit, was still definitely there.  But I was so worried about letting my client down that I forgot that my showing up in that condition would actually let my client down.  Could I possibly give them my best performance like that?  Would I be able to remain safe and think critically in a dangerous situation with a dog?  Resounding no!

We are so busy taking care of everyone else, concerned with not letting someone down, be it dogs, kids, spouses or clients, that we end up letting everyone down, including ourselves.   You can’t help anyone if you are (momentarily) helpless.

So I texted my client.  And they texted back.  And you know what?

It was fine.  They were gracious and understanding.

My first mistake was doubling my workload, as I mentioned earlier.  There’s an ancient story about how you can boil a frog alive because if you slowly raise the temperature of the pot, the frog never knows when it’s too hot, and it needs to get out.  A very true, if not revolting, parable.  My mental rule is usually the moment I feel any heat, I stop, control the situation, and turn down the heat.  Unfortunately, I didn’t do that, and continued slogging along at a double workload.


Fortunately, I got a migraine. I never though I’d say that.  But that migraine reminded to me to control both myself and the situation.  If I had not rescheduled that appointment, I could have very easily misread a situation and been bit.

So think about all the times, just working with our dogs, that we muddle our way through a situation without really even addressing it or controlling it.

- Answering the door.  Doorbell rings and it’s Bedlam.  Rather than allowing your guest to be pummeled by your dog jumping when they come in, stop for a moment to control yourself as well as the situation.  Are you calm?  Good body language?  Are you actively answering your dog’s question, “Can I bark and be hyper?”.  If you don’t know how, give this post a read for how to Pilot your dog and answer their questions.

- Feeding time.  Does your dog barge right into the bowl after badgering you while you try to measure out their food?  Or do you answer their question (“Can I bully you into moving faster with that food?”) and put them into a calmer state before serenely putting the food down and then calling them over to their bowl?

- The walk.  Is your dog in front of you doing what I call The Minesweeper?


Swinging back and forth in front of you like a pendulum.  Or even worse, dragging you where ever they want.  Rather than taking even another step, control the current one.  Shorten that leash, and answer your dog’s question!  Learn how here.  Start slowly, and remember, you have no destination, merely focus on calm.  If you make it to the end of your driveway and back, and you have answered questions to maintain calm, you did it!

By taking on a double workload, ignoring my own body’s warning signals, and eschewing my own needs, I didn’t realize that I was failing everyone; exactly what I was looking to avoid.  The amazing thing was that about 20 minutes after I contacted my client, my headache started to subside.  I still couldn’t see properly out of my one eye (I’m having my husband thoroughly check this post for typos!) Stress started to melt away, and I was able to focus on something more important.  My own health.  My own sanity.  And taking care of the ones I love.

Because in failing myself, I failed them, too.  My daughter had a school play today.  Just a minor part, but she was excited.  All of our family was going to attend, but I had to tell her I wasn’t able to go because I was training.  A session that had been set up a while ago.  I had been beating myself up over not being able to go, but still, I take my sessions and my work very seriously.  After taking a moment to control myself and the situation by taking a quick rest, I was able to attend her play.

Granted, I only saw half of it due to the migraine vision. But I felt relieved.  Better.  Accomplished and in control of myself and what may come ahead.

And now I can’t wait to meet that husky when we reschedule.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio


Foundations – Learning to Pilot Your Dog

In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train him to be semi-human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.

Edward Hoagland

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

There’s nothing I hate more than people punishing their dogs.  There is no point to it. Punishment is merely a method of retribution, and that concept would never occur to a dog.  Dog’s mostly live in the here and now.  They don’t dwell on what wrong has been done to them, or the need for retaliation.  Dog’s will address a misstep, and then move on.

Some people believe that dogs are mute - they aren’t.  They just happen to communicate in a way we sometimes overlook:  body language.  However, dogs ask questions all the time!  Usually when your dog does something “bad”, it’s because you didn’t answer their question.  ”Can I have that piece of steak on the table?”  ”Is that mailman gonna eat us?” You MUST answer their question.  Now, here’s the easy part:  dogs are binary creatures.  They ask “yes” and “no” questions.  They don’t have another option.  “Fido, wanna go for a walk?”  YesyesyesYES!  “OK Fido, where do you want to go?”  Blank stare.  *crickets chirping*   Fido can’t answer a questions that isn’t yes or no.


Answer their questions before really bad things happen – photo Twigg Studios

Communication is the key.  Reward the behaviors you want with praise, treat or just a gentle pat on the head.  Answer “no” to the unsavory behaviors want using their form of communication: body language.

So let’s put it all together.

There are only 3 things your dog needs: Piloting, Activity and Work. Or, as we like to call it, the PAW method. Notice I did not say, coddling, kissing and affection. To work with your dog’s behavior, give your dog what they need: Piloting, Activity and Work.  After you have given your dog what they need, then you can give them what you want: love, affection, praise,…namely, the good stuff.

Love and affection:  the only reason you should have a dog.  Piloting, Activity and Work: how you manage your dog.   Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Love and affection: the only reason you should have a dog. Piloting, Activity and Work: how you manage your dog.
Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham


Why do we call it Piloting?  Well, imagine you are on a plane.  It’s just you and the pilot, and all of a sudden the pilot suddenly becomes unconscious and you have to fly the plane.  How do you feel? Terrified? Anxious? Overwhelmed? That’s how your dog feels without a “pilot” of his own. The world is a scary place, and not everything makes sense to them.

Quit frankly, my dog is scared of her own farts, and most dogs (including yours) are still trying to figure out peanut butter

Quit frankly, my dog is scared of her own farts, and most dogs (including yours) are still trying to figure out peanut butter

So, let’s say the pilot wakes up while you’re still trying to fly the plane. What do you do? You’d probably let him fly the plane again right? Same thing with your pup. If you show that you can be Pilot, and that they can trust you, they will gladly hand over the controls and let you take care of them.

Piloting starts with confidence and body language. Make sure you are holding yourself in a tall and confident manner when answering questions for your dog. If you look confident, your dog will believe you are confident.  Women tend to sit and stand in an “S” shape. We tend to cross our arms and legs, which makes us seem less intimidating more nurturing. Men tend to sit and stand in a “T” shape. They take up lots of room and spread out. Make your body more of a “T” shape to help with your confident body language. Think of it as a uniform you are putting on when you need to Pilot your dog.  Make sure to stay calm as well. Adding tension and anger to the situation will not help. If you need to, step away for a few minutes. Then come back when you are calm and ready to interact with your dog.

Confident body language helps answer those questions your dog has been asking you constantly. Your pup is always asking you “yes” and “no” questions. Can I have this treat? Can I sit on the couch? Can I have some of your dinner? And more importantly: Is the person at the door a threat? Is that garbage can a threat? Is that other dog a threat?

The absence of “no” is “yes”. If you’re not answering your dog’s questions, then you are essentially telling them “yes”. (If you’ve ever raised teenagers, you know what I’m talking about.  “You never said I couldn’t!”)

Use your body language to answer these questions. If your dog is staring at a treat on the floor and then at you, he’s asking if he can have it. If you do not want your dog to have it yet, answer his question by walking in between him and the treat, facing him.  Imagine your dog is a lot taller, and you are trying to push him back from the treat using your stomach.  Remember, you are only answering one question, “Can I have the treat?”.  The body language you are using is telling him “no”.  As soon as he’s no longer engaged with the treat (i.e., staring at it or moving towards it),  remove your strong body language.  Take a step back.  He may ask the same question again immediately:  give him the same answer, (“no”) using your body language again, always removing your body language when he is no longer engaged with the treat, and adding it back when he does become engaged again.  Think of it as a giant game of Hot & Cold.

Now, if you want him to have the treat, just don’t say no. If you decide you want him to have it, you can just remove your body language from the situation.  You are no longer telling him “no”.   Remember, the absence of “no” is “yes”.

This is the same method you would use when answering the door. The question is “Is the person at the door a threat?”  Let your pup know that the answer is “no”, by making sure you are answering the door and not your dog. Pretend the door is the treat you had on the floor previously.  You are answering your dog’s question: “Need help with the door?”.  The answer is “no”.  Simply back them away from the door to give yourself some personal space (hint: you don’t need to back them up across the house, a few feet away from the door should do it!).  Now, nail them to that spot with your finger and your eyeballs (aka, the “Mom Look”), and back towards the door.  If they follow you, simply back them up again.  Wash, rinse, repeat, until you have a calmer situation to answer the door.

Calm can take a few tries.  Don't worry - you'll get there.

Calm can take a few tries. Don’t worry – you’ll get there.

The more you show your dog that you are capable of being in control and the Pilot, the more your dog will be able to relax and actually be a dog. He’ll look to you for guidance instead of feeling as though he needs to protect you and your family from every garbage can, dog and plastic bag in the neighborhood.


The second thing that is needed is Activity. Dogs, like wolves, need activity daily. Walking on a daily basis gives them their sense of roaming that they would get if they were in a wolf pack. Each day a wolf pack hikes miles to and from a hunt. Your pup has this same instinct. It’s important that they get activity every day, and the amount they often require is a lot more than you think.

Some ways to enhance your Activity time is to invest in a backpack for your pup. You can find them on Amazon and it’s a great way to make your dog feel like they have a “job”. Don’t place any more than 3% of their body weight (at max! – start very small) in the pack and make sure it’s something that won’t hurt them.  For example, water bottles tend to slap them in the ribs with every step.  I prefer bags of beans, rice or coffee grounds.

Although you’ll be going the same distance, it will feel a little longer to your pup, which is always a good thing!

Fetch and playtime outside and at a dog park are great additional ways to get in activity. But the walk is so very important because it gives you an opportunity to work on your Piloting and it helps them with their roaming instinct, even if it is just in your neighborhood.


The third part of the PAW Method is Work. Your pup needs mental work daily. Think of it this way, if you drive the same route home every day it becomes monotonous and easy for you. However, if there is a ton of traffic on that same route, you’re a lot more tired when you get home because there was a lot more mental work that went into that drive home. Your pup needs to feel that mentally tired. Otherwise, they’re bored. And boredom leads to finding things to keep them busy. And that leads to your grandmother’s quilt being torn up.

Stress is a good thing.  I want them to have a lot of stress in their life, because when you eliminate that stress, you get confidence.  Think of the confidence boost you get when you complete a project, or finish a crossword.  Benevolent stress = self-confidence.

An easy way to get some mental work in for your pup is to use an enrichment feeder. Such as a Kong Wobbler or Busy Buddy Twist N Feed. These feeders make your dog think about how to get the food out as opposed to just waiting for you to poor it out of a bag, which is dull, boring and EASY. By making them work for their food, it adds some mental work into their day and doesn’t add anytime to yours as you are going to feed them anyways.

Other things you can do for some mental work are playing “find it” games. To start, show your dog a treat, then put it down on the other end of the room in plain sight. When you release your dog repeat the phrase “find it” over and over until they get to the treat and then praise like crazy. Then move on to hiding the treat so it’s behind something, repeat “find it” and praise again. Then move on to using one of their favorite toys.  This is a good way to get some more mental work in.

Remember, your dog is family.  Sometimes family really sucks.

Okay, hopefully not THIS bad

Okay, hopefully not THIS bad

…but we can’t expect our relationships with our pets to be all sunshine and lollipops.  Sometimes we need to answer questions.  Sometimes it feels like they will never be housebroken (the dog, not the family).  But that’s why we Pilot our dogs.  That’s why we set them up for success with plenty of Activity and Work.  To make those moments less and less frequent.  And no, your dog isn’t perfect (mine sure aren’t), but we work together perfectly, understanding each others’ flaws, and not just loving each other in spite of them, but embracing them as part of who they are.

Keep calm and pilot on


Kerry Stack
Danika Migliore
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio