Waiting to Exhale

No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it.    -  Andrew Carnegie

Dogs are pretty minimalist.  They don’t require much to thrive in a human world, as I’ve related in The PAW Method.  Piloting, Activity and Work.  Activity is pretty simple:  they need to move.  Work is a but more nuanced, but still pretty simple:  make them think.  Piloting can be a bit more tricky.  It’s answering your dog’s questions, in a way they understand, until they have no more questions.  Until they feel secure and safe. Sure, they can ask a new question, but the more you answer them in a calm, confident fashion (“Can I eat out of the cat’s litter box?”), the easier it is to Pilot them through the next question (“Should I be scared at the vet’s?”).  

I had a session with a Jack Russell, we’ll call him Chopper, who attacked people who came to the door.  Lunging, growling, snapping, biting (he bit me pretty good when I came in).  He did NOT want to give up the Pilot position.  He had no good reason to give it up!  He didn’t have anyone else he could trust to take over such an important position.

I do get bit, albeit rarely. I name my bites. This was The Eye of Sauron. Thanks Chopper.  

We humans aren’t much different.

Last year I welcomed a new member to Darwin Dogs.  Danika, who had impressed me on more than one occasion, had finally agreed to come work for me.  While Danika is very young (at least in my eyes, but then I remember when Nirvana was the new band), she has experience, drive, intelligence and a calm nature.  I sat in with her on her first few training sessions with Darwin Dogs, and each time left the session more impressed with her than the last one.

The one thing I wasn’t ready to hand over to her, though, were the dogs that had a bit of aggression.  (Aggression is a term bantered about with reckless regard, but for now, we’ll use that term.)  A dog who is showing aggression needs to be handled delicately. Sure, I can muscle them down and dominate them…oh, wait, no I can’t.  They’re dogs.  They’re perfect athletes.  They’re strong.  I’m merely a human.  Adult dogs require something a bit different.  They are fully functioning, rational beings. They require proof that you are indeed the right choice for Pilot, and therefore allowed to answer their questions.

It can be tricky, trying to figure out how far you can push forward without pushing so far as to make a dog bite. Believe me, they don’t want to.  Most dogs are holding their breath, begging you to please leave.  They’re just scared and stressed.  So obviously, it’s hard for me to trust anyone else to work with these cases, especially since I have never had a “sidekick” in my business before.  Perfect trust is difficult, especially if you’re a human.

Sometimes things don’t always work out how you want them to.  I had scheduled a training session one evening with a dog who was described as “mildly aggressive”.  I had detailed notes about the case in the calendar that Danika and I share, and I determined it was better that I handle it.  I didn’t even give Danika the option to decline.  After all, it was an “aggressive”.  If there was even the remotest possibility someone could get bit, it should be me.

Unfortunately, about 4 hours before the training session, I started feeling ill.  I had a temp of about 102, and my stomach became very…exciting.  There was no question that I wouldn’t be able to take the session, and that I’d need to reschedule. The problem was, it was with a couple who were in the process of moving, meaning the earliest we could reschedule would be 4 weeks.  I couldn’t do that to someone!

I decided to bite the bullet.  I called Danika and asked if she could handle it.  She agreed she could.  The whole time she was at the appointment, I paced. I fretted.  I worried.  My separation anxiety kicked in.  What if I had sent her to her death?  What if she didn’t remember that no matter how friendly the dog seemed, you shouldn’t sit on the floor with a nervous dog?  What if ….well, WHAT IF?!

Danika stopped by my place after the session to return my Orion, whom she borrowed for the session.  She looked fine.  I asked her (as casually as I could), how it went.  She shrugged and stated it was fine, the dog was hyper, Orion behaved like a champ, and then went on to state in more detail what she thought the problem was and how she’d fixed it.  I could find no fault with her depiction of the situation. She’d nailed it.  Hard. Now I was left wondering what all the fuss was about.  I wouldn’t have hired her if she hadn’t shown amazing aptitude and skill.  Frankly, Danika Piloted me through the situation, and did so beautifully.

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

I think of this story when I’m working with a new dog who is having problems giving up the Pilot position to me.  Who am I, after all, to take that position without them putting me to the test?  That little Jack Russell, Chopper, he’d been answering the door for years before I showed up.  True, he did it all tooth and nail, but in his mind, he’s never let anyone in the house get hurt by an intruder. Now he’s being asked to let me be Pilot?!  That’s a huge leap of faith, and I can respect that.  That’s why being Pilot is always a privilege, not a right. I earn it, by earning respect and trust.  The first time that Chopper finally relented and allowed me to answer the door, and nobody got hurt, well, it was easier for him the next time to allow me to be Pilot.  Pretty soon he doesn’t want to be Pilot anymore. The stress of the situation is gone…passed to someone who you have complete confidence in.  You can finally exhale.

Good job, Chopper. Now you can finally exhale.



Keep calm and pilot on


Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

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