The Best Dog Ever

“When the Man waked up he said, ‘What is Wild Dog doing here?’ And the Woman said, ‘His name is not Wild Dog any more, but the First Friend, because he will be our friend for always and always and always.’”

Rudyard Kipling (author, The Jungle Book)

First Friend

I’m holding a staff meeting for Darwin Dogs right now.  All of the senior heads are here, and believe me, there is a fair share of grey on those heads.  Including mine.


While I’m not a big believer in routine, I will admit to following a few specific daily rituals.  Namely, my morning ritual.  Up at 5:45 (even on weekends).  Make coffee while the dogs are outside powdering their nose/terrorizing local wildlife. Wake up kids for school.  Grab my breakfast, coffee, and head upstairs to my office and start to work.  Blog posts. Emails, texts, Facebook posts.  Instagram pics, Twitter.  Verifying schedules, client confirmations and updates.  Of course my loyal staff (Sparta and Orion) are there.  Somehow they know when I’m ready to head upstairs to work, and dutifully wait until I’m in my office.  And the door is closed.  Before they come barging in, scaring the crap out of me because after 3 years in the “new” house that has a faulty lock on my office door, I still don’t expect Sparta to come barging in here for our staff meetings.

I swear, I give her plenty of time to come upstairs.  I don’t call her anymore, since her hearing has been failing, and I don’t ever want to make an old dog get up from a comfortable spot for no reason.  So I wait.  I leave the door open.  Surely by now she should be up here if she wanted to come up.  But I really need to get going on my day, so I finally close the door.  It doesn’t latch all the way, but it still affords me the necessary privacy, so I start up the fireplace in my office, get my blanket, and stretch out with a cup of tea on my couch to work.


Sparta comes crashing through the door, and coffee, blanket, and my nerves are all in an uproar.  I never expect it, and my heart is thudding in my ears now, and my nerves are all a skitter from three cups of coffee being startled. I have to get up and re-situate the door, my blanket, my coffee and my adrenaline rush.   I call Sparta my Crazy Bitch for scaring the hell out of me, as I give her a few playful smacks on her ass and a scratch behind her ears. We all settle in for the morning’s work.


It never matters if it takes me 10 minutes or 3 hours to complete the day’s office-oriented tasks; Sparta and Orion stick it out with me, offering their quiet companionship, as they have for the past 8 and 11 years respectively.  But things are different today.

Orion can’t get comfortable, and is pacing.  He keeps trying to stretch, and his tail is dragging on the floor, not held upright like a strutting peacock, like it used to when he was younger. I give him some pain meds (he has some arthritis now, plus has some issues with a slipped disk).  He finally settles into a calmer state and sleeps on the floor next to me.  Getting up onto the couch with me is a thing of the past, due to his age and spine issues.

Sparta sometimes drags a leg behind her, arthritis and an injury to her ACL forcing her to slow down to accommodate moving on 3 legs until her 4th decides to finally cooperate.  She finds her place quickly, but now snores loudly, and whines and quietly barks under her breath as she sleeps, no doubt dreaming of finally catching the squirrels she loved to chase in her youth. Her legs move in her sleep, testament to her coursing dreams.

Both dogs are riddled with grey. Sparta’s once jet-black coat, so sleek and glorious, is now a faded shade of salt & pepper, with emphasis on the salt. Orion has gray behind his ears and around his muzzle. I, myself, haven’t escaped unscathed either.  At 43, there’s some “tinsel” showing through my dark hair as well.  I guess we’re all in this together.

My first dog was Pebbles, a precocious Border Collie mix my parents adopted from an animals shelter when I was 4. She was the best dog ever.

Kerry and Pebbles0002

She was a total bitch.  And I mean that in the best possible way.  She was confident enough not to have any fear reactivity, and was painfully logical in everything she did. Pebbles was a constant companion. The best dog ever. She was official outfielder when we played baseball (using a tennis ball of course).  She would stay in my room with me until I fell asleep at night, whereupon she would then start her patrol of the house, keeping everyone safe from things that go bump in the night. She would watch Saturday morning cartoons with me, and if I got up during commercial breaks during Voltron or Xmen, she never touched my cereal bowl left on the floor.  She defended me from a creepy guy in the woods when I was 5 (read about her bravery here).

She also knew not to take any crap of my brothers nor me. She bit me once, which I deserved at the time, as I was 6 and trying to play a little too roughly with her.  But she taught me to pay attention to what dogs, and animals were telling me without speaking a word. That small bite on my hand (and yes it bled) taught me how to read and animal’s body language.  I was never afraid of dogs, or any animal, because she taught me that all dogs are like fire: treat them with respect, and be aware of a fire’s ability to burn you, but never fear it, because it is man’s greatest ally.

Pebbles passed at the age of 16. Being a young adult myself at that time, and just starting out on my career, out on my own in the world, I missed her last days. I still treasure her memory, but though I feel I grew up with her, I don’t feel quite like we actually aged together. I missed her best years: the senior dog years.

With Orion, and especially Sparta, it feels different.  Sparta has been with me since Eric and River were very young. They both felt like my third and fourth children, rather than pets.  I raised them as I was raising my family. Every morning, patiently waiting for the morning ritual of coffee, breakfast, head into the office, do work. Only back then, it was full of interruptions.  Diaper changes. Messes to clean up.  Lunches to be made.  Add in a full schedule of dog training appointments, and looking back, I don’t know how I did it all.  But I did.  We did.  And sometimes, the dogs got lost in the shuffle.  A few walks were missed.  I ignored the rope toy hanging out of Sparta’s mouth, dangling like an unanswered question, “Can we play now?”.  All said and done, I did the best I could during those busy years, and if I want to be honest, I did much more than most.  But I always ask myself, was it enough?

Darwin was my dog from the time I was 21 until I was 32.  He was the best dog ever.

He seemed to understand that, as a young adult, sometimes I needed to go out with my friends, and that there would be a shorter walk that evening when I got home from work.  He was just as happy to spend time with me watching Animal Planet and National Geographic as he was to go romping off on day-long hikes.  He went with me just about everywhere.  He was even my date to a wedding.  All my friends knew him (and called him D-dog, or Darwin Dog), and knew if I was coming to a party, Darwin was, too.

Darwin got old without me noticing.  He was with me through boyfriends and breakups. Apartments and my first house.  He never complained when I added a baby and a husband.  And then another baby.  Life was a whirlwind towards the end. Again, I did the best I could, but one day I looked at him, and he was old. Why hadn’t I notice? He had given me his all.  I had given him my best. He had taught me so much, though.  Picking up where Pebbles left off, he taught me to read when a dog was unnecessarily defending me, and how to let them know that I didn’t need to be protected from every single dog we passed on a walk.  He taught me everything I know about how to work with a counter-surfing dog.  He was my boy, and still is.  The best dog ever.

Darwin's last pic.

Darwin’s last pic.

Now that I have my coffee back in it’s place on the desk next to my sofa in my office, and my computer is set up, my blanket wrapped around me, I’m ready to get to work.  Orion is comfortable, finally.  He’s taught me so much about unconditional trust.  Every day he goes to work with me is a day he is paraded in front of a dog who wants to kill him, but he trusts me to protect him.  He knows I won’t let him down, therefore I never will.  He and I are partners.  Those of you who come to the pack walks have seen him in action.  He teaches the newcomers how to walk a dog, giving them just enough sass to help them hone their Piloting skills. He’s shown owners of dog-reactive dogs how to work through their dogs’ issues by being “bait”.  A truly terrifying job, if you stop to think about it.  Yet he has never once hesitated when called on to do his duty.  He has shown me how to take pride in your work.  How to let go and trust your partner.  He’s a senior now, and slower, but still ready the moment the words, “Pack Walk” leave my lips. I learned the true meaning of teamwork from Orion. The best dog ever.


Sparta is snoring peacefully, apparently having either caught her squirrel in her dream, or perhaps shown mercy to it. I see her gray hair.  I see her slower gait.  I not only see her aging, ,becoming old (hell, she is old!), but I embrace it.  Sparta has taught me so much. She showed me that it’s always futile to muscle your way through a dog on a leash, no matter how they are reacting.  She’s taught me what it truly means to put on your Piloting uniform and work with a dog-reactive dog. She’s taught me that just because you’re a 120lb canine, you can still be terrified of other dogs, and it’s okay to be afraid.  She taught me what unconditional trust is, by letting me Pilot her through those scary situations. She’s the best dog ever.


Sparta has taken up a new hobby in her sleep: she farts.  I guess it’s an old age thing, but the part that gets me is that when she farts, she wakes herself up, sniffs the air, gets a sour look on her face, and then puts herself in the corner, where she falls asleep again, only to repeat the ritual.  So far the maximum number of times she’s repeated is 3, which makes me wonder what happens when it hits 4, and she’s out of corners.  I can’t wait to find out, as I try to wave the stench from the air with an old magazine. Getting old ain’t for sissies, as Betty Davis once said.  I can only hope that I’m not putting myself in corners when I get to be senior citizen.  My future apologies to those around me if I end up doing so despite my best intentions.

We’ve wrapped up our morning meeting and are ready to get started with the rest of our day.  By the time I get home, I’m exhausted, and head up to my office to relax a little.  I wait for Sparta to join Orion and me.  I leave the door open for her.  It’s been 10 minutes, and she’s not up here yet, and I want to watch a movie, so I close the door that doesn’t latch.  Five minutes go by.  Fifteen minutes go by.  I don’t want to call her in case she’s sleeping, and there is a special place in hell for people who make old dogs move without good reason.  So I continue watching my movie without her, assuming she’s going to stay downstairs for once, and maybe she doesn’t want to -


Popcorn goes flying everywhere and my heart is in my throat, my nerves on edge, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s the best dog ever.


Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

Another No Good, Very Bad (Rotten) Day

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
-Winnie the Pooh

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

It seems to me that one of the biggest problems my client have is their lack of perfection.  They didn’t do such-and-such perfectly (first try, nonetheless) so therefore they are awful dog owners.  Perfection is over rated and somewhat silly.  Why would you burden yourself with such a load?  Focus on progress, not perfection.  And being wrong, or making mistakes?  Well without those mistakes, we’d be like hamsters on a wheel, going fast, always facing the same direction, but getting nowhere.



But I digress from the purpose of this post. A story from a few years ago.   Essentially, I fucked up. I’m not only unashamed to say this, but proud, because making mistakes and recognizing that I have made a mistake, leads me to growth.  Here is a photo of some growth that I achieved a few years ago.

*cue dramatic music*

*cue dramatic music*

But we’ll get back to that in a moment.

I know I’m not perfect.  Actually, I’m glad I’m not perfect, because that’s such a high expectation to live up to.  A pretty big job that I certainly don’t want.  However, that doesn’t mean I can’t do the best with what I have.  Sometimes I don’t have a lot, either.  So let’s start with my frame of mind when I first started to go for a walk with Sparta, my dog reactive dog, on the evening of The Incident:

My daughter (River, then aged 8) decided she wanted to be vegetarian.  River has problems eating to begin with, as she has some sensory issues.  I informed her that if she was going to be vegetarian, she had to eat everything we made, because she could get sick, and possibly end up on the hospital.

Everything was going very well, until that fateful day.  I had made something that she usually likes, but she was only picking at it.  I told her that she had made a promise to eat everything, other wise she could end up very sick and in the hospital.

River looked me squarely in the eye, shoved her plate away, and announced “I choose death”.

What I felt like

Actual footage of me during the incident.

Apparently part of “being the adult” includes not getting to smash things when you’re angry.  So I used the PAW Method (as I so often do) on my darling little child.  In other words, I followed the three most important steps to Piloting your demon child:

1) Control yourself.

I didn’t immediately respond to River’s demand for death (which she was this close to getting).  Instead, I took a deep breath and controlled myself.

Because, like, "adulting" and stuff...

Because, like, “adulting” and stuff…

2) Control the situation.

There was no way I was going to be able to make her eat her food without a long, drawn out battle. I knew she was going to try to push my buttons, so rather than fight with her, I moved the fight to my desired location.  Meaning, I told River I loved her, but that if she chose death, there was nothing I could do about it, as I already tried to feed her.  I then told her to starve to death quietly in her room.  She went upstairs as she was told.  In other words, I diffused the situation.  I didn’t fuel it.  Gasoline and Fire went to their respective corners.

3) Answer the question/correct the behavior.

I wasn’t there yet; remember, I had to send River to her room to keep from squishing her like a grape.  It’s okay to get angry, but you are responsible for how you act upon your anger.  In other words, I had control of the present situation (with River in her room)…but if I had added even an ounce of stimulation (say…an eye roll), I knew I could lose it.  And once words are said, they can never be taken back.  So I left River to stew in her room.

Now.  Back to that first picture.

Sparta, as you may already know, is very dog reactive.  That’s why I choose to f walk her at night f I’d had a rough day already.

mostlySo we went for our walk.  I was not paying attention to how keyed up I still was about River trying to commit hari kari by not eating dinner.  Sparta obviously felt the tension and energy I had.

We usually go for about 2 miles, and she did mostly well during those two miles, without a lot of Piloting needed.  However, the wind was blowing pretty badly, and of course it’s garbage day tomorrow, and debris was blowing everywhere, including right at us.  So now Sparta was on her toes, getting a little jumpy (to be honest, so was I – it was pretty bad).

When I was young, I used to think this was my 3rd grade teacher. Now I know better.  It was.

When I was young, I used to think this was my 3rd grade teacher. Now I know better. It was.

Now for the dramatic twist.  Another dog.  I spotted the dog before Sparta sensed it.  It was about 1/4 block away from us, headed in our direction.  The owner seemed to be doing well with the dog, who appeared to have already caught a whiff of Sparta.   The owner was taking their time, and just looked calm and relaxed, helping their dog relax.  I answered Sparta’s question (“Is that dog a threat?”) about the dog when she spotted it, and once she accepted my answer (“No”), I took her across the street so as to control the situation better.  Considering the high energy we both had going into the situation, she did pretty well.  When she’d ask the question again, I’d answer, and because I was too keyed up myself to go right back to walking, I’d turn her around the other way to calmly take a few steps, almost like getting a running start before hitting the gauntlet, before starting again.  She was doing fine, until…..I tugged on the leash, which suddenly wasn’t attached to my dog anymore.  The clasp had completely come undone, broken from the main part of the leash.  Sparta immediately went running across the street after the dog.

Now, I had a few choices:  I could either panic and start yelling and shouting frantically at my dog, but that would only add energy to a situation I didn’t have control of.  So I chose a different path.

Thanks for the reminder, Liz.

Thanks for the reminder, Liz.

I took a deep breath, and speed walked my way across the street. I called Sparta’s name repeatedly, but not in a panicked fashion.  At this point, she had already gotten to the other dog, where she had started to bark at it, and essentially try to chase it away.  I grabbed Sparta, looped what’s left of the leash around her neck, and controlled the situation as best I could given the circumstances. In other words, she calmed down, and the other owner (#OhMyGodImSoSorryAboutThat), was able to safely take their dog away.

Now, a word about the other owner.  He never lost his cool.  He was calm, and looked almost bored, He was essentially an amazing Pilot, especially given the circumstances.  Quite frankly, he was the reason the situation was resolved so quickly: he added no energy, and just diffused his dog, and ignored mine. To make matters worse, he didn’t lob (deserved) blame on me, nor did he verbally try to berate me.  He just took it as a situation that passed, and moved the fuck on.  Which made me feel even worse somehow.

So, he continued on his way, and I took Sparta back home. I sat down in a chair, whereupon Sparta curled up at my feet, just like she always does.  The incident already out of her mind.  Yeah, it was scary, but either we could dwell upon it, or move on. And honestly, part of Step 2 (control the situation) is knowing when the situation is over.  Just let it go. Nobody was hurt. Nobody got hit by a car. I was able to Pilot Sparta pretty quickly, and we got home safely with 1/2 a leash.  I couldn’t be angry for Sparta for being who she was (fearful of other dogs), but I could be proud of her for trying so hard to move past her fears.  She’s an incredible dog who had come a very long way.  She’s not perfect, but I don’t want her to be.  That’s such a difficult thing to be: perfect.  She did the best she could with what she had.

As I was sitting there, my daughter came back downstairs.  She said she decided she wanted to live, and that she loved me.  I told her I was very proud of her, and that no matter what, she’s always My Favorite Little Girl in the Whole Wide World.  We hugged it out, and I knew that I needed to control the previous situation: by letting it go. I didn’t lob blame at her for the situation (just as the dog’s owner never berated me for The Incident).  We just let it go.

So there I was.  Another No Good, Very Bad (Rotten) Day that ended with my two girls, Sparta and River, both doing the best they could with what they had, just as I had tried to do.  Not perfect, but who wants to be perfect anyway.    After all, it’s about progress, not perfection.

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