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

Two Steps to Working with your Dog, or Why You Need More RuPaul

“The ego urges you to accomplish, while the soul merely asks you to enjoy the process.”

— Doreen Virtue
Boots and Bee Photography - By Brittany Graham
Photography – By Brittany Graham

I got pulled over by the police yesterday.  I was going X amount of mph in a x mph zone.  I never speed, either!  First time in 20 years (maybe more) that I’ve gotten a ticket. So what happened?

I didn’t follow my mandatory three steps for everything in the whole wide world.

 No, that wasn’t me; not my style.  However, I did ask the officer if I got bonus points for not ugly crying.

Step 1 – Control Yourself

I had a lot to do yesterday before my evening training session.  And to be honest, business has been booming.  It’s been difficult to keep up with everything sometimes.  I tried to squeeze in working on a blog post, straightening up my office, walking my dogs and returning phone calls all within the 2 hours between sessions.

I was like a cyclone of energy.  Meaning I was pretty keyed up by the time I had to leave.  I also meant that I didn’t keep track of time very well.

Now, if you know me, I’m am punctual.  To a fault. Typically I arrive 10 minutes early to each session (to everything, really), and kill time on a side street until it’s actually your appointment time.  So running late is not something that is normal for me.  But I hadn’t controlled myself, and had whipped myself up into a frenzy. So from the beginning, I was destined to fail.

Every now and then I fall apart.

Every now and then I fall apart.

Step 2 – Control the Situation

I never add energy or stimuli to a situation until I have control of the current situation.  So what happened?  When I suddenly realized that I was going to be 10 minutes late, rather than controlling the situation by calling my client and letter her know, I was going to make up the time.  Problem was, she was pretty far, actually outside my normal travel area.  So there we go; doomed to fail.  Which I did.


How does this apply to your dog?  Well, let’s start at the beginning.  Your dog does something you don’t like, say…barking, jumping, dragging you on a leash, etc.  For this instance, we’ll say the doorbell just rang.  That’s your dog’s cue.

Step 1 – Control Yourself

Fido goes nuts!  Barking, howling, jumping at the door.  It’s time for action.  But before you do anything, as yourself: are you angry?  Frantic? Yelling?  Then it’s not going to work.   Take a deep breath, organize yourself, and make sure you’ve got it together.  Remember, you can handle this.  Keep calm, and pull yourself together.

Don’t forget to watch your body language, too!  Put on your Piloting uniform.  Stand up as straight as you can.  I always tell my clients, pretend you rubbed Viagra all over your body.

Stand tall. Hand either beside you or behind your back.  Don’t feel the need to get down to your dog’s level; aim your belly button either at them or directly over them. I call this stance your Piloting  uniform. It’s the uniform you wear whenever you’re about to answer your dog’s questions, such as, “Can I bark at the door?” or “Can I jump all over our guest?”.  And do you know who wears this uniform best?

Drag queens.  Yes, you read that right.

Perfect body language, as usual, from RuPaul.  She  looks confident.  In control of herself.  She doesn’t look aggressive, but she looks as if she could handle just about any opposition without breaking a sweat. Is that what she (or any drag queen) looks like all the time?  Not necessarily, but it’s part of the job, so they put on their uniform. Their armor.  And they wear it proudly.

Step 2 – Control the Situation

Okay, you’ve released your inner drag queen.  You have your armor on, or your Piloting uniform, as I like to call it.  Now it’s time to control the situation.  Your dog is most likely misbehaving at the door already.  That’s fine.  You’re about to control that by claiming the door.  Simply walk up to the door, get between your dog and the door (stomach facing your dog still, RuPaul style) and back him off the door.  Pretend you’re a snowplow and gently, but firmly, use your legs to plow him back from the door like snow.

Now you’ve got a few feet to operate.  As soon as Fido is backed off the door, I want you to start backing up towards the door while pointing at him like your finger is a squirt gun and you’re going to shoot him between the eyes.  Nail him to that spot with your eyes and your finger as you move towards the door.

If he starts to move towards you, simply start over.  Snow plow him back, and then RuPaul him by pointing at him and nailing him to his spot with your finger and eyeballs.  Each time you are doing this, you are giving him a negative.  His question is, “Do you need help at the door?”.  This is how you give a dog a negative.  It may take a few times, but as you do it, you’re getting more and more money from his Piloting Piggy Bank into yours, and whoever has the most money wins.  Only once you have enough money in your Piloting Piggy Bank will you be able to s-l-o-w-l-y open the door (keeping your back to your door and your front towards your dog as much as possible).

Continue to control the situation.  If you lose control (your dog comes running up again), simply stop and reboot.  Close the door again even if you need to.  Your guest would rather wait outside a few more moments rather than be mauled and jumped on when they come in.

Once you let your guest in, you’re going to make a sandwich.  Your dog is bread, you’re guest is bread, and you’re the cheese.  Bread doesn’t touch bread.  You will be the cheese between them, answering your dog’s questions about your guest, even as they come through your house and sit down. Continue answering your dog’s questions using the same body language.

Congratulations, you’ve just answered your door without all the drama.  And the best part is, each time it gets easier and easier!

RuPaul would be proud.

Remember, these two steps are integral for any time you are Piloting your dog.  Dogs don’t require training in these circumstances, they require answers.  Think of dog training as tricks. Or something one dog wouldn’t teach another to do.  We train dogs to sit (teaching them English), to come on command (English again).  We may train them to go outside to go to the bathroom, or even to walk on a leash.  Those are commands we give them.  Piloting is when you are answering a dog’s questions: Can I jump on you?  Can I steal food from the counter?  Can I bark?

Usually I’m very good at Piloting myself, but like every other human, I’m not perfect.  Sometimes I flub things.  Hence my ticket.  But here’s the interesting thing:  I know that speeding is not acceptable.  However, I hadn’t controlled myself nor the situation. In other words, I didn’t Pilot myself.  A cop actually had to do that.  Piloting is simply giving negatives and positives.  My question was, “Can I speed?”.  It was preempted by my lack of controlling myself and the situation.  Cops answer: no.

Funny thing is, after the ticket, I actually felt better.  Rebooted, if you will.  While I was waiting for my ticket, I texted my client and informed her of the delay.  She was very understanding. I was only 15 minutes late. Not the end of the world, but now I was rebooted.  Calmer, even. I realized that I was going about everything wrong.  My unwillingness to control myself and my situation had cost me both time and money.  That’s a negative.

So I took a deep breath, pulled away with a fresh ticket in my hand, and calmly drove to my next session, singing along with Robert Plant and enjoying the ride rather than focusing on the destination.  Once arriving, I rebooted again, taking a deep breath, focusing on how lucky I am to have such a wonderful career that I work with dogs all day!  And then proceeded to have a wonderful session with amazing people and three incredible dogs.

Thank you RuPaul.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack & Special Guest: RuPaul
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio