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


Walking Terror

Terror made me cruel.
- Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights

As I’ve mentioned previously, dogs are binary creatures:  everything is “yes” or “no” to them.  Just as I can give you a precise location on this planet using only latitude and longitude, “yes” and “no” help a dog safely navigate their surroundings.  It helps them identify threats (either you are a threat or you aren’t).  Unfortunately, this system can result in terrifying encounters.

For example, Sparta, (my crazy beloved shepherd/rottie mix) is very dog-reactive.   For instance, a walk for us might play out like this in her mind:

There’s something up there.  It looks like a dog.  Is it pack/safe?
Is it a potential threat?
Should I make it go away?

And that right there is dog reactivity in a nutshell.  If I don’t answer her questions, she has to come up with her own answers which are always the wrong answer.  So I Pilot her. When she’s asking an important question (“Is it a threat?”) and trying to cipher it out for herself, her body language changes.  Her ears go stiff.  Her forehead wrinkles between her ears.  Tail goes straight up.  She’s about to answer a question for herself, and that’s bad.

Total protonic reversal.  Or in layman’s terms, she flips her lid.

So I Pilot her by answering her questions (learn how here), and we have a nice walk. I don’t always know what question she’s asking in specific, but that doesn’t preclude me from answering “no” anyway.  When I see her tail go straight up, and she stands almost on her toes, head up, that posture means something….she’s asking a question.

We call it "meerkat-ing" or "prairie dogging"

We call that posture “meerkat-ing” or “prairie dogging”

If I start craning my head around to see what she’s asking about, now I’m meerkatting, too!  I don’t care what question she’s asking about.  All of her senses are better than mine, so it could be anything from the man across the street to a butterfly flapping its wings in China.  I don’t need to know what the question is…the answer is “no”.

Now, if I catch Sparta’s questions early enough, the answer is easier for her to accept.  Rather than letting her energy build and build to unmanageable conditions before I answer her questions, I answer them the moment she asks them.  In other words, I’m giving her the respect she deserves by answering a (legitimate) question she’s asking, rather than ignoring her or punishing her for even asking a question.  I am Sparta’s Pilot.  She has every right to ask a question and not get punished.  Answering questions should involve body language, not pain.  Remember, your dog is not bad.  She’s merely asking a question.

Prong collar designed so people can't see you're using a prong collar.

In this case, I truly hope you are missing the point.

So now you’ve been putting these practices in use with your reactive dog.  Walks are so much easier now.  You still have to Pilot them a lot, but your dog’s questions are getting easier and easier to answer because your dog is starting to trust your answers.  Piloting is like a big piggy bank: whomever has the most money wins.  You take money out of your dog’s bank and put it into yours every time you answer one of your dog’s questions. The easy questions your dog asks (“Do I turn left here?”) are almost nothing to answer at all.  Even the harder questions (“Can I chase that squirrel?”) that require more “money” are not nearly the problem they were previously.  But then Something Big Happens.  A question that requires all the Piloting money you’ve been hoarding in your Piloting Piggy Bank.

An off-leash dog comes rushing at you.

Okay.  You can deal with this.   Those same three steps I’ve been going on and on about in previous posts?  Yeah, they’re going to come in handy right about now.  Let’s review:

1) Control yourself.  Yes, this is a terrifying situation.  Acknowledge it for what it is, and move on.  Don’t add energy by yelling, screaming, shouting or flailing your arms about like a windmill.  Calm, confident body language (stand up straight and square your shoulders).  Your dog needs you to be calm.  Now shut up and do it!

Listen to Liz.  She knows.  Except maybe skip the lipstick and drink until after it's all over.

Listen to Liz. She knows. Except maybe skip the lipstick and drink until after it’s all over.

2.) Control the situation.  Meaning, don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Um, yeah.  This one’s going to be a little tougher, but can still be done.  Controlling the situation means you have to respond to the rapid-fire questions your dog is asking, hopefully before the other dog gets to you.  If your dog hits Defcon 6 while the dog is still at a distance, well, you try your damnedest  to control the current situation, while the dog is still coming at you. Your dog WILL ask questions about that other dog.  In Sparta’s case, it’s:

“Permission to engage?  May I engage the enemy? Can I pursue offensive maneuvers?”

all done one after another, like dominoes falling.  She’s like a Klingon defending her honor at Warf speed.

Okay... a bit much, but you get the picture.

Okay… a bit much, but you get the picture.

3)  Add Stimulation.   In other words, what are you going to do? Well, you have a few options:

Look around for the owner. Tell them (don’t ask, tell them) to call their dog off.  A statement from them that their dog is friendly is not an acceptable response.  I’ve heard a lot of people say a lot of things in response when presented with the “my dog is friendly” routine, from “but my dog isn’t!” or “he’s in training”, etc., one of the responses I’ve always found that works is, “my dog is still contagious!”.  Yes, it works.  I found out a few weeks ago from my father-in-law that many years ago he and I were out walking Sparta (who is notoriously dog-reactive), and a person with a dog at the end of a retractable leash, fully extended, came rushing at us.  Apparently I shouted out to the person, “My dog isn’t friendly, and neither am I!”.  I have no memory of this incident, but quite honestly, it sounds like something I would indeed say. I asked my FIL if it worked, and he said they spun around and took their dog in another direction.

Gauge if it’s safe to let them meet.  If the owner isn’t around, or isn’t doing much to control their dog, sometimes it’s easier to just let the dogs meet.  Try to read the other dog’s body language. Does it seem more like a “No-No Bad Dog”, or is it a Cujo? Typically dogs merely want to get information from the other dog (as in a derriere sniff). Rarely is a dog out for your blood, especially if you not letting your dog boil over. If you choose to go ahead and let them meet, be aware that your dog will be taking cues from you as to how to react.  You WILL be calm.  Your dog is counting on you, remember?

Use your body language.  Get between your dog and the oncoming dog, essentially body-blocking the dog.  Your dog sees that you are protecting them.  The other dog sees you giving the universal body language for “mine”.  I’ve done this with much success in the past, but you must make sure you feel safe to do this.

Protect your dog by whatever means necessary.  I have had to kick a dog off my dog in the past, and I did it as hard as I could.  The leash laws are on your side.  No, I don’t get my jollies by injuring another animal, but if it means protecting mine, I’ll do whatever it takes.   If the dogs have engaged aggressively, it’s about making sure you’re safe first, and your dog second.  You have every right to protect your dog.  Let me repeat that: you have my permission to protect your dog.  Just make sure you can do it safely. Don’t reach between them with your hand.  Kick with your foot (sole first, like you’re stomping a bug, and then IMMEDIATELY remove your foot like it was burned) use whatever you have around  you, from garbage can lids to a fallen branch.  I’ve heard of someone taking off their jacket and “whipping” the other dog with it until the dog latched on to her jacket instead of her Pomeranian- it’s all about keeping your wits about you.

And remember, an ounce of prevention….

- Carry a stick, umbrella, anything that may help you fend off a dog.

- If you have a certain dog in your neighborhood that frequently roams, call the police. Have it logged somewhere that the dog has been at large in the past.  You may need that evidence in the future.

- Avoid the area if you know there’s a loose dog.  Common sense, yes, but I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “Well it’s my neighborhood and I should be able to walk where I want!”….and your little Fifi is going to be mauled just so you can prove your point.  Your dog comes first, your ego comes second.

 Remember, control yourself, control the situation, add stimulation. Pilot your dog. Answer their questions, and you will get through this ordeal.  And when you get home, pour yourself that drink.

Just don't eat the dates

Just don’t eat the dates

Keep calm and pilot on


Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio