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


Not Quite Ready, or F*ck You, Rainbow Bridge

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.

Havelock Ellis


For some reason I keep thinking that Sparta and Orion are going to live forever.  It’s so stupid, but because it feels as if they’ve always been there, that they’ll always be there.  It’s not like this is my first rodeo, either.  Darwin was a Lab, T-rex mix that I got when I was about 19.  I had him for roughly 12 years before I had to say goodbye to him.  He was very old (he was full grown when I got him), his arthritis was no longer manageable with meds, and we all knew it was time past time to say goodbye.  My childhood dog, Pebbles, a Border Collie mix, was with my family from the time we got her when I was 4 until she left us 16 years later. But just because you’ve done something before doesn’t mean you’re good at it.

Last week I trained with a wonderful dog by the name of Tank.  He is an amazing example of what an Akita can be when given proper exercise and a wonderful home.   Tank is a certified therapy dog. (Hint: Google “Akita disposition” and you’ll see why this is quite the feat.)  Yet I was actually called to Tank’s home to work with his new foster-brother, Red, a deaf, half-blind Chow with some neurological issues to boot.  I’m happy to say that Red is well on his way to feeling safe and comfortable in his new home.

I usually get a pic of the dogs I work with, just for myself.  I’d say only 1/4 of all the pics I take are ever posted.  I happened to get a picture of Tank in all his majestic Akita-ness, but it was dark, fuzzy, and not a wonderful picture.  I didn’t think anything of it, because I knew that Boots and Bee Photography (who does all the pics for the Darwin Dog’s blog) was going to be out in a few days to get pictures, and I figured I’d have plenty of professional pictures of handsome Tank.

Yesterday I got an email.  Tank’s owners had noticed that he was acting a little tired over the past few days.  They mentioned that they were taking him to the vet the following day.  Tank was immediately taken into intensive care.  His diagnosis: leukemia. His prognosis? 3-6 months.  His owners are hoping he can make it to his next birthday.  As Tank’s mom wrote:

“Remember when I complained about how he won’t go to the bathroom in the yard and I get cold walking him in the winter?  Well, I’d like to take it all back!

I originally read your post about 676 weekends back in April.  Even then, I really took to heart your message and we’ve always tried to make the most of our time with Tank, knowing that as a large breed dog, we really weren’t going to get probably much more than 10 years with him.  I read it again today (it took a while because I kept starting to cry).  If he makes it to his 3rdbirthday in December, that means we’ll have had roughly 150 weekends with him. It doesn’t seem like enough and I feel like I’m being cheated out of hundreds of weekends we should get with him.  Nonetheless, we still have for today.  We are putting together a doggy bucket list for him so hopefully we can have some adventures before it’s too late.”

There’s so much that I love about those words.  These are owners who didn’t realize the value of their dog once they had an end-time in sight; these are owners who always knew each day was precious, even when he was a pup.  They understand that they still have a dog (for now), and are being given a chance to slowly say good-bye.  They will make the most of their time together, and that’s what counts.

So yeah, maybe some people have all 676 weekends with their dogs, but only use a fraction of those weekends.  Most are too busy.  Some only see their dog as a burden, just another thing I have to take care of. And then there are those owners like Tank’s, who know that nothing is permanent, and that being given a diagnosis changes nothing. You’re born.  You die.   All that matters is what you did between those two points.  How did you use that time.

I’d also like to say one more thing.  Fuck you, Rainbow Bridge.  You may be the end destination, but I will never take my dogs to you in a funeral procession style.  I will bring my dogs to you with their bucket lists in my hand.  We will laugh at the times we had together, the stupid things they did.  The stupid things I did.  They will be exhausted from living life to the fullest, having been loved and cherished the entire time.  They will go out in a fanfare, starting at the time they become mine, we will chip away at our bucket lists, because we never know how soon that Rainbow Bridge will turn up on a horizon.  Sometimes you can see it in the distance, and sometimes it sneaks up on you.  But one thing is for certain: my dogs won’t be crossing that bridge alone, because they will be taking huge part of me with them, just as part of them will be with me forever.

Tank, the Wonder Akita.

Tank, the Wonder Akita.

This post was originally written on Tuesday, Sept. 29th.  Prior to the posting, I contacted Tank’s owners for permission to utilize the message they conveyed to me in their email.  Their response broke my heart:

“That is fine. We just actually left the vet, he is in peace now.  We piloted him to the end. I just hope he knows how much we loved him.”

Tank,  you will always be the standard to which I compare any other Akita.


A few weeks after posting this article back in September, Red crossed the Rainbow Bridge to join his foster brother.  While this wasn’t quite the shock that Tank’s passing was due to Red’s many health issues, it was still a huge blow.  I’m happy to post this pic of Hulk, the new puppy who has come to help fill the void that losing Red and Tank left in their passing. While no dog can ever replace the memory of a beloved pet, Hulk is sure to bring much fun and laughter into a great household.  But don’t take my word for it… take a look at Hulk yourself.

All that sass...

All that sass…

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland Ohio