Coaching Courage

The Survive Institute teaches family defense for the 21st century

Despite her tiny stature, bubbly personality and unabashed kindness, Debbie Gardner could kill a dude.

Not the average mother, Gardner believes telling her kid “Call me when you get there” is a set-up for failure. She doesn’t consider walking alone at night an abomination. And if she had the power, McGruff the Crime Dog would be hauled off to the SPCA.

In fact, as founder of the Survive Institute, a locally based organization that teaches crime survival workshops, Gardner doesn’t promote the average self-defense methods. She and her husband Mike have made it their mission to teach people how to protect and empower themselves and their loved ones with memorable, simple, streamlined techniques.

Safety has always played an important role in Gardner’s life. As one of the original female state patrollers, Gardner paved the way for women in the police force. Some call her Ohio’s own Charlie’s Angel. In 1973, she was the first female patroller in Ohio to work solo in her own patrol car without an on-body radio.

It was during that time she found the most effective way to protect herself in the event of an attack was to cut off her aggressor’s airway. In short, aim for the throat.

The technique is effective, simple and doesn’t involve touching any bodily fluids. So why is it that so many people equate selfdefense with a complicated blend of martial arts, tazer guns and gauging of the eyes? This conundrum inspired Gardner to shed her police uniform — one that she finds ridiculously masculine — and start her own modernized safety program.

This idea is somewhat shocking to those who grew up with the lovable, trench-coat wearing safety canine McGruff. The National Crime Prevention Council first introduced McGruff the Crime Dog in the 1970s, and people still turn to the furry law-enforcer today. Gardner has a bone to pick with him.

“The idea of a dog dressed like Sherlock Holmes teaching people — not just kids — about safety is disgusting,” Gardner says. Not only does a mascot like McGruff make light of safety and defense, Gardner believes the whole campaign sets up people for failure.

The McGruff Method tells people that “if they just follow certain rules and let the police handle everything, you won’t get attacked,” Gardner explains. Unfortunately, those certain rules are almost impossible to follow.

The first rule most children learn about safety is to never talk to strangers. To this, Gardner responds, “What about on the first day of school?” From new teachers to bus drivers and babysitters to pizza delivery drivers, children and adults alike must talk to strangers on a regular basis.

Gardner suggests replacing the term “stranger” with “creep.” Any person who makes you feel uncomfortable can be a creep. And since so many instances of abuse and rape are perpetrated by people the victims already knew, the term “stranger” just isn’t accurate.

Another McGruff-inspired safety rule is to never walk alone, especially at night, especially if you’re a woman. “Again, impossible,” Gardner says. Anyone who works irregular hours or takes night classes knows walking solo in the dark happens. And since most people have to do it at some point in their lives, Gardner argues that defense programs should prepare them for this situation.

Next up is to always be aware. “You have to go beyond that,” Gardner says, “Look! Deal with it. If I say that I am aware there is crime in Cincinnati, that doesn’t mean I am in control of myself by looking around and dealing with it.”

Because safety tips like these are inconsistent and difficult to follow, Gardner believes people are bound for failure. “If someone is attacked,” Gardner says, “they feel it is their fault because they broke one of these rules. The current safety system is wired to guilt.”

As people everywhere become Google-ized, we all experience information overload. With access to so much information, we get quantity over quality, and that can be a problem. This rings true for self-defense as well.

“People need a little bit that sticks, not a lot they forget,” Gardner says. “In a crisis, less is more. Your brain can’t focus on so many different options.”

This is why Gardner founded the Survive Institute in 1981. Since then, she and Mike have spoken professionally to a variety of groups including high schoolers, business travelers and victims of crime ages 8 to 80 about a new wave of safety. “Minimum tactics with maximum reasons, and the reasons are who and what you love,” she explains.

Gardner poses the following situation:
Often times, if you ask the wimpiest girl you know what she’d do if attacked, she’d say, “I don’t know, I hope that never happens.”

“Her plan is ‘hope it doesn’t happen,’ ” Gardner says. “But if she is a mother and you ask her what she’d do if her child was attacked, she’d say ‘Touch my kid, I’ll kill you.’ What changed in that situation isn’t a karate degree. What changed is the reason to win.”

“We must have a whole paradigm shift on the subject by changing the title of the subject from self-defense to family-defense. Whoever you love is your family and that’s who you fight for if you ever get attacked.”

Besides teaching people to hit the throat if attacked, the Survive method focuses on keeping blood circulating, actively looking around and continuing to breathe. In times of crisis, oxygen is power.

When surprised, people tend to hold their breath. And when the body doesn’t get oxygen, all senses are dulled and they’re more likely to be overpowered. However, if people can learn to continue breathing and block the attacker’s oxygen, they probably will be successful in escaping the attacker.

“Odds are in life you will never be tested at this level,” Gardner says, “but you’ll walk taller knowing you have the power.”

Learn more about the Survive Institute or schedule a workshop by visiting

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.