AN INTERVIEW WITH VICTORIA STILWELL
by John Bell Young
Born and raised in Wimbledon, England, Victoria Stilwell is one of the world’s most recognized and respected dog trainers.
She is best known for her role as the star of Animal Planet’s hit TV series It’s Me or the Dog, through which she is able to share her insight and passion for positive reinforcement dog training and as a judge on CBS’s Greatest American Dog. Having filmed over 100 episodes since 2005, Stilwell reaches audiences in more than 50 countries while counseling families on their pet problems.
In the early 1990s, Stilwell began her career in pet training when she created her own successful dog-walking company and immediately recognized the need for qualified professionals to help her clients with the training process. While pursuing a successful acting career (in London’s West End as well as in numerous films, TV series, commercials and voiceovers), she expanded her focus to dog training in collaboration with Britain’s most respected positive-reinforcement dog trainers and behaviorists.
After moving to the U.S. with her husband, Stilwell co-founded several successful dog training companies up and down the East Coast, quickly establishing herself as one of New York’s most sought after dog trainers. With a particular fondness for rescue animals in need of behavior rehabilitation, Stilwell devoted much of her time and energy to a number of animal rescue organizations in New York and Atlanta, serving as a behavior adviser and giving regular seminars on the subject of dog rescue, training and rehabilitation while becoming one of the leading voices in the field of dog training and behavior.
A passionate advocate for positive reinforcement dog training methods, Stilwell is the Editor-in-Chief of Positively.com which features the world’s leading veterinary behaviorists, dog trainers and behavioral scientists on her Positively Expert Blog. She is an outspoken opponent of punitive, dominance-based training techniques, which often result in ‘quick fixes’ but ultimately cause more long-term harm than good while damaging the owner-dog relationship.
Her first two best-selling books, It’s Me or the Dog: How to Have the Perfect Pet and Fat Dog Slim: How to Have a Healthy, Happy Pet, have been widely praised, and they detail her core reward-based training philosophy: “There’s a better way to train… Positively.” Her third book, Train Your Dog Positively, will be released in the US in the spring of 2013.
A regular guest on talk shows, news broadcasts and radio programs in the US, Europe and Asia, Stilwell was named 2009’s Dog Trainer of the Year at the Purina ProPlan Dog awards and was the recipient of the prestigious 2011 Excellence in Journalism and Outstanding Contributions to the Pet Industry Award. Since its premiere in 2005, Stilwell’s show, It’s Me or the Dog, has filmed over 100 episodes in both the UK and US and has been the recipient of multiple honors including 2011 and 2012 Genesis Award Nominations and a 2009 People’s Choice Award nomination. Stilwell is a regular columnist for several magazines including Dogs Today, and she has been featured in numerous journals, magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, Time.com, Oprah Magazine, Rachael Ray Everyday, MSNBC.com, Self Magazine, Shape Magazine, The Daily Mail, and The Sun. In addition to her globally available Positively Podcast series, she also produces several shows in her role as the director of training and behavior for the popular eHow Pets YouTube channel.
Stilwell is committed to helping the cause of animal rescue and rehabilitation and is heavily involved in organizations around the world to increase awareness of puppy mills, dog fighting, animal abuse, pet overpopulation, dog bite prevention and other animal-related causes. A co-founder of the national Dog Bite Prevention conference series, Stilwell is also a National Ambassador for the American Humane Association and serves on the Advisory Boards of both RedRover and DogTV. She is a member of the US Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).
Stilwell is the CEO ofVictoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT), which is the world’s first global network of professional dog trainers dedicated to providing the public with a humane, positive reinforcement-based option under the most trusted name brand in reward-based dog training. Featuring individually certified positive trainers from all over the world, VSPDT’s mission is to create a global network of professional dog trainers whose goal is to help shape the future of dog training. Victoria has personally selected and approved each participating VSPDT trainer, who is likewise committed to promoting positive reinforcement methodologies. With the support of the leading authorities in the field of animal behavioral science and the world’s most prestigious veterinary organizations, VSPDT is now the pre-eminent international brand promoting humane, science-based, force-free dog training methods. Find a VSPDT trainer at www.positively.com/trainers. For more info, please visit www.vspdt.com.
Victoria currently resides in Atlanta with her husband, daughter and two rescue dogs, Sadie and Jasmine.
JBY: First of all, I will never be able to thank you enough. Nearly three years ago, you helped me to make a life changing decision that would have a profound effect on my enjoyment of all things canine, to speak nothing of my status in dogdom. At that time I had been looking for a companion for my then one year old black Labrador Retriever, Ben. I must have considered at least a dozen breeds, and any number of rescues, only to be utterly flummoxed by the innumerable possibilities As it became abundantly clear, your recommendation that I adopt an Irish Setter, provided I had the time and patience to raise such a jolly and rambunctious soul, was inspired. You were absolutely right when you intuited they would likely make a most playful, gentle and loving duo. That they most certainly have. Indeed, Ben and Justice have proved a source of immeasurable joy and satisfaction ever since, both for me and for each other.
That said, this year marks the eighth season of It’s Me or the Dog on Animal Planet, which has become enormously popular. What has been the greatest challenge for you with regard to conveying pragmatic information about dog training to a general television audience?
VS: We shoot approximately fifty hours of footage per show, and stay with the subject family for about four days. After editing, only some 42 minutes of footage remain, not including commercials. Given the limited time, our aim is to stay as true to the process as possible. Our other principal purpose is to convey information to the public about the humane treatment and training of dogs, which is hardly about waving a magic wand. If a dog has aggression or anxiety issues, we are careful not to say these can be fixed in a few minutes, but rather explain that working on such issues is progressive and takes time. For example, when you have an aggressive dog that is suffering, it is absolutely irresponsible to say, after a brief intervention, that the dog is “all fixed”, and is doing just fine and great. You cannot “fix” a dog within a few hours; it’s impossible. To suggest any such thing is irresponsible, and does a real disservice to the process of authentic rehabilitation of aggressive dogs. Not only do such misrepresentations diminish a dog’s psychological experience; they also belittle its biological and emotional life.
JBY: Given the limits on time, as you describe them, what then do you strive above all to convey to viewers when working with families and their dogs?
VS: The process! That is, in addition to demonstrating how we get from point A to point B, we also try to place emphasis on the ways human behavior exerts a direct impact on canine behavior. By changing human behavior, and showing people how humans can both interact with and teach their dogs, we can significantly help pet dogs to achieve success.
JBY: As one of the most prominent advocates of Positive Reinforcement training, you have voiced concerns about other, less humane methods. While those methods are no longer accepted in most professional circles, they continue to have their protagonists. How do you interpret Positive Reinforcement, and what are its most salient advantages over other types of training?
VS: Positive Reinforcement methods encourage dogs to learn by stimulating their natural drives and desires to hunt, play, and discover. That is what is so wonderful about this technique, or more accurately, the variety of techniques that come under the umbrella of Positive Reinforcement. When dealing with anxiety and other problem behaviors, Positive Reinforcement seeks to understand why; it’s an approach that prefers to find the cause and then work within a context that proceeds from that information, rather than just suppressing the symptoms. Positive training works in harmony with the dog’s natural learning abilities, drives and tendencies with the objective of changing the way the dog feels internally. This is the major difference between Positive Reinforcement and punitive methods. Punitive training suppresses negative behavior. It doesn’t change the way the dog feels about himself in relation to his environment, whereas Positive Reinforcement does. With positive training you are allowing or even shaping behaviors in your dog that are more predictable.
Of course, it is also true that no behavior is 100% predictable. You cannot say, for example, that you won’t be angry or sad or upset next week. The truth is, you just don’t know. However, where behavior is concerned, some people are more predictable than others; once we become familiar over time with their behavioral tendencies, we can indeed predict how someone is likely to behave in certain situations. The same is true with dogs. Where Positive Reinforcement methods heighten the predictability of how a dog will behave under certain conditions, punitive training only makes it more likely that behavior will become even more unpredictable.
JBY: On your show you often work with families, as opposed to single owners. Does working with every family member and their dog(s) simultaneously make the training process easier, or does it require even more time and effort?
VS: It’s important that everyone in the family knows what they doing. Each family member must learn how to communicate with their dogs; they must also learn just what the boundaries of acceptable behavior are. Above all there must be consistency! Inconsistency is a characteristic that dogs find very difficult to deal with in people, and it confuses them. When I work with a family I ask them to designate from among themselves a primary trainer. I will then work with that one family member, and from there I can then show the rest of the family what they need to know in relation to training – and living with –their dog.
JBY: Learning how to “read” a dog’s body language is especially important, as it provides so much valuable information with regard to temperament, disposition, and behavior. Learning about it would be extremely useful, I think, for both dog owners and the general public. It would also go a long way to helping people find more effective ways to bond with their dogs. In your estimation, should every school child be encouraged to learn something about canine body language? What role can television play in disseminating this information?
VS: Absolutely! In fact, it’s vital. I have been especially pleased that so many children watch my show, as we teach them the importance of being humane to animals, and to understand that punishment is not right. Kids want to learn; they want to get it right. Dogs are a huge part of our culture; in my view, access to education about these animals is indispensable. Whether you have a dog or not, at some point or other your kids will likely visit friends who have one, or go to a park frequented by dogs. And of course, many children have dogs of their own. When you consider that children are most often bitten by a dog that they know, and on the dog’s territory, it’s even more important to insure they learn how to read a dog’s body language. To that end, I often visit schools to give a talk in conjunction with Doggone Safe, which is program committed to providing this crucial information.
JBY: Most people in this country and Europe are dog friendly. But every now and then one runs into people who have an inherent fear of dogs. There are certain cultures, for example, where dogs are considered unclean and are reviled. How do you deal with those who are afraid of dogs due to lack of experience, out of ignorance, or perhaps, as a result of some past trauma? Are you inclined to leave them be or to enlighten them? And if the latter, why?
VS: It’s Me or the Dog is seen in fifty countries around the world. In Asia, dog ownership is becoming more popular, but it has come with trials and tribulations. Many puppy mills have sprung up in China, for example, where puppies are shipped across the border. Unfortunately; there are still people who fail to understand that dogs are not dolls. My show promotes the idea that no matter where they are, dogs are living, breathing, sentient and altogether incredible beings. We’ve come a long way here in the USA regarding the manner in which we handle dogs. In spite of that, there remain people who simply don’t understand this. Ask most average dog owners, for example, how a dog perceives its environment through its senses, and you’ll be surprised to learn that they haven’t given it much thought. Sometimes people just don’t realize what makes a dog tick.
JBY: Good writing, so the saying goes, is all about RE-writing. Perhaps the same can be said about dog training, which cannot be expected to yield instant results. Would you agree that training is an ongoing process that continues throughout the dog’s entire life?
VS: Positive Reinforcement methods can in fact work rather quickly, If someone doesn’t want their dog to run out the door, for example, an appropriate alternative behavior can be taught in an hour. Problems arise when there is some emotional issue that affects the dog’s behavior; in that case rehabilitation takes longer. When a person suffers from extreme anxiety, for example, he cannot simply go to a therapist and expect to emerge cured an hour later. It’s the same with dogs, and it’s crucial that people understand this.
JBY: There is always the risk, after watching a program devoted to dog training, even one as instructive as yours, that some people may get the wrong idea. There will be those who come away thinking that any behavioral issue, no matter how minor, can be “fixed” in a half hour. How do you respond to that, and what can be done to address such flawed perceptions?
VS: When I launched my show eight years ago, it was with the intention of conveying to the audience as much information as possible about proper dog training. But I quickly learned that you can cover only so much in a half hour. And so I was compelled to explain that training dogs is in fact a long process, and though I can provide viewers with certain training tools to correct undesirable behaviors, they will still have to invest time in learning how to reinforce desirable behaviors.
JBY: Every television production is a team effort, and requires the consensus those who create it. But in an ideal world where you alone could make every editorial decision, what would you ideally want to tell your viewers, and how would you proceed?
VS: When the show first aired in England, I did not have full editorial control. I do now. In the show’s earliest stages the executives and staff were not used to working with experts, much less having the presenter call the shots. But as a responsible trainer, I had to let them know that certain issues with both dogs and humans would inevitably arise, and that cameras needed to be situated in specific places in order to properly – and clearly — document the process of working with them. As opposed to being a presenter or narrator, I am instead an expert working with families and their dogs in real situations.
And so it took a couple of seasons before we found our stride. In the first season I realized the overdubbed, scripted narration had twisted my words and compromised my intent; at that point I had to take editorial control. Things changed very quickly after that, and I was at last able to do a show commensurate with my methods and intentions. We’ve since jettisoned the narration. I like to think of the show as my baby, insofar as the original idea for the show was mine. Even so, it was hard to tread that fine line between taking an idea to a production company and making certain that the information I felt was important to get out there was respected, especially with regard to the role dogs play in our everyday lives.
JBY: There has been much talk, by opponents of positive reinforcement theory, about the value of appointing oneself a “pack leader” in order to show a dog who is in charge. But this ill-informed, archaic idea fails to acknowledge the well-established fact that dogs are not wolves, either physiologically or behaviorally. How do you respond to those who insist that dogs are nothing more than pushy creatures whose sole objective is to dominate humans, and that in order to “discipline” them, forceful and dominant leadership is de rigeur? Is this a reasonable presumption or wholly misguided?
VS: Wholly misguided! Sometimes I have to laugh because it’s so totally ridiculous. At other times it makes me sad, because the idea has become so pervasive in popular culture that is has actually created an environment wherein some people are now convinced that the proper relationship between a dog and human ought be confrontational. Worse, dogs raised in that context, and exposed to such attitudes are put under tremendous stress.
Dogs have enjoyed thousands of years of domestication, and while they retain some similarities with wolves, they are very much their own species. It’s a pity that so much inaccurate information is parsed out to so many, and that certain trainers, who feel threatened by the facts, do not care to admit they are wrong. What’s more, unlike free wolves, I don’t believe dogs form familial packs when they come into our homes. Rather, they form groups, much like a feral dog population where hierarchy is fluid, but hardly fixed. It’s odd that people who say we should never anthropomorphize dogs have no problem calling themselves pack leaders!
JBY: We know, for example, that the widely discredited dominance theory has the potential to harm dogs and lead to aggression. How do you respond to those who claim that intimidation and forced compliance is the most effective means of discipline? And is “discipline” even an appropriate concept with regard to training pet dogs?
VS: While there has to be discipline, it should be viewed in the context of guidance, not punishment. There was a study a year or so ago at Yale that concluded that spanking children is detrimental to their development. As a nation, we are now leading the way with how we relate to our children, and yet we remain far behind with regard to how we deal with our dogs. But studies have shown conclusively that dogs enjoy the cognitive abilities of a two year old child. Would you put a prong or shock collar on a child? Of course not! That is abuse! Just as a small child needs his parents to guide him, so does a dog, no matter his age, require the guidance of his human companion to get the best start in life. Dogs need us, and it’s our job to help them grow. How dare anyone exploit that need by instilling fear in these vulnerable beings! While I am aware of the difference, as I have both children and dogs, I am also aware of the similarities, as I want to see both become responsible as they mature.
JBY: Can you elaborate your approach to discipline in the context of guidance?
VS: Disciplining a child might involve putting him in a time out, which teaches him that there are consequences for bad behavior. What must be done is to interrupt the undesirable behavior when it occurs and redirect it on to something positive, rather than choosing an action that punishes the child with something equally negative. That is exactly what I do with dogs. Of course, it’s not always possible to read a dog’s behavior as well as you can read that of a child, but you can redirect it. These are all disciplinary methods, but our intent is to guide. And guidance is far more effective than using prong or shock collars to express displeasure or anger with a dog’s undesirable behavior. Worse, anger often expresses itself in the form of shouting or hitting, which is just as harmful to a dog as it is to a child.
Dominance training is not only weak and ineffective, but it is also weak-minded; those who rely on force and pain to train a dog may be physically strong, but they also fail to use their brains to deal with problems that require long term solutions. Instead, they allow their anger to control the situation, leading to force. Standing over an animal and getting it to submit is not only inhumane and abusive, it’s also a show of weakness. When working with aggressive dogs, it’s important to remember that every time a trainer is bitten, it represents a failure on the trainer’s part. Were I ever to do anything to cause a dog to bite me or anyone else, that bite would also become, for the dog, a rehearsal of a negative and undesirable behavior.
JBY: Clearly, the friction between the two training camps –- those who advocate positive reinforcement and those who do not — has created a great deal of controversy. Can you weigh in on why anyone would not want to avail themselves of Positive Reinforcement methods, when so much is now known about its safety, efficacy, and not least, its essential humanity?
VS: People don’t want to accept that what they’ve been doing for a very long time is wrong, While there are certainly people who don’t want to learn, there are others who actually believe what they are doing –such as using shock collars – is right. The lame argument they so often use in their own defense is that, in advocating such methods, they are the only ones saving dogs from death row. What do they think Positive Reinforcement trainers are doing about that, twiddling our thumbs? Or just tossing treats? Certainly not! We prefer to train dogs responsibly. After all, a large part of a responsible trainer’s obligation is to keep people safe, as well as dogs.
JBY: You are a conscientious advocate for the adoption of shelter dogs. However, some people are concerned that the background shelter dogs may not be sufficiently known or adequately disclosed. Potential adopters worry that this lack of information could be indicative of serious problems with a dog’s health or temperament. Though this attitude is not necessarily rational, it can nevertheless complicate the adoption process. How do you respond to such concerns?
VS: I don’t think you can say any dog is predictable, no matter where it comes from. At a shelter, there is at least some background information available that allows you to determine what a dog has been through. It might take a couple of weeks before you see what the dog’s true behavior turns out to be. But there are things you can do to re-assure yourself that the dog is just fine. For example, you might expose him to different environments and situations, just as is done during a home visit; you want to see how the dog reacts to your family, to other people, and to children. In other words, do a ‘test run”. The fact is, there are many good dogs in shelters, and I’d like to think that people are willing to provide a loving home for dogs in need.
JBY: You’ve likewise used It’s Me or the Dog as a platform to encourage neutering and spaying. What more should be done to persuade otherwise reluctant dog owners to do so?
VS: We are trying to do as much as we can. For some, the very idea of removing part of a dog’s reproductive anatomy makes him feminine, or less of a man-dog. That’s a shame, because so many behavioral issues can be thwarted through spaying/neutering. And of course, neutering/spaying also helps keep in check the proliferation of the general canine population, which can easily get out of control. Is mandatory neutering the solution? I don’t know. What is important is to educate people. Bu we still have a long way to go. Certainly, government has to get involved by dealing more effectively with puppy mills, which have to be stopped.
JBY: Do you have any advice for those considering a career in dog training? What is the most important thing they need to consider before making that kind of commitment?
VS: You have to love and respect people, too. It’s not good enough to love animals; you need real compassion for people. Even if my show, for dramatic effect, sometimes makes it look as if I’m touchy, the fact is, when I go into someone’s home, that I want them to succeed and do well. Don’t think that you’re going to become rich by becoming a dog trainer. It takes a lot of time to build up business, as much depends on word of mouth. You also have to demonstrate that you are a trustworthy and reliable person, and so it’s useful to cultivate business skills.
When I got started nearly 20 years ago, there was no real accreditation, save for earning a university degree. The only other way to earn accreditation at that time was through animal behavior and training associates. Nowadays, anyone interested in becoming a professional trainer should enroll in a reputable school for dog trainers, but they should absolutely avoid any school that advocates pain training or old school theory. Actually, I’m in the process of developing a course for trainers. We will offer seminars on positive reinforcement training, as well as on how to set up a dog training business. We will also provide valuable information with regard to working effectively with clients, liability issues, and more.
JBY: What do you advise families who are grieving for a dog lost to illness or accident?
VS: First of all it’s a matter of understanding what they are going through. People grieve for their animals just as they grieve for people. Dogs are very much family members, and no one should ever negate another’s grief over the loss of a beloved pet. I try to help people through it, first by advising them that it takes plenty of time. But certain symbolic gestures, such as planting trees in a garden are helpful, as these represent life and growth. Commemorative plaques can also offer some comfort. Although I am not a grief counselor, I’ve observed that watching things grow over time can serve as a poignant reminder of the wonderful pet you’ve loved and lost….