One of the world’s most respected dog trainers, Victoria Stilwell returns Jan. 8 for a third season of her hit TV series, “It’s Me Or The Dog” on Animal Planet. Born and raised in Wimbledon, England, Stilwell now resides with her husband and daughter in Atlanta. In the new season, which she calls her most challenging, she takes on problem dogs and owners in the New York area.
In this exclusive interview with DogChannel.com she shares her passion for dogs and for positive, rewards-based training – and why she thinks dominance-based training is so dangerous. And she reveals plans to expand her foundation and to add a new dog to her family.
Q. In the early 1990s you had a successful acting career in London, and started a dog-walking company on the side. That evolved into a passion for dog training. What is it about working with dogs that you find irresistible?
No dog is ever the same, each client, each situation is different. It’s a job I never get bored of. Working with animals, making their lives better, is what I love doing. Our dogs are under a lot of pressure to conform, they are a different species living in our domestic houses. I like being able to understand and help them. That’s why I gave up acting and went into dog training, long before I had the idea for the show. It fulfills me more.
Q. You often confront not just misbehaving pets, but owners who are out of control, people who not only hand feed their dogs at the dinner table but have a special fork for the dog. Do you sometimes feel more like a social worker?
When I became a trainer very quickly I found that I was actually adopting the role of a counselor almost. Humans have such an emotional attachment to their animals that when things go wrong that can be very raw for some people. I can look at it with a fresh eye, without emotion and that helps me see things clearly. So I am able to say, “This is how you communicate and this is how you respond.” I can suggest that they try something else. This is a huge lesson in people watching as well.
Q. In the upcoming season is there one particular situation that was completely unexpected or challenging?
This new series is the best that I have ever done because the situations sometimes go off the charts. It is intense or it is hilariously funny. One that stands out is a young boy who was sold a Presa Canario when he was age 18, and it is now growing into big, powerful male dog, showing worrying signs of being aggressive toward people. I had to get this boy to become more responsible, because it was a recipe for disaster. So there is real tension and friction between us. You will see what happens in the end; it was very tough.
Q. Your training methods are reward-based, but other trainers promote dominance-based training. What is important for people to understand about these very different methods?
If you train your dog using force and get your dog to respond through fear, you damage the relationship and trust between you and your dog. If you go down the path of rewarding your dog and teaching him and guiding him then your dog is going to have a much better bond with you and trust you and respect you. And do things for you because he wants to and not because he is frightened.
Dominance-based training is dangerous. When people see these methods in the media and they try them at home, people are getting bitten. Dogs are becoming more aggressive. Kids see their parents doing forceful training with the dog, try it themselves and get bitten. This is what’s happening.
We now know so much more about the way a dog’s brain works, about the way a dog learns, about his life experience and we have the evidence to show that dominance-based training does a lot of psychological as well as physical damage. Some people think it is sexy, but dominance training is a very weak way of training.
Don’t be weak, be smart.
Q. No one wants to get into a situation where they need a housecall from Victoria Stilwell. What are key steps dog owners can take to head off common problems?
Take some time to understand how their dog experiences the world. There is a lot of pressure on dogs to conform to the rules of our household. But they are a completely different species. So to expect them to behave well or to get angry if they chew things or to tell them off if they toilet is counterproductive.
So many people are good at telling their animals off but they haven’t taught them what to do. So much of the time we reinforce our dog’s negative behavior. For example the dog jumps up and the person gives it a cuddle, yet tells the dog off when it jumps up on a guest. You can’t be inconsistent like that.
Q. What advice do you give people before they get a dog?
Every member of the household needs to be ready, even if the children are very young. Don’t get a dog just because your child wants a dog.
Pick a breed that goes with your lifestyle. If you are energetic and you go hiking and you have a big backyard yes you can get a hunting breed or a Border Collie, those kinds that need a lot of exercise. But if you are sedentary, get a breed that will be happy in your home. I ask people: If you could describe yourself and the life you could give your dog, how would you do it? That’s really important.
If there are problems, don’t go to a trainer who is going to put a shock collar on, or a prong collar or alpha role your dog. Dog trainers are unregulated. Anybody can call themselves a dog trainer.
That’s why I set up a global network of positive-reinforcement trainers. You can go to positively.com and find a trainer. All of these people have been personally endorsed and assessed by me. It doesn’t mean spending a lot of money and it can be the difference between giving up a dog to a shelter because you don’t know what to do. That’s really the reason I came up with the idea for the show, “It’s Me or The Dog,” because I was appalled at the waste of life that was going on at that time around New York City.
Q. This coming year is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As you mentioned you were living in New York City and you volunteered in your neighborhood at Pier 94, where therapy and support dogs were brought in from all over the country to help survivors trying to cope. What do you remember most about that experience, which led you to create the Victoria Stilwell Foundation?
I was volunteering with the ASPCA. Seeing the dogs comfort the victims’ families just cemented for me how incredible these animals are. These families would come in and get on the boat and go down the Hudson River (to near the World Trade Center site) and throw wreaths and flowers into the water to remember their loved ones.
The people came in and at first weren’t really talking to each other. But when the dogs came on the boat they started to smile and they started to have conversations with each other. Or they had conversations with the dogs. It was such a change of feeling when those dogs came on the boat. These dogs do so much for us. This was a life-changing experience.
I had the idea of forming the foundation to help provide assistance dogs for children and adults with disabilities, and to help smaller rescue shelters that don’t get a lot of funding. I am very excited because we are going to be doing a lot of work for the foundation in 2011 to build that up.
Q. Several years ago you adopted a chocolate Labrador Retriever, named Sadie, who had never been walked for three years and had gotten fat. How is Sadie doing? Is she now the perfect dog?
Sadie will always be the perfect dog. She is a divine, sweet soul. We have had her now for about 3 years, she is about 8. She exercises all the time and is on a very good diet but she is a Labrador and it is difficult to keep that weight off. But she is very fit and is the light of our lives. In fact we are going to be adding another member to our family this year. A dog from somewhere, we don’t know yet, it is going to be from a rescue somewhere. We’ll know when we find him or her.