Victoria Stilwell Promotes Positive Dog Training on Television

Wait a second. What does this word "heel" mean to a dog? It means


Entering its sixth season, the Animal Planet TV channel’s “It’s Me or the Dog” takes dog trainer Victoria Stilwell into the homes of frustrated couples and families to help them troubleshoot issues with their problem pooches. Broadcast in 21 countries, the show was based for its first four seasons in Stilwell’s native United Kingdom, while the past two seasons have seen the show move to U.S. soil, taping in Los Angeles and Atlanta.

Victoria Stilwell

photo courtesy Victoria stilwell


Stilwell is also author of It’s Me or the Dog: How to Have the Perfect Pet (Hyperion Books, 2007) and Fat Dog Slim: How to Have a Healthy, Happy Pet (Collins, 2007). Stilwell’s mission is to bring her positive training message to the masses. We had time to sit down with her in Atlanta, in between West Coast swings, to talk about her work.

Whole Dog Journal: How did you come to positive training?

I remember when I was first starting to learn and I was walking dogs and teaching them to heel. The way that we used to teach them to heel was to give them a leash jerk, and then the dog would stay by your side for a little bit. But then I thought, Wait a second. What does this word “heel” mean to a dog? It means, I say the word “heel,” and then it means leash jerk! The dog’s not learning to walk close to me because he wants to, he’s learning to walk close to me because he fears what’s going to happen to him if he doesn’t. I have to say this was a long, long, time ago. I thought, “This is bizarre, this is stupid; surely there’s a smarter way.”

I learned from a behaviorist who was very mixed – using traditional and positive training – and then I met some more positive reinforcement trainers in the U.K. and I said That’s it! That’s it! That feels much more comfortable, that makes sense, to build a relationship that’s based on cooperation, not dominance. Much better!

Describe your training philosophy.

I believe the best kind of leaders lead without force. In the beginning when I first started learning, I learned sort of a mixture. I never felt comfortable using that kind of approach (traditional methods); this was about 15 years ago when I first got into training. I realized the dogs actually responded much, much better when you used positive reinforcement. You reward a behavior you like, and there’s a chance of that behavior being repeated. It’s as simple as that!

I didn’t like jerking a dog on a leash, and I didn’t like yelling. I used to use quite loud sounds – sound aversion – that I don’t use now. I learned different methods from different people, and took the stuff I liked. The discipline now that I like to use is guidance. It’s constructive discipline, not destructive. I would say I’m not violently positive [laughs] because I do believe that there has to be discipline; I do believe at certain times you have to say no to your dog. The discipline that I use now is a vocal sound as an interrupter of behavior, a time-out (removal), or ignoring the behavior.

Who are your mentors or from whom do you take inspiration?

Dr. Ian Dunbar. Patricia McConnell – big time; I just love her books, she’s God’s gift to training. Suzanne Clothier – I think she’s a real pioneer, she’s intense, she has a mind that puts all of our minds to shame. She’s an incredible person. If anybody should pick out the Obama family puppy, she should. Jean Donaldson. I’ve learned a lot from her. I’ve also got some fabulous trainer friends here [in Atlanta], wonderful people. And that’s what I love as well. I would say for any trainers, try and get with other trainers because it’s so wonderful to be able to talk through ideas.

For example, one dog on my program, a Boxer, who was on the first program we filmed here in the U.S., I had three days with this dog, which was not long enough. He was very dog-aggressive, very insecure, very unconfident. By the end of the program, we could only get him to a certain point, so we’re still working with him. Unfortunately, after filming, he blew out two knees, so he was in a crate for six months, basically. So we’re back working with him again now, and my trainer friends, we all do it together. We go and it’s two hours of absolutely inspiring, stimulating, exciting work; I love it. I love when we train together.

And the trainers I hang out with, we are open to seeing other things. We might not agree with them, but we are open to seeing. There are a couple of incredibly good trainers I know who work with very difficult dogs, and they use remote [collars]. I was open to going and seeing this method. Now, whether you agree with it or disagree with it – I don’t really like it – but I’m open to seeing it. And I think that’s the mark of a good trainer; you must know what else is out there in order to be able to form your own opinion.

Do you see a general trend toward positive or more traditional (compulsion-based) methods?

In England, there’s much more positive reinforcement. There are still some traditional and compulsion trainers there, but I think they’re much further ahead in England when it comes to training dogs. Whereas here in the United States, I’m absolutely shocked at the amount of traditional/compulsion trainers still training this way, who truly believe and “validate” what they’re doing. “My dog’s well behaved [due to compulsion-based methods].” “I’m going to get my dog to do what I want it to; I’m going to make my dog well behaved.”

I see it in trainers who have been training for many, many years who do not want to change their ways, but also I have to say . . . some TV programs that are now very popular have set dog training back 40 years. No TV program is perfect. Surely there’s stuff with mine that maybe I would change. For example, we didn’t show more process, so it seems like a quick fix.

But, on the whole, the positive reinforcement message is getting out. There are two camps; there is a battle going on and I will fight it. Any person who trains in the dominance style of traditional training does not have my vote. It’s the idea that if your animal misbehaves you discipline it, you dominate it, you make it submissive toward you so that it doesn’t misbehave anymore. But there’s no emphasis on relationship.

Why not use aversives, especially when they work?

They work to a point. “Quick fixes very quickly come unstuck,” that’s my motto. I would rather my dog follows me and does stuff for me because she wants to, rather than because she’s made to. And unfortunately, there are people who don’t care. As long as their dog behaves, they don’t care [what method they use]. But I care and I think that we, who domesticated these animals, we’d better do our utmost to make their lives as rewarding as we can because we brought them into our homes. They’re living, breathing, essential beings, and they need our support to live in our domestic world.

How do you feel about taking on the challenge of re-training the world’s dog owners not to use force and violence?

I feel very honored by the challenge. I’m by no means the best trainer in the world, I’ve never claimed to be. I just had an idea for a TV program; I wanted to take my positive reinforcement message out to the masses and it worked. I feel very honored, but I’m a bit of a fighter. And people who know me know that I’m a fighter, and I’m going to win this battle.

How do you educate people about positive training? What do they want to hold on to about traditional training?

I tell them, first of all, if you are learning, when you went to school, what kind of schooling would you have preferred to receive? Would you prefer to learn by getting gold stars for working really well, or would you prefer to learn by being punished if you weren’t? In nursery school, I remember getting a ruler on my hand! I was three years old, and I remember that. And I hated it, and I hated the teachers, and I couldn’t wait to leave and I would cry and pretend I was sick to my Mom so I didn’t have to go. Then I went to a new school, and it was reward-based, with wonderful teachers, and I wanted to go to school, I wanted to learn, and I learned much more! That’s the kind of education that I wanted to receive. And it’s your responsibility to give your dog a good canine education.

But let’s get down to the very crux of the problem: people don’t have time. So if the shock works on their dog, that’s bloody well going to do it. They don’t have time.

Many people say, “Give me something that works quickly.” Which is why the CM (Cesar Millan) program . . . it’s edited beautifully to make it look so wonderful, but it’s interesting because some of the cases on there that are labeled “successes,” are so not successful to a trainer’s eye; we’re howling at the television. This dog is freaked out, yet it’s labeled a success, and that’s what people are watching, that’s what people are thinking. And unfortunately, people do not have time to read, they don’t want to be educated, it’s a fast society; get my dog to behave and that’s enough. And that’s what we’re battling.

That begs the question of why, in our time-crunched society, are people getting dogs?

Companionship. [But sometimes] it’s a pleasure for when they want it, and obviously, a lot of it is a fashion statement. I always say to people when they want to get a dog: What do you think you can offer the dog? If a dog was going to choose to come into your home, what experiences do you think it would have? How do you think it’s going to feel, living with you? Tell me about you? Do you shout a lot? Do you sleep a lot? Tell me about you. And then see what kind of dog might be able to live with you. And if you think you don’t have time, and you’ve got five kids – well, don’t do it.

How do you feel about trying to educate people about the science of behavior modification versus what people think of as training – making the dog just do something, as quickly as possible?

I ask them, what kind of leader do you want to be? Do you want your dog to look up to you and do things because he wants to, or do things because he fears you? You choose. If you want the former, I’ll work with you. If you want the latter, I’m not your person and I’ll caution you against it. Do you want to have a relationship built on cooperation, or one built on domination? You can go down the other route, it’s your prerogative, but I feel sorry for your dog. And I feel sorry ultimately for you because I think you’re going to encounter a lot of problems with your dog in the future.

Are people able to get their brains around what you are saying?

They really are. I can be pretty blunt, but I’m also compassionate.

Those of us who use positive training can get frustrated when we see someone using aversives. How do we convince someone that there is another way?

Victoria Stilwell



If you fight fire with fire, you’ll get burned. The person will get irritated.

I try to explain, “Hey, there’s a different way, and it’s exciting!” I was on a beach in Florida, and a guy was walking his Golden Retriever and it was lunging at other dogs, and he would slam it down, put it in an alpha roll and stand over it, then he’d get up, walk, and then another dog would go past, and the dog would lunge, and he would slam it on the ground. My husband said to me, “Oh no, please, don’t go over there.”

But it’s like stopping a raging bull. I said, “I’m not going to go over there and slam him. I’m going to go over, introduce myself, say who I am, and tell him there’s a better way.” And I worked with him for a half an hour, and we had the dog not lunging at other dogs that were walking past. And the owner said, “Oh my gosh! That’s amazing!” It’s not amazing, but for people who haven’t seen it before, it is.

What about when people object to training with food?

“Oh, I’m bribing my dog.” No you’re not, you’re giving incentives! I say, look, you don’t have to use food! Find out what your dog’s most powerful motivators are: food, toys, play, praise, or something else? Let’s find out. Many people think positive reinforcement trainers only use food, but we don’t. I reinforce everything all the time, but I’ll do it with praise, and the next time with food, then the next time with praise, then I’ll pet the dog; I vary it. But I believe that we need to give feedback.Your expectation is there will always continue to be rewards of some sort?

Yes! Mark it, as you like to be marked, “Oh, you look nice today,” or “That was a really good job!” Mark it, it makes them feel good. Let’s make our dogs feel good about what they are doing!

I’ve heard you say that people who train dogs need to love not only dogs, but people.

Absolutely, and I do love people, and I think that is the most important thing. Because if you do not have the ability to change the person’s mind, to encourage the person to change, to encourage the person to train her dog, and to carry on training, you’ve failed. Show them that they can get results the other way and then people have an “Oh my gosh” moment: “I couldn’t believe that my dog would do this!” and the dog’s looking much happier. And the relationship begins to grow.

So do you come at it with the approach of dealing with the people, first?You bet. Always. It surprises me how many trainers out there are not “people people.” I don’t think you can be a good trainer without being a people person. What I’ve found that’s so important when I go into a home, I get the person to talk to me. I don’t just go in – even though it seems that way in the program. We have a day, and I’m looking, I’m observing all day and then I get the person to talk. I’m listening, listening, listening, and get the real story. You find so many clues from what people have to say. Finally, they’ve got someone who’s listening to them.

Sometimes people cry, sometimes they get very angry. And then I always tell people, “You know what? You can trust me. I’ve got your back. I’ve got your dog’s back. Even though this is a TV program, I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure you’re in a better place when I leave.” And that immediately puts people at ease. They’re pretty shocked that, after the program, “You’re going to keep in contact with me?” Yeah, you’re a client! We don’t just go away.

What are the most common mistakes you see people making when they do use positive training techniques?

You can teach “obedience training” very quickly with positive training. But when you’re trying to change a behavior, that’s what people don’t understand; they want quick results. Traditional training methods suppress the behavior; that’s what they’re “designed” to do. They don’t change the way the dog feels. Whereas positive training changes the way a dog feels inside. For anybody, human or dog, making that emotional change can sometimes take time.

I put it in human terms. I say, look, if somebody is suffering from anxiety, and they’re going to a psychiatrist, do they go for one session? No they don’t, they go for many. And even at the end of that, they might not be 100 percent. But they’ll have coping mechanisms, and they begin to feel different. And some will do a complete turnaround, others might just do three-quarters. I’m not equating dogs to humans, obviously, but you sometimes have to use a human example, otherwise sometimes people don’t get it!

But when I explain that a dog’s brain is similarly wired to a human’s in terms of emotion, they go, “Oh, yeah, it does take a long time to change emotion in humans, so I guess it can take a long time to change emotion in dogs if the dog’s brain is like a human’s. That’s fascinating, I didn’t know that!” Understanding that positive training takes time, but ultimately, you’re going to have a dog who feels better! Your dog is happier, and your life is made easier. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.

What do you think about the behavior problems we see today? Do you think we have so many more canine behavior problems than in the “old days”?

I think there have always been a lot of behavior problems, but dogs had been working. That was what a dog was for. And now, dogs are living with the pressures of our weird domestic society. They can’t pee and poop in the house; they have to do it outside. And they can’t bark, and they can’t tell another dog to go away, ’cause they’ll get told not to, even though they’re scared. And they’re having to meet other dogs every day, even though they might not be sociable, and then you’ve got kids and other people . . . it’s a lot of pressure! No wonder!

Plus, the ridiculous industry of puppy mills, which is just breeding dogs with no attention to temperament. It’s a money machine, so we’re getting messed-up dogs out there with anxieties and medical issues.

That’s where America is so backward. I’m sorry! Get with the program! Regulate these puppy mills, shut them down! If you want a puppy industry, regulate it. I don’t believe there should be an industry at all, but if there’s going to be one, get with the program, get smart. Same in Britain. Even though they’re not allowed to sell pets in pet stores anymore, you can still get puppies online.

What is the most common behavior problem you encounter today?

A lot more anxieties, a lot more separation anxiety. A sense of abandonment. There are a lot of reactive dogs out there. Temperament-wise, we are seeing a lot more dogs with aggression issues because of the way they’re bred. That’s very worrying. Also, we’re seeing a lot of aggressive dogs from people who have trained in the traditional style. I don’t care what you label aggression – protection, whatever – I believe aggression comes from an underlying insecurity. A confident dog doesn’t feel the need to aggress. It comes from an underlying insecurity.

What are some of the most rewarding or difficult cases you’ve worked on?

Junie B, a very aggressive little Poodle [U.S. season one]. Junie B hated boys, hated men, loved the girls. Now Junie B hangs out with the little boy in the family and his friends, she’s letting the husband take her for walks, she’ll voluntarily jump up into his lap and go to sleep. It’s so beautiful.

Also, two pit bulls I worked with, belonging to a guy named Victor [U.S. season two]. One was dog-aggressive. Victor was so overwhelmed, very emotional, and now the change has been incredible. Both of these were people who really worked. They were passionate about their dogs and worked at it. And that feels so good.

Both families, they didn’t relish being on TV. It’s funny, because a lot of people say, “Oh it’s because they want to be on TV,” but a lot of the families don’t. They see it as an opportunity. “We’re going to air our dirty linen and we’re going to do it because our dogs are worth it.”

We had a neglected pit bull-mix, out of control. On the day of observation, I went in there, and I said I don’t believe you should have this dog, you should not keep this dog. This dog is not going to be successful in your home. Let’s work to get it to a point where he’s adoptable and re-home him. For those people, I knew that I had to get the dog out of there. Whether it’s a TV program or not, I will not allow a dog to continue in an abusive or a neglectful situation. I think sometimes that there are people who get dogs, and it’s the wrong thing. As long as they can work hard to re-home, think what’s better for the dog.

You speak a lot about rescue; why is this important to you?

I started in rescue; I was a volunteer, I’ve volunteered all my life in rescue. I remember when I was a volunteer dog walker at a shelter – however many years ago that was, I’m getting so old! There was this little black dog, terrified of people, and then this child came along and she started petting this dog. And I was saying “Stop!” and this dog just loved her. And I went, Oh my gosh, you’re terrified of adults, but not children! That was when I realized that I loved this. So I’ve done rescue now for 15-16 years. I liked to see how dogs developed and how from a horrendous abandonment situation they would then go to a new home.

I wish we didn’t have to have rescue shelters but we always will. Helping is something valuable you can do for your community. You can do so many things – you can donate things, you can donate money, or you can bring in blankets, toys. You can take dogs for a walk, or you can just go and hang out with a dog. We get our volunteers at PAWS Atlanta (a private shelter in Atlanta) to take the dogs out and just hang out. The dogs learn to be calm when they need to. I do rescue work when I can, which is not that much these days, at PAWS Atlanta, and I work with three other volunteer trainers there.

In addition to rescue, I’m passionate about getting puppy mills closed down or regulated. I’m going to be marching in Pennsylvania demonstrating against the puppy mills up there for Puppy Mill Awareness Day in September.

I’m also setting up a foundation, which I’m very excited about. It’s “Victoria Stilwell’s Think Dog Foundation.” We’re going to support smaller shelters, and also help children with disabilities with assistance dogs. The foundation is going to help give out money to those various groups, and we expect to launch it in early summer 2009.

Lisa Rodier lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, with her husband and two Bouviers.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here