To call Victoria Stilwell outspoken is an understatement. For example, the dog trainer and behavior consultant describes dominance training — a controversial method that uses fear as a motivator — as “the greatest tragedy to happen in dog training today.” Quite simply, “It’s bullying. Dog bullying.”
But Stilwell is not all in-your-face all the time. She’s active in working with rescue groups and shelters, among other groups, and she has adopted two dogs of her own. Stilwell’s most prominent role is host of the Animal Planet show, It’s Me or the Dog, which she describes as something of a fluke.
“I was lucky enough to come up with an idea that took off very quickly,” she said.
Stilwell explained that as she watched an episode of the TV show Super Nanny, she thought, “I do exactly the same thing with dogs.” So she contacted the producers, shared her idea for a dog training show, and a few months later they were filming the pilot. Eight years later, the show is still going.
I recently visited Stilwell at her home in Atlanta. While I wanted to learn about her show and the numerous projects she’s involved with, I also wanted to get her opinions on some more controversial topics that affect people and their dogs.
Stilwell explained her overall approach on working with dogs as “taking a firm but fair approach.”
“I don’t believe in physical punishments,” she said. “Discipline is used to guide rather than to instill fear. I want my dogs to follow me because they are encouraged, like it, and are having fun because it’s based on play, rather than this ridiculous dominance and submission methodology which is prevalent in society now, and which is so sad.”
Early in the interview I felt her passion for dogs and all animals. What followed was a frank and direct conversation on the topics that affect all canine-loving people.
I believe there’s a shift happening with people and their acceptance of positive reinforcement training versus dominance training. Stilwell agreed but said it’s happening slowly.
People are “creatures of habit,” she said, “and people like to be in control. When your dog is behaving badly, it almost validates your behavior towards your dog.”
She said she and her daughter recently attended a charity event where they noticed a woman with her three dogs, and each dog was wearing a shock collar. One dog was cowering because the lady continued to shock the dog, trying to get the dog to obey her instructions. Stilwell approached the lady, politely explained that she didn’t have to continue to treat the dog in this manner, and offered to provide her with some free training techniques that would allow her to dispense with the shock collar. Unfortunately, the lady was either offended or embarrassed and left abruptly.
Stilwell is direct with people who insist on using shock collars, especially if they have children. She will ask them, “Why don’t you take your shock collar off your dog and put it on your child?” As they gasp and state they would never do that, Stilwell replies, “Then why put it on your dog?” A dog has a central nervous system just like a child does. A dog has the same ability to feel emotion like we do, and a dog has feelings. She explained that emotions are biological reactions to our environment. Feelings are human interpretations of our emotions. A dog’s outward expression of emotions is very similar to humans. Getting that information to the general public is really hard. But, she said, the scales are tipping, and we are getting wiser.
We discussed responsible breeding versus animal rescue organizations, and the challenges of each. We agreed that backyard breeding and puppy mills are, without a doubt, unacceptable. On breeding by registered American Kennel Club breeders, Stilwell said people have a “hilariously narrow-minded view” of the organization. The American Kennel Club does great work in humane education, influencing kids, and charitable work. But she believes there’s “plenty of room for improvement in the areas of breeding standards.”
“Also,” she continued, “there are those who hide behind the guise of the American Kennel Club, registering and breeding dogs in no better than a puppy-mill environment.”
She shared a similar view of the Humane Society of the United States, characterizing some of its work as good and some as not-so-good. We concurred that the two organizations will probably never wholly agree on most matters and, unfortunately, will probably not work better together as a result.
Rescue organizations and county shelters also face great challenges, said Stilwell, who works closely with numerous rescue groups and has two adopted dogs. The number of animals being brought into shelters daily continues to grow. There are shelters that are too small to house the animals and, in some cases, the facilities are very outdated.
“Setting aside the egos of the employees and volunteers that run the shelter or organization in order to focus on the bigger picture of helping the animals should always be the objective of any shelter or rescue organization.” Stilwell said, “I don’t know if it’s changing. I don’t think it’s getting any better. No-kill sounds wonderful. [It suggests that] all the animals are going to be saved. In reality, though, some animals are in little kennel runs for weeks, months, years. What kind of life is that?”
Stilwell said she understands the challenges county shelters face, in that they often have to pick up animals that are in very difficult situations. However, she also said that some county shelters are a disgrace, and some of the workers horrible and interested in working there only because it is a county job.
“Visiting some of the county shelters is like going into hell,” she said.
Most people have the best intentions and want to make a difference, she said, but we all need to stay focused on the end result — helping the animals.
In Georgia, where Stilwell and I both live, the voters passed the Georgia Responsible Dog Owner Act, which replaces outdated laws and puts responsibility for the actions of dangerous dogs squarely on the dog owners.
“This law strengthens victims’ rights no matter what the breed of the dog,.” she said. “However, as the law is currently written, it’s difficult for counties to prosecute. Most citizens don’t know about the law, and law enforcement isn’t trained to recognize and enforce the law. The puppy-mill laws enacted in Pennsylvania [which aim to eradicate puppy mills in that state] are great, but there’s no one enforcing them. It’s unfortunate that, in most cases, something terrible has to happen in order for the laws to be enacted and enforced.”
Breed-specific laws are, “devastating, wrong, not needed, and don’t achieve what they’re set out to achieve,” Stilwell said. This rang especially true in the case of Lennox, who was euthanized in Belfast, Northern Ireland, simply for looking like a Pit Bull. Stilwell blamed the egos of the members of the Belfast City Council.
“They were hiding behind the law and were not going to release Lennox no matter the public outcry,” she said.
Stilwell and her group of supporters are still on the case, and she says those involved should be concerned.
”They think we are all going away, but we haven’t,” she said. “One day, people who did some very bad things are going to be exposed. Don’t think Lennox has been forgotten because he hasn’t.”
Stilwell shared that in England, there are no official dog parks, and dogs are allowed to walk and play off leash in the parks and green spaces. The U.S., however, has such strict leash laws that it leads to leash aggression within our dogs. Stilwell stated that, “Trainers like me deal with leash aggression more than any other behavioral issue in the U.S.”
Stilwell also leads dog-bite prevention task force that travels the country educating and informing people (including children) about how to remain safe around dogs. She also posts videos on YouTube through eHowPets on basic dog training as well as amazing dogs and people. This year she plans to start a dog training academy as part of her Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainers program and is scheduled to release a new book, Train Your Dog Positively, in March.
At the close of the interview, Stilwell left me with one final thought. People often tell her, “There’s more than one way to train a dog,” she said, to which she replies, “Yeah there is. There is a right way and a wrong way. Dominance training is wrong, plain and simple.”
For more information or to find a Victoria Stilwell-licensed VSPDT dog trainer, visit her official site.
Photos via Tim Link and Victoria Stilwell’s Facebook page.