Proof Positive

It’s Me or the Dog’s Victoria Stilwell, positive-reinforcement trainer and canine advocate.

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On her popular television show, It’s Me or the Dog, Victoria Stilwell dons tall, black boots and a stern expression as she visits clueless owners of out-of-control dogs. Beyond this intimidating exterior, however, is an award-winning dog trainer and writer dedicated to positive-reinforcement training.

In addition to filming in the United States and England, the Atlanta resident created an online home of positive training at Positively.com, where visitors can find advice from Stilwell and 20 other canine experts.

These multifaceted efforts garnered Stilwell the 2009 Trainer of the Year Award at the 55th Annual Purina Pro Plan Show Dogs of the Year Awards, held Feb. 13 in New York City. (For more about the event, see “The Purina Pro Plan Show Dogs of the Year” on page 8.) In light of this achievement, Stilwell gives us a behind-the-scenes peek at her life and work.

Q: When you first began It’s Me or the Dog, whose dogs did you film?
A: The show started in England, and the production company, which also produces the show Supernanny, advertised trying to find people out there who really needed help [with their dogs]. After the first show aired, I remember that overnight, the production company got about 500 calls from people. We sort of knew we were up to something pretty big right from the start.

Q: Do you notice differences between dog owners in the United States and owners in Britain?
A: You know, I don’t. I do think, however, that Britain is further ahead when it comes to positive reinforcement. It was quite a shock for me when I came to America [and saw that people] were still dominance training. Even though there were a lot of amazing positive-reinforcement people here, dominance training was, I suppose, more of the fashion.

That shocked me because we’ve come so far in the understanding of dogs and of dog behavior, [I thought] surely people knew now that that was old style that was based on flawed research and that it was detrimental to relationships. So I had to kind of restart people’s thinking, not that there weren’t people practicing positive reinforcement, but in media there was more of the negative old-style training.

Q: Did you have any mentors when you began training dogs?
A: I did. In Britain, I worked with Dr. Roger Mugford. I learned a lot from Ken Cochrane, a guy who’s actually very unknown, and I really loved his methods.
I was also reading books from people like Patricia McConnell, Ian Dunbar and Nicholas Dodman, and I think those three people have been the biggest influence on what I do and the way I think and the way I train. They’re now blogging on my website, which for me is, like, the hugest honor I really could get from these people.

Q: What lessons of theirs do you teach aspiring dog trainers?
A: I just think their humanity and common-sense way of thinking, obviously their years and years of research, their fascination for dog behavior, their complete understanding, their willingness to say, “Well, actually, something I did didn’t work. Now I have to rethink and try again.”

Q: Do you feel like you’ve seen everything when it comes to dog or owner behavior problems?
A: I’ve done nearly 100 shows now, and I always think, “I’ve seen it all.” Then something comes along, and I think, “Oh my gosh.” Either the situation is insanity or there’s a behavior I see and I go, “OK, I’ve never seen that before. Why is the dog doing that?”

Q: What’s one situation that made your eyes pop out?
A: One thing an owner was doing to discipline her puppy was bite it. Shocking, shocking, shocking. I almost fell off my chair. I saw her doing it. When the puppy was misbehaving, she went in for a big bite, and well, I told her what I thought. But I can do that on my show.

I just had one instance with a 5-month-old puppy that gets really, really angry when he’s put on the leash – angry to the point where he starts attacking the owner. An otherwise really lovely pup suddenly turns into Cujo when his owner wants to put him back on the leash, even after the dog’s been off the leash for one to two hours. That’s not something you come across very often, but it’s something I find fascinating.

Q: What other projects are you working on?
A: I’m currently building a global network of positive-reinforcement trainers under my Positively brand. This is the first-ever organization that you can use to find a trainer that uses positive reinforcement 100 percent.

We’ve had a lot of applications; we’re going through every application. Every person who applies goes through rigorous tests and evaluations to make sure they are what they say they are. We have people from England and Italy and Brazil and, obviously, here in the United States.

Q: Growing up, did you have any pets?
A: We had cats, but we didn’t have dogs. My parents weren’t big dog lovers, but my father could just about manage a cat.

My grandmother was a huge influence on me because she bred Beagles. I spent a lot of time with her growing up. She’d grown up in a very wealthy family, and her brothers were a lot older. The only friend she ever had was a Saint Bernard, so she became very attached to dogs. I always remember her telling that story, that the Saint Bernard and the chauffeur were her friends because there weren’t any other little girls around.

Q: But now you have a dog.
A: I do. Sadie. She’s a beautiful chocolate Lab, and she’s 7 now. I just can’t even imagine life without a dog now. I just can’t do it. She’s just a pure, wonderful soul. We’ve had her for two years now.

Q: Does your daughter have any hand in training her?
A: She does. In fact, when my daughter was 3 years old, she had a little toy Dalmatian, and I had given her a Dalmatian-patterned treat bag. I walked into the sitting room, and there was my daughter, standing in front of her little Dalmatian toy, telling her Dalmatian to “leave it,” sounding very much like her mother. I thought, “Oh my God, OK, oh dear.”

She’s very good around dogs. We talked a lot about how to be safe around dogs and what you must do, what you can’t do. She was pretty scared of dogs because of watching my show a lot. She would always say, “Please Mommy, make those naughty puppies good puppies.” But then Sadie came along. She and Sadie are completely inseparable. It’s lovely to see that.


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