Imagine a household where dogs rule the roost, where out-of-control canines call the shots while their owners are left in the dog house. It’s all part of a day’s work for well-known dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, host of the hit television show It’s Me or the Dog on Animal Planet. The show takes Stilwell into the most chaotic canine households, where she uses the power of the clicker and other positive, reward-based dog training methods to address problem behavior and restore order. Her popularity has given her a powerful platform to take positive reinforcement training to the masses, demonstrating to millions of viewers throughout the world that training based on cooperation and kindness, not force, is the recipe for a happy, well-adjusted pet. A speaker at the upcoming ClickerExpo 2011 in Newport Beach, California, Stilwell will share her insights and her passion for positive, reward-based training. In this interview, Victoria Stilwell talks about how she channeled her passion for positive training to become one of the world’s most recognized and respected dog trainers.
Victoria, you had a successful acting career. What led to your interest in dog training?
I started a dog-walking business in order to make money to pay my way through drama school. I also wanted to learn another skill so that I would have a ”survival job” if acting jobs were hard to come by. After a few years doing both jobs simultaneously, I became a fulltime trainer, which was the best decision I ever made.
Do you feel your background in theater helps you as a dog trainer?
Absolutely! I am more sensitive to a dog’s emotional and physical experience, and I am a good observer of body language. I am more skilled as a communicator because of the acting training I have received. For example, I understand more clearly how my movement and the pitch of my voice might affect a dog’s behavior or the outcome of a situation. Working as an actor also made it relatively easy to train dogs in front of the camera.
How did you develop your training skills, and what made you decide to use positive reinforcement methods?
My training skills developed over time and I learned by self-study, working with mentors, attending seminars, and reading everything I could get my hands on. I worked in many different rescue shelters, too, which helped me hone my skills with difficult cases. When I first began training, I believed much more in pack theory and a fixed hierarchy, but over the years those beliefs have morphed into a much more realistic understanding of why dogs do what they do.
What led to your advocacy for force-free training?
I was more forceful with my training when I first began, but still never believed in physical punishment methods to suppress behavior, such as shock collars. I have always been horrified to see people using the “alpha roll” and other damaging methods to curb negative behavior. I have trained dogs long enough to know that using positive reinforcement training methods is the most humane and successful way to teach a dog how to live a happy life in a human world. I think that society needs to change the way it views dogs, and adopt a much kinder way of teaching. We know so much more about why dogs do what they do and what their experience of the world is like. There is no reason to teach a dog through fear, and I truly believe that those who still do are missing out. There is no power in dominating a dog; in fact, forceful domination is a manifestation of human insecurity and weakness. It is so much smarter to affect behavior without the use of force, so my mantra is ”Don’t Be Weak, Be Smart!”
As the host of Animal Planet’s It’s Me or the Dog, you have a tremendous platform from which to educate the public about positive reinforcement training. Do you feel that this has made a difference in the way that people perceive dog training and their relationship with their pets?
It does seem that public awareness of the power of positivity is growing when it comes to dogs, just as it has over the past few decades regarding child-rearing. I hope that It’s Me or the Dog has played some small part in that gradual transformation—our Positively.com website certainly gets an amazing amount of feedback. I am very lucky to have such a visible platform to help spread the word. The show appears in over 50 countries now, which is a reach much wider than I could ever have imagined when I came up with the idea six years ago. Having said that, there is a lot more to do, as dominance training methods are still celebrated in various media, which is sad and frustrating. The more trainers across the globe who use positive reinforcement methods, the better. There is definitely power in numbers.
When did you first introduce clicker training on the show? What has the response been?
I first introduced clicker training with a Husky called Diesel during the first season of my show in England six years ago. Diesel was a one-year-old male that was demonstrating increasingly threatening behavior toward his female owner. Until I arrived, Diesel’s owners, a couple, were trying to curb his behavior with confrontational methods, a strategy that was making the situation a lot worse. I introduced them to clicker training and almost immediately Diesel’s behavior began to change for the better. The couple was shocked that something so simple could achieve such life-changing results. Since then I have received thousands of e-mails asking me about clickers, and I have used clickers on many different shows over the seven seasons that I have filmed.
By the end of each episode, it is clear that you’ve made a difference in the lives of the featured pets and their families. Do you feel that the methods you teach give owners the tools they need to build on the progress they made, even after the cameras have stopped rolling?
Yes, and I always like to be truthful on my show. I don’t want to pull the wool over viewers’ eyes by pretending that everything is fixed and perfect when I leave. I work very hard to ensure maximum results in the time that I am given, and most of the dogs that I work with are well on the way to change by the time I leave. There are some dogs, however, that need more time to change. I like people to know that while positive reinforcement methods can yield some really quick results, every behavior and every dog is different and the time it takes to change can vary. I think it insults a dog’s experience and is very misleading to label something as a success when it clearly isn’t. Even though we have to edit 50 hours of footage into 42 minutes of air time per show, we still want to tell a truthful story. I follow up regularly with many of my clients from the show, as the relationships built with both the humans and dogs can be very strong after five pretty intense days of filming.
On the show, it seems that dogs’ behavior problems often stem from the people. What is the role of positive reinforcement in changing their attitudes and behavior?
I try to explain things in human terms because people are able to relate so much more. I don’t want to encourage anthropomorphizing, but it helps to explain a point sometimes. I think people really like the idea of training a dog through reward, play, and having fun. People love it when they see their dog responding and understanding them; that makes everyone feel good, which is the role positive reinforcement plays. Sometimes people point out that I don’t necessarily employ positive reinforcement on all of the humans on my show, and that’s fine. There have been a few people who needed a good talking to for the dogs’ sake, and I don’t have any problem using blunt honesty in those cases, since we’re talking about humans and not dogs. While there are a lot of similarities between humans and dogs in terms of how we experience emotions, there are obviously some major differences in our cognitive reasoning skill sets.
Have your positive reinforcement skills helped you work with your television crew?
I try to stay as positive as possible and I guess it is a testament that I have retained the same core crew over a number of seasons. We have a good working relationship and they love what the show is achieving. However, I am by no means perfect, and the pressure I feel doing the show when so many people (and dogs) are relying on me can be hard. Sometimes I fail, but most of the time I try to practice what I preach. Everyone on my crew, regardless of what they do, is important and valuable, and a show could not be made without all of them. I cherish them all and hope that I make the experience as good as it can be for them, too.
You are an inspiration to those interested in pursuing a career with animals. What advice would you give to someone interested in embarking on a career in dog training?
Love learning and keep learning! Don’t become a trainer if you don’t like and respect people as well as dogs, because you have to be a good people person in order to provide the best service. It is your job to encourage and motivate all your clients, human and animal, and to respect their experience. I shifted from acting to dog training because I felt far more fulfilled after dog-training sessions than I did after acting auditions. Acting is great when you have a job, but it can also be pretty soul-destroying looking for your next gig. With dog training, I came away from clients knowing that I played a role in making the dogs’ and owners’ lives better.
In your new book It’s Me or the Dog: How to Have the Perfect Pet, you say that the secret to successful training is to learn how to communicate with your dog in a way that the dog understands. What role does clicker training play in this?
Clicker training helps a dog learn and, in most cases, learn fast. It is such a wonderful way to not only increase learning capacity but to change emotion.
We are thrilled that you’ll be speaking at ClickerExpo 2011 in Newport Beach, California (January 21-23, 2011). What message would you like to share with people looking to advance their training skills?
I love learning and I am always trying to improve myself and my skills. I love coming up with new ideas and new methods to approach a problem—it keeps the job interesting! Attending conferences like ClickerExpo and meeting other trainers is always valuable and stimulating.
January is National Train Your Dog Month. What advice would you give to pet owners looking for training assistance?
Make sure that you use a positive trainer who will use humane methods and help teach you to teach your dog. Locate a Karen Pryor Certified Training Partner in your area, or use the Find a Trainer section of my website to locate a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer. Run very fast from trainers who advocate the use of choke chains, prong collars, or shock collars, or who use physical punishment or any kind of force. “Yank ‘em, crank ‘em training” needs to become a thing of the past.