It is not lost on me that while I am on the phone with
Victoria Stilwell, chances are that countless people
are simultaneously watching her on their TVs. As the
much-adored host of Animal Planet’s hit series It’s Me
Or The Dog and judge on CBS’s Greatest American Dog,
Victoria Stilwell is fast becoming a household name in over 40
countries. Originally from Wimbledon, England, Stilwell has,
in recent years, become one of the world’s most recognized
and respected dog trainers. In addition to her on-air work, her
highly-acclaimed books It’s Me or the Dog: How to Have the
Perfect Pet (Hyperion; 2007) and Fat Dog Slim: How to Have a
Healthy, Happy Pet (HarperCollins; 2007) strengthen both her
positive reinforcement message and her fan
base alike.

All told, this one-time actor—who boasts
gigs performed on the stages of London’s
esteemed West End—is today a mindbogglingly
popular dog guru whose star continues
to rise. Evidence of this was a recent
People’s Choice Award nomination for It’s
Me Or The Dog as Best Animal Show.

Any suspicion, however, that fame has
gone to her dog-loving head can quickly be
quashed. Actively committed to promoting
animal welfare issues, she’s been affiliated with a wealth of
rescue groups internationally: Paws Atlanta, Stray from the
Heart (NYC), Hong Kong Dog Rescue, Greyhound Rescue of
West England, the ASPCA, the Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project,
and Jana Kohl and the Waterside Action Group. Simply put,
her passion for all things canine is the real deal.

MD: Have you always been a dog person?

VS: We were never allowed to have dogs, growing up. The
reason was that my parents weren’t dog lovers. Where I did
get my love of dogs from was my grandmother, who bred
Beagles. She was a very responsible breeder. She didn’t do it
for money, it was all about love for the breed. She was a passionate
dog person. She grew up in a wealthy family and her
brothers were a lot older than she was, so she basically spent
all of her time with her dogs and the chauffeurs in the early
1900s. Dogs became her friends.

MD: It’s interesting that this intense love for dogs ended up
skipping a generation.

VS: Yes. My mother will admit that. But it has.

MD: When did you realize that dogs would be part of your

VS: I didn’t realize it until I moved to Manhattan in 1999.
Before that, I’d always been an actor, and dog training was
sort of my second income. As an actor, you always have to
have a way to provide for yourself, so training was my survival
job. Then, I started to become a lot more involved in rescue
and I started to see that I was happier training dogs than I was
going to casting. I would go to an audition and
feel terrible when I came out and then I would go
to a training session and feel fantastic.

MD: When you think about the difference
between those two audiences—one a panel of
entertainment professionals and the other a panel
of the most unconditional species on the planet—
it makes sense.

VS: You’re so right. And I think something
or someone was pointing the way for me: Go!
The transition for me was, “Shall I jump in with
two feet and do this full time?” And I did, and I
haven’t looked back. Now it’s grown into something so big I
could never really have imagined it.

MD: It’s that idea of “Leap, and the net will appear.”
What is it like for you, given your history as an actor, to be
able to merge your two skillsets as entertainer and dog trainer
into one on-air personality?

VS: I think my acting background made it a lot easier.
Acting made me a better observer of body language, gave me
an understanding of pitch, and how I use my body to communicate
with dogs. It made me more aware. The thing that was
really hard, being on-air, is that when I train, timing is really
important. But then, when you have a camera on you, you
have to learn how to train a dog in front of a camera. And that
was difficult. That required some learning. It may look easy on
TV, but it was pretty tough.

MD: The things that look the easiest, often do so because they
are being handled by a professional. Ellen DeGeneres makes comedy
look easy. An NFL star makes football look easy. So you’re
obviously doing something right.

VS: Yeah!

MD: In terms of your philosophy when it comes to training
dogs, you very much believe in the concept of “Think dog.” Can
you tell us what that means?

VS: I really believe that in order to understand your dog better,
to train your dog better, you need to think about how your dog
sees the world, then use that knowledge. We so often don’t think
about what the dog’s experience is in the environment around
them. So many behaviour problems stem from environmental
cues. Whether it be from people or situations or events or places,
it’s really important to get down on the dog’s level and feel what
it must be like for a dog.

MD: Especially now when the tendency is to humanize dogs.
We dress them up, we call them our kids, we come to the relationship
expecting them to be little humans.

VS: Exactly. The amount of people I meet who treat their dogs
like children! And I’m not saying that’s wrong, because many of
the principles I use for training dogs have been used for training
children, but I think we have to celebrate their “dogdom” as well.

MD: Methods from trainer to trainer are the subject of great
debate. Why is it that you believe positive reinforcement contributes
more to a dog’s overall self-confidence?

VS: I believe we should teach a dog to cooperate with us. I
believe that we achieve a lot more if we give a dog a good life
experience. I prefer knowing a dog follows me around because it
wants to, not because it fears what’s going to happen if it doesn’t.
I want my dog to behave well because it wants to behave well.
I think that it’s a great human weakness to believe in punitive
training methods, and I believe it does great psychological damage
to the dog. We’re the ones with the bigger brain, so instead of
punishing the dog into behaving, can we not come up with something
that gives the dog confidence? I think it’s cowardly as well.
Anyone can train a dog by yanking a dog’s collar and putting it
over on its side.

MD: It’s reminiscent of schoolyard bullying, in some ways.

VS: It really is. I think it creates in our dogs a great uncertainty.
We know so much more about dogs now: The way the brain
works and the fact that they feel real emotion.

MD: What have you got for dogs?

VS: I have a chocolate lab, Sadie. She’s seven years old.

MD: Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

VS: Yes. Obviously the brain isn’t functioning as fast, and
actually the science shows that the brain of an older dog is
about 25 percent smaller than the brain of a younger dog.
The cells start dying off, so the messages don’t get around as
quickly. It might take a bit more time and patience, but you
can teach an old dog new tricks.

MD: What do you believe makes the relationship between
a human and a dog so unique and so cherished?

VS: In many ways, we are so similar.
Dogs desire play and we humans like to
play, too. Sports and games. In a very
basic way, we’re very alike. There’s no
difference between the emotional brain
of a dog and of a human. We’re wired
the same way. Even though our thinking
brain is much more complex, we have
similar emotional experiences. We both
feel fear, we both feel excitement, we both feel jealousy. And
when we stroke a dog, similar hormones are given off, like
oxytocin for example. Dogs love the feelings of calm and
love, just as we do. So chemically and emotionally, we are
very similar.

MD: You’re very active in puppy mills awareness. As
much media as there’s been on the subject, people are still
buying dogs from pet stores. What do you want people to
know about puppy mills?

VS: They really need to know that in buying from a pet
store, you’re making the problem worse. It’s supply and
demand and if demand is high, they’ll keep supplying. I
think people know it’s out there, but they don’t want to open
their eyes. That’s what really upsets me.
If they’d ever actually go to a puppy mill
and see the horrible conditions, they’d
see the bitches that spend their entire
lives in small cages.

It’s everybody’s problem. The way
we’re going to get this changed is legislation.
In every state. And until that
changes, these farmers are going to keep
getting rich. The farmers count on the “awww-factor,” that
we’re going to go into these pet stores and see these puppies
and go “awww” and buy them. And we have to stop.