Think Dog

Victoria Stilwell on taking the leap, reward-based training, and new tricks for old dogs

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 career?

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.

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