Unlike a lot of TV trainers, the star of Animal Planet’s It’s Me or the Dog doesn’t use heavy-handed methods to encourage good behavior in her canine guests, she turns to the positive reinforcement.
Dog trainers using aggressive methods are all too common on many TV reality shows, even though this isn’t what most animal lovers want to see. The star of Animal Planet’s hit show It’s Me or the Dog, is different. Now entering its eighth season, this popular series not only showcases Victoria’s talents as a positive dog trainer, but also her gifts for helping people understand how they’re contribute to “bad” behavior, and restoring harmony to households with major pooch problems.
Victoria was once an aspiring actress, working on television and in theater in London’s West End. “As an actor, you have to have a survival job, and mine was working with dogs and training them,” she says. “I started out walking dogs and got really interested in the whole training aspect. It was a natural progression. I worked with dogs during the day and did my acting at night, so it fit in really well.”
In 1999, Victoria and her husband moved to the United States, where she switched to dog training as a full-time job. She specializes in positive reinforcement rather than methods that position her as the alpha of the pack, as so many other trainers do. Victoria firmly believes that positive reinforcement is much more effective than dominance-based training, which she calls “highly flawed and potentially dangerous”.
“The initial results look impressive,” she explains, “but when you delve into what’s going on inside the dog, you see that dominance training is literally suppression of behavior. It doesn’t change how the dog feels, so the behavior can rear its head again. The dog is dominated into doing something, and that not only impedes the learning process but also the trust between dog and person.
“When you manhandle an animal and inflict pain, that dog is going to remember forever,” Victoria adds. “You’ve really tarnished your relationship. People will argue, ‘My dog loves me and wants to be with me.’ Dogs are so darned forgiving, and they want to please people so badly. When they’re handled in this manner, they try to appease their people because they have no other choice.
“You’re not dealing with robots. You’re dealing with animals. Dogs are amazing emotional beings. They’re predators with different drives and thought processes, and we need to respect that.”
Victoria sees dominance training as inherently cruel. “You see methods done on other shows where, if those methods were used on children, it would be called abuse,” she says. “Why is it okay to do this on dogs? We know the emotional part of a dog’s brain is wired in the same way as a human’s. Dogs feel the same fear, pain, joy and excitement as we do. Think what we’re doing to these animals psychologically when we’re using dominance training.
“You should never belittle a dog’s emotional experience. You can’t get rid of intense anxiety in a day. People go through therapy to deal with feelings like fear and anxiety and to learn how to cope, and dogs need time, too.”
Victoria says dominance-based methods are popular because they look like quick-fix solutions. “It looks sexy and incredible, and the results seem amazing. TV can make anything look great. But if you watch, you’ll see a dog in anxiety, a dog slinking off, a dog that’s very uncomfortable.
“On my show, we don’t say everything’s great. We say this is going to be a process. You’ll see shows where people didn’t follow up and ended up regressing with their dogs.”
A lot of work goes into the 44 minutes of footage you ultimately see on the air when you watch It’s Me or the Dog. A typical case involves shooting 56 hours of footage, which is then distilled down to show the highlights of the positive training process.
“I try very hard to make sure people are motivated enough to continue with the training after I go,” Victoria says. “As a species, people are inconsistent and lazy. Not only that, but we have busy lives. Positive reinforcement works very quickly, but it needs ongoing work.”
It’s Me or the Dog is just one small part of Victoria’s overall career. She’s also a prolific author and has started a certification program for positive dog trainers.
“Training is such an unregulated profession,” she says. “I want to help people find someone they can really trust. I’m doing this in response to hearing so many people tell me that a trainer came to their house, or they went to a class, and now their dog is upset or fearful or peeing all over. My trainers are the crème de la crème. They’re experts in their field and passionate about what they do, and they only use humane methods.” Her team of trainers is growing steadily but slowly because of the rigorous approval process. “We have to go through hundreds of applications to find the right people.”
Victoria cautions dog lovers searching for a trainer to make their selection very carefully. “Dominance-based trainers know the buzzwords now,” she warns. “Ask questions like ‘What kind of collars do you use? What do you think about pack theory? Are dogs lucid? How do you handle correction?’ If the trainer says you have to be the alpha, or uses things like choke chains and shock collars, run away.”
She also created the Victoria Stilwell Foundation, a charity that supports assistance dog organizations with money and training expertise. The foundation’s inspiration dates back to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York.
“I lived in Manhattan at the time and we were all very much affected by what happened. I was at the World Trade Center, volunteering with the ASPCA. It was my job to go down and make sure the therapy dogs being used with the victims’ families were healthy. Seeing the work those dogs did, bringing incredible comfort and making people feel better, reminded me of the sheer power of dogs in our lives. It takes a lot to train therapy and service dogs, but it’s such a great thing. We provide help for the groups that do it.”
Even though Victoria’s life could have taken a very different path, she’s never regretted her choices. “I loved acting, and I’ve been offered many parts on TV and in the theater. Maybe one day I’ll do a play again, but there’s nothing better for me than having this global platform to help dogs. I’m able to make a difference and affect change, and I’m honored to be able to do this.”