Nearly 20 years later, Stilwell is at the top of her dog-training game, having parlayed it into Animal Planet's hit TV series, It's Me Or the Dog. There's lots more where that came from. Since coming to the U.S. in 1999, the Wimbledon native has established several successful East Coast dog-training companies, has written two bestselling books on canine care and is a columnist and commentator for about 12 million magazines and radio outlets. Last year, she launched Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT), a worldwide network of 60 professionals dedicated to success through positive reinforcement methods.
She's also looking forward to her visit to San Diego later this month as the city holds its biannual Pet Expo and hosts this year's Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference (as you might have guessed, she's an association member).
But it's the part about positive reinforcement that pushes Stilwell's buttons. When the subject comes up, the girlish laugh and ear-to-ear grin, heard and seen the world over, give way to her fiercely protective side. She's blunt and forthcoming about her methods as the key to reversing obnoxious dog behaviors, adding that that method has been the training of choice for years.
Legions of households, Stilwell told San Diego Pets, have adhered to dominance training methods—yanking on a leash, raising the voice, spanking or forcefully nudging into submission—in their efforts to curb a pet's unruliness. In so doing, she contended, they're only fueling the original problems.
“The people who spend their lives studying dog behavior,” she said, “have for years been telling people not to use dominance-based training methods on their dogs. It heightens stress levels, it promotes aggressive response and it teaches a dog to suppress vital warning signals that can keep people safe. It is a dangerous methodology.”
An occasional growl or bark or lunge, she explained, is a natural part of canine language, a defense that sets boundaries for a person or another dog. “When you teach a dog to suppress these signals,” she said, “you effectively teach a dog not to warn. And a dog that doesn't warn becomes a very dangerous dog, because it goes straight to bite.
“When I see an 8-year-old child give a check on the choke-chain as a way to train a dog, it makes my blood boil. It's causing more people to get bitten and more dogs to become insecure in their relationship with their owners.”
Dominance training methods, Stilwell added, also show the dog that the trainer is violent himself. And since dogs are intelligent students, they'll often mimic the trainer's technique—sometimes with horrendous results that mark the darker side of American culture.
“Michael Vick served his time,” Stilwell noted, “but now he's out of jail, and he's getting a lot of his endorsements back. What kind of message does that send? It's almost as though it's being celebrated. You fight your dogs, kill, torture, serve a couple years in jail and then get more kudos than ever.”
Vick, a quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles NFL franchise, pleaded guilty in 2007 to federal felony charges connected with his involvement in an interstate dog fighting ring. He served 21 months in prison, followed by two months in home confinement.
“Does dominance training work?” Stilwell asked. “Yeah. It does. You can see quick results, to a point. But you haven't gone to the actual cause: Why is the dog lunging? Why is the dog barking? You've suppressed the behavior, but you haven't asked why. Trainers like myself ask why. If the dog is insecure, why is it insecure? And 99 percent of dogs that aggress are insecure or unconfident. A confident dog has no need to aggress!
“Everything an aggressive dog does is labeled as though he wants to be top dog, as it were. That's not it at all. A dog's just trying to cope with the crazy, human domestic environment it has to live in.”
And since dogs can't communicate in our language, Stilwell said, the only way to cross the border is to meet them halfway. You do that by establishing an intimate relationship with the animal—by looking for and addressing otherwise unapparent stressors and rewarding with food or toys, but only those for which the animal shows the most interest. The best way to rehabilitate an aggressive dog, Stilwell said, is to change how he perceives the stimuli that make him anxious. Slowly show the dog that the thing he fears is no longer scary.
Above all, Stilwell urged: Be kind. Never hit, never yank, never scold. Don't combat fear with fear.
Stilwell lives in Atlanta with her actor-publicist husband Van Zeiler, her daughter and Sadie, a chocolate lab (seen on the cover)—except for Oct. 12 to 16, when she'll attend the Association of Pet Dog Trainers meeting at San Diego's Town and Country Resort and Conference Center. In addition to the customary meet-and-greets, she'll be unveiling her new desensitization method involving music therapy as a cure for canine phobias, and she'll be meeting with Julie Schmidtt of La Mesa and Linda Michaels of Solana Beach, her local VSPDT trainers. The San Diego Pet Expo, to be held Oct. 15 and 16 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, is also on Stilwell's schedule.
But the meetings contain no fixes for the sins of the past.
“The trauma [of dominance training and ill-treatment],” Stilwell said, “has been imprinted on your dog's brain for life. The brain does not erase fear memories, whether in dogs or in people. But what you can do as a trainer and as a person is that you can take that trauma and make it into something that fades, that has a different association. I teach the dog that an approaching hand brings good things at all times.”
For more on Stilwell and her efforts, see her website at positively.com.