Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, she frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behaviour.
As we embark on a new series with Victoria and the Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training team, we've taken time out of her busy schedule to find out all about her own dogs.
Tell us about your dog, Sadie, we'd like to know everything about her and if you have any new dogs since we last spoke?
Actually, I have two dogs now – a chocolate Labrador named Sadie and a Chihuahua, Terrier, Dachshund mix called Jasmine.
They’re both rescues – we got Sadie about 5 years ago and Jasmine chose us almost 2 years ago now. They’re both total lovebuckets, though they’re completely different dogs. Sadie is pretty chilled, stable and low key (except when she’s on our long, mountain walks – then she’s a true hound), and Jasmine is a frenetic little bundle of nerves and energy.
Before we got her, Jasmine had been kept in a crate 24 hours a day for the first 6 months of her life. She was forced to pee and poop where she slept and ate, and her teeth are misformed due to her constant gnawing on the metal wires. She’s come such a long way since we got her – far more confident and self-assured, though there’s still plenty of work to be done to undo the horrors of her early start.
When did your interest in pets/animals begin and how long have you been a pet owner?
I’ve always loved animals – especially dogs – but my parents never let me have a dog of our own. We owned cats. My grandmother raised beagles, though, and ran one of the first dog grooming salons in London when she was younger, so I got my early ‘dog fixes’ from time spent with her and her dogs.
Once I was older, I was fortunately aware enough that my lifestyle was not conducive to being a responsible pet owner – I travelled too much in my work as an actress – but I fostered hundreds of dogs from local shelters wherever I lived. Finally, my personal and professional lives allowed me the time to provide a proper home for dogs about five years ago when we found Sadie.
You were drawn into dog training inadvertently while trying to forge a career in acting. Can you pinpoint the moment you decided working with dogs and understanding their behaviour was something you could and would dedicate your life to?
I had been training dogs professionally for many years because it was my ‘survival job’ as an actress. I’d spent many happy hours learning from the best positive trainers in Britain while also running a dog-walking business to help pay my way through drama school.
But throughout my acting career, I was constantly aware that I was deriving more satisfaction and enjoyment out of my work as a dog trainer than in the theatre. I would come out of auditions feeling drained and downtrodden, only to go to a dog training client that evening and feel fulfilled. So once I recognized that I loved dog training more than the business of acting (and trying to find acting work!), it was an easy, natural choice to move to dog training full-time.
Here in the UK and across the point in the USA, we know your for 'pull no punches' role on 'It's Me or the Dog' and you've developed your work to spread the word about better understanding of dog behaviour and responsible ownership through Positively.com. Tell us about the site and team you've built around the ethos.
I’m proud of It’s Me or the Dog and the other TV platforms I’ve been blessed with, but what I’m most proud of and excited about is that I’m in a position to help spread the word that the way we’ve been approaching our relationships with our dogs (and other pets) for decades doesn’t have to stay in the dark ages. There’s a better way!
Modern behavioural science has shown us that it’s more effective, longer-lasting and safer to train using positive reinforcement, while common sense and our innate sensitivities tell us that it’s also more humane. I want my dogs to follow me because they choose to, not because they’re scared of what will happen if they don’t. Positively.com is all about providing information to dog owners that the outdated concepts of ‘pack leaders’ and being the ‘top dog’ are not only less effective – they’re also downright dangerous.
I started Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT) so that the public could recognize and engage with a dog training brand and network that they knew would be positive and science-based. There’s no need to train with pain, fear or intimidation anymore. But unfortunately, a lot of those old dominance and punishment-based trainers started using buzzwords like ‘positive,’ ‘gentle’ and ‘reward’ in their marketing in an effort to dupe their customers into thinking that they were positive trainers. Lipstick on a pig.
VSPDT trainers are fully vetted and hand-picked by me because of their professionalism and shared passion for using only positive reinforcement principles in dog training. The idea is that the customer may not know the technical terms or the right questions to ask when deciding which dog trainers to hire, but they may recognize my work on It’s Me or the Dog and feel assured that anyone licensed by me shares my philosophies and training techniques. We now have VSPDT trainers all over the US, in many locations in the UK and several other countries.
We're about to embark upon a series to explain some of the most common dog behaviour problems owners encounter today with you and the Positively team. Are you excited and what is it you hope the series will accomplish?
People come to me every day wanting their relationship with their dog to be improved, and they’re usually willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. I’m very excited to be sharing dog training tips and ideas that people can use through this series, and I’m especially thrilled that my dynamic team of VSPDT trainers will be helping to contribute – they’re the best of the best and we all learn from each other every day.
I’m proud to be providing another outlet where we can all help more people build balanced, healthy relationships with their dogs that are based on mutual trust, respect and love rather than pain, fear and intimidation.
In your experience, do you feel modern life plays a role in more and more dog owners experiencing behavioural issues, small or big? For example, do you think our busy lives mean we're always striving for perfection or perhaps feel we could do better and neglect certain small problems which develop, or do you think more pet owners understand a little about behaviour problems, thanks to shows such as 'It's Me or the Dog' and so seek advice sooner?
Good question. I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that. On one hand, yes, I think there’s no doubt that our modern lifestyles are creating more behaviour problems in our dogs. For example, more people are working longer hours and leaving their dogs alone all day with little stimulation or outlets for their energy. This leads to acute boredom, which is the number one cause of behaviour problems from destructive chewing to housetraining to separation anxiety.
On the other hand, though, I think we are slowly making steady progress in our understanding of how our dogs think and feel and what they need from us to be successful. Modern behavioural science has already made its conclusion, but as is usually the case with science, it takes awhile for the general public to catch on. A lot of people still think of positive training as a cute little sideshow that’s helpful for naughty pocket dogs and stay-at-home moms, but that you need a heavier hand and some mystical presence over your dog to create something called ‘calm submission’.
But positive training is more than that, and it is the most effective tool to deal with severe aggression to common housetraining. I think the public is slowly becoming aware of the great con of the past decade that you’re supposed to dominate your dog into submission in order to achieve balance. Sure, we need to be leaders for our dogs, but it’s similar to child-rearing: we raise kids now much differently than we did a couple decades ago. Obviously dogs aren’t children and shouldn’t be treated as such, but the overall concepts are largely the same and I think the public is realising that.
Do you have a motto that you live your life by? What would you say Sadie's motto might be?
I’ve always liked the quote ‘If you don’t apply to Harvard, you’ll never get in.’ You have to try things in order to achieve things. You may fail, but that’s also how you learn. But I think the overarching premise of the Positively movement is that ‘Kindness is Powerful’. I worked with the great team at Dog is Good to create t-shirts with that slogan on them, and they really resonate.
But Sadie? Wow, I shudder to think. I’d say her most common thought throughout the day is, ‘I’d rather be getting a belly rub.’
If you were to swap roles with Sadie for a day, how do you think she'd cope being you and what would you most love about being her?
That’s a tough one. Sadie and I are very different characters, and I’m not sure either of us would really thrive in the other’s shoes. I’m pretty busy, like to stay moving to the next thing and get bored easily.
Next to romping on a long walk, Sadie loves nothing more than lounging and taking it easy. We’d both go crazy in a pretty short space of time, I think, but there’s no doubt that I would enjoy at least a little bit of ‘Sadie downtime.’
Describe the last time you laughed out loud because of something you saw Sadie, Jasmine or another dog do.
Well, we used to laugh a lot at how Jasmine uses Sadie as a bed, but it happens so frequently now (Jasmine spends half of her day on top of Sadie), it’s become pretty commonplace. I often get sent amazing dog videos or websites that show dogs doing amazing or funny things, though, and I usually get a good chuckle out of those.
If you could sum it up, what do you think is the best thing about being a dog owner?
The fact that no matter where you’ve been, how long you’ve been gone, what you have to do next, or what’s on your mind, my dogs love me and offer me such warmth and enthusiasm unconditionally every time I walk through the door. Imagine being as consistent as that: every single time someone returns to you, it is the most joyful, pure and beautiful moment of the day, and it gets to happen over and over. They’re amazing.
Finish the following sentence, my dogs are...one of the most consistent things in my life.
And finally, this is always a tough question and often requires a fair degree of thinking time but….If Sadie and Jasmine had the ability to speak and answer one question and one question only, what would you ask them and what do you think that they would say?
To Sadie, I’d ask how she manages to stay so laid back, and I think she’d simply reply, “Life is beautiful.” I don’t think I’d waste my one question on this, but I’m also dying to find out exactly how many bunnies she’s chasing in her dreams when her legs start twitching.
To Jasmine, I’d ask about her history before we knew her, and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t want to talk about it.
Many Thanks Victoria!
Victoria Stilwell Was Speaking With Kim O'Meara