Victoria Stilwell is one of the most well known and well respected professional dog trainers in the UK. Her firm, no nonsense and natural approach to dog training on the popular Channel 4 show It’s me or the dog helped many owners of misbehaving dogs sort out their problems.
In turn many viewers of the show learned simple and common sense methods of managing unruly canine behaviour. Victoria now lives in America where she volunteers her time to help dogs in various needy situations. She took time out of her busy schedule to talk to K9 Magazine.
Tell us about your dog owning history.
I always wanted a dog when I was younger but my father and mother both worked long hours so having a dog was not an option. My grandmother bred beagles and was passionate about the breed. I spent a lot of time with her while growing up and she taught me the basics of responsible ownership.
What drew you to making your love and passion for dogs a professional thing?
I got into dog training inadvertently. I was an actor trying to make a living. Acting work is hard to get and you are always advised to have a second job so I started to walk dogs. I was soon walking twenty dogs a day and loved what I did. I met a number of behaviourists who influenced my desire to learn more about the dogs I was walking and it just grew from there.
You’re now living in Georgia, how does being a dog owner there differ from the typical experience of being a dog owner in England?
Americans are as passionate about their dogs as are the British. In rural areas of Georgia however dogs are generally not viewed as companion animals. They are kept outside in kennels and tethered or allowed to roam around and there is little understanding for their basic emotional needs. Most of these dogs are owned to protect the house or as hunting dogs.
What is your favourite memory from your days on “It’s me or the dog”?
There are so many good memories and it was a pleasure to be involved. The production team were fantastic with the dogs and the families and the relationships we built with each family were very strong. I don’t think there is any one memory that sticks out but the way we changed dogs’ and people’s lives for the better made the job a really gratifying one.
An average day in the life of Victoria Stilwell would entail…..
An average filming day starts early and finishes late. Everything is filmed as it happens. Training days are better because having seen the problem behaviour I can get down to doing what I do best, which is setting the dogs and owners back on the right path. It takes a lot of work so training days are tiring but every effort is made to make it as fun for the dogs as possible. Before I start the training I spend many hours the night before working out the best methods to achieve the desired results. Every dog is unique and therefore every behaviour plan is designed so that each particular dog gets the best out of it. When I leave it is up to the owners to continue the training.
Did your dog ever get to come to work with you?
None of my foster dogs came to work with me because most of my training was in private homes.
Due to your jet-setting lifestyle, you’ve been unable to commit to full time dog ownership recently, but have been opening your home to foster dogs. How does it compare to owning your own dog?
Being a foster mum is a rewarding but heartbreaking experience because it is so easy to get attached to the dogs that we look after. Some stay for a few days before going to a new home and some stay a lot longer and even though you try hard not to become too attached, the moment they walk out of the door for the last time is always a difficult one.
You’ve also been busy volunteering as a fundraiser and behaviour advisor at some local shelters. How has that been going?
I volunteer and advise for three shelters in my area. I think it is important to set some time aside to volunteer because the more people do the better these shelters operate. I want to see the dogs that are adopted stay in homes so I make myself available to any adopter who needs advice, acting as a support system so that the transition from shelter to home is a smooth one.
What do you miss most about dog ownership at the moment?
I envy dog owners for that special bond that ownership creates. I think children benefit greatly from growing up with an animal. We have a cat at the moment and now that we are more settled we are looking to own our first dog.
Have you ever experienced the death of a pet and can you remember how it affected it you?
My cat got run over when I was 12 years old. I found her in the road and her body was cold. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that she wasn’t going to be there anymore and it took me a long time to get over it.
If you could give one piece of advice to people thinking of becoming dog owners, what would it be?
Please do your research. Make sure that you have the time, energy and commitment it takes to own a dog successfully. It’s also important that your whole family are as excited about the prospect of having a dog as you are because they all have to share their lives and be comfortable with the newest family member.
What was the last thing you taught a dog to do?
I just finished a training session where I taught a dog to come back to his owners. We were in a fenced in field so the dog was off the lead and instead of calling the dog to them I asked the owners to just walk around the space and reward the dog with a feast of treats any time it made its own decision to come to them. This takes pressure off the dog and he begins to take the initiative to come back without being forced. The rewards are great so coming back is a good thing. Within ten minutes a dog that never came when called was coming back by itself and when it was called.
And finally, if the dogs you work with had the ability to answer just one question, what would you ask and what do you think the answer might be?
What is the hardest thing about living with humans and how could we make life easier for you? I think the answer might be, ‘ humans are so confusing. You let me come and sleep on the bed and yet you (the other person) tell me off when I do it. Please make up your minds and be more consistent. Make our lives easier by learning how to talk dog so that we can communicate better, feed me nicer food than just that boring dry stuff, please let me sniff when we go out on walks because that is what a walk is all about and don’t get angry when I have the odd accident on the carpet. There’s always a reason.’