Celebrity dog trainer and author Victoria Stilwell has been called the supernanny for dogs. She is known for her positive, reward-based training, as well as for training the guardian, not just the dog. Stilwell recently appeared as a judge on the CBS reality show Greatest American Dog, and is currently filming a U.S. version of her hit British television show It’s Me or the Dog. Tails talked with Stilwell to find out more.
The finale of Greatest American Dog just aired. What were you looking for when you chose the winner?
Greatest American Dog is all about having the greatest American [guardian] too, and it’s about developing a relationship, keeping a bond, communicating, learning, that kind of stuff, and that’s what we wanted to see. We wanted to see growth.
So you’re filming It’s Me or the Dog in the U.S. now. How’s that going?
It’s good. It’s a lot of pressure. We’ve had some really, really difficult cases, and I think what’s good about this one is it’s an hour long now rather than a half an hour. … These shows show the reality a lot more because, for example, if I go into a home where there are major anxiety issues that have to be solved, in three days I can only get a dog to a certain point.
What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve had while filming It’s Me or the Dog?
Well, we had five poop-eating Pugs. We have that in the third or fourth episode that will air. That was quite bizarre, because all of the Pugs liked to eat poop. And when you’re filming that sort of thing and you’re concentrating on poop, it’s a bit of a surreal experience, especially for the cameramen.
How would you describe your training method?
I believe in positive, reward-based training. I’m very, very passionate about it. I think that in this country, there are still many, many trainers [who] train in the more traditional way. The old style of training relies very much on harsh discipline and quick fixes. But my mantra is quick fixes very quickly come unstuck. The old style of training never got to the basis of why was the dog behaving like that.
What kind of work have you done with shelters and rescues?
I started in shelters and rescues in England. I worked for Greyhound Rescue. I was a volunteer dog walker. I have volunteered for many rescue organizations in Manhattan, and at the moment I’m currently a behavior advisor for a rescue shelter in Atlanta called PAWS Atlanta. Rescue work is very important to me.
So do the rescue and shelter systems differ in England from those in the U.S. much?
There’s less of an abandoned dog problem there, so there are very few kill shelters in England. Most of the shelters will work with the dogs, have a training staff, and are very much into rehabilitation. Whereas here, a lot of the municipal shelters euthanize. In one way, yes, it’s terrible, but what else are they supposed to do? Until there’s education and until people out there stop seeing dogs as disposable property, these shelters will be full.
Some people think adopting a dog from a shelter is a bad idea because the dog will have “issues” and be harder to train. What are your thoughts on that?
I think any dog, whether [the dog] be from a breeder or a rescue shelter, even the highest qualified show dog could have behavior problems. … I would encourage anybody to go to a shelter and rescue a dog.
We heard you recently adopted a dog, Sadie.
Yes, I did. We’ve had her about six or seven months now. She’s wonderful. She was [cared for] by an elderly lady who was never able to walk her, so consequently she never went out for three years, and she was obese. She’s now lost 20 pounds and is at her [ideal] weight.
Can you give us some tips on how you helped her lose weight?
Yeah, and I didn’t do a crash diet. Just a highly nutritious, organic diet is what I fed her, plus regular walks every day and a lot of exercise in the backyard. I started off very slowly, building up her stamina, because of course I didn’t want to exasperate any damage that had been done to her joints due to the weight. Now … [she] chases Frisbees and plays soccer. It’s a total turnaround.
What are your plans after you finish filming this season of It’s Me or the Dog?
My ambition as far as dogs are [concerned] is to keep going as much as possible. I have another book in the pipeline and [plan] to keep doing what I can to spread the word about positive, reward-based training.