Rewarding Dogs

Animal Planet star Victoria Stilwell offers positive reinforcement

Victoria Stillwell and her dog

Photos: Jaime Rowe

By: Laura Drucker

It’s easy to understand why Victoria Stilwell has become one of the world’s most respected dog trainers—her positive, reward-based approach effectively trains not only dogs, but their guardians as well. With a hit show, It’s Me or the Dog, on Animal Planet and two best-selling books, Stilwell knows a thing or two about keeping our dogs at their best. We sat down with her to learn more.

TAILS: The last time you spoke to us you described your training method as positive and reward based. Is this still your approach?
Victoria Stilwell: Absolutely. And what’s great is that now people are starting to get why: They’re starting to see all of this stuff on television with regards to dominance training and dominating animals into submission, and how it’s causing psychological damage to the dogs and making them more aggressive. Positive, humane reinforcement methods are much safer and effective in the long run. It’s great that more people are embracing it.

People often worry that they’re humanizing their dog too much, or that they’re giving them too much credit as far as what they understand. How does this affect how we train our dogs?
I just finished my third book, Train Your Dog Positively, which is coming out in March 2013. In it, I address many of these questions: Are we giving our dogs too much credit? How do they feel and think? How can we communicate with them better?

We’ve come so far in our understanding of how dogs think, how they feel, and how they experience emotion.
We should celebrate the fact that they are very much canines, but we also cannot devalue or dismiss their ability to experience self-awareness.

Victoria-with-DogHow can an understanding of canine self-awareness better help us care for our dogs?
I think the biggest damage comes from the whole flawed idea that everything dogs do that is considered “bad behavior” is part of some sort of mythical state of dominance, where they’re trying to become the alpha top dog or boss of the family. We have put this human idea about gaining rank and power onto our dogs. Dogs do control their environment and their possessions like people do, but what does it actually mean if you’ve got a dog guarding its possessions or resources from you? We need to ask ourselves: Is this dog being dominant or is he just frightened that I may take something important for his safety, comfort, and survival?

In what ways do you think training makes for healthier relationships between people and their pets?
Training helps the dog understand what is expected of him, gives the dog boundaries, allows the dog to know what you want, and allows you to understand what your dog needs. Lack of clear communication causes so many issues. We humans are strange animals to them—very inconsistent, confusing, and emotional—so if you give your dog a good canine education, if you teach your dog to survive in our strange domestic world, you are going to build a much deeper relationship with him.

Recent reports suggest that our pets are getting less healthy. What are your thoughts on this?
I think that in terms of feeding, there has never been more of an amazing selection of healthy dog food available, and feeding your dog a healthy diet is easier than ever. However, our current lifestyles are harming them. We have less actual physical time to exercise our dogs and they are suffering because of it. People tend to show their love by giving the dog a treat as opposed to taking them for a walk. I think, in that respect, dogs are becoming more unfit and unhealthy.

What do you think is the best thing we can do for our pets to keep them healthy?
Decades ago, most dogs were working breeds; you had a dog who worked with you and had a much more active lifestyle. Now, though, you have to manufacture that. You have to be a good time manager and make time for your animal—increased exercise, games, activities, mental stimulation, all these things will really help our dogs.

It’s very important for our dogs’ well-being to stimulate them physically and mentally.
Yes! And it’s the same with training. When you dominate an animal in the name of training, you’re suppressing behavior and problem-solving skills; you’re thinking for your dog.

The beauty of positive reinforcement is that it allows your dog to learn by thinking for himself. It enables your dog to use his inner drive. Mental stimulation—the ability to be able to think and problem-solve, to release that inner drive—is what keeps dogs mentally healthy.

It’s Me or the Dog is a total hit here in the U.S., and you’ve got your third book coming out in March. Any other exciting new projects?
I set up the Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT) program because I found that people were having difficulty locating true positive-reinforcement trainers. The VSPDT team is made up of the best positive reinforcement trainers in the country. People can search for a Victoria Stilwell Positively licensed trainer by going to Positively.com/Trainers, where they can hopefully find some amazing people in a location close to them.

I’m also doing a great series of videos featuring positive training tips and solutions, which can be found at YouTube.com/eHowPets. There you can also find a new series I’m doing called American Dog, where I go around America highlighting incredible people who do amazing things for dogs, and dogs who do amazing things for people.

Visit Positively.com to learn more about Victoria Stilwell

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