August 25, 2013
Victoria Stilwell is the 2013 keynote speaker for the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor’s Homecoming Dinner. She is one of the world’s most recognized and respected dog trainers, is certified by the Animal Behavior and Training Associates and is a proud member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Goodnewsforpets.com publisher Lea-Ann Germinder had the good fortune to catch up with her about dog training on the eve of her visit to Kansas City, Missouri.
- You are one of the best known dog trainers in the U.S. through your positive reinforcement dog training on the Animal Planet hit series “It’s Me or the Dog” and as a judge on CBS’s Greatest American Dog but how did you get your start in dog training?
I became a dog trainer after setting up a dog walking business in London. Many dogs I walked came with behavioral issues and their families found these issues hard to deal with. While the dogs were with me, however, they never misbehaved and I think it was because they felt safe with me and therefore listened and did what I asked of them. I started working with other trainers, attended seminars, studied hard and eventually became a certified trainer. I became completely immersed in perfecting my skills and being the best I could be.
- What made you decide to choose dog training over your acting career?
When I relocated to New York City with my husband, I found the move difficult and became very homesick for England. I found solace training dogs and volunteering with rescue organizations. I did some acting and voiceover work in the States but was always happier being with animals, so I took on more training clients and set up my dog business, Dog Trainers of New York, with a colleague of mine. The business took off in a big way so there was no time for anything else and I found I didn’t miss acting at all.
- You indicated you learned from dog trainers and behaviorists. What is the difference between the two?
Unfortunately for the dog-owning public, a person doesn’t need to be a licensed or a registered trainer to train dogs, so anyone can set themselves up and call themselves a dog trainer or a behaviorist. That needs to change, because we are seeing too many unqualified people using these labels and then doing great damage to the dogs they come into contact with. A trainer should not be calling themselves a behaviorist unless they have an advanced degree or PhD in animal behavior and veterinary medicine.
I am a dog trainer and behavior consultant but not a behaviorist, even though all my work is spent dealing with behavioral issues " especially aggression. Dog trainers historically just taught obedience but now we deal with everything from compliance (obedience) training to complex behavioral issues such as aggression.
- Does every dog need to be professionally trained or can people train their dog on their own without a trainer or behaviorist?
Some people can train their own dogs but I always advise them to use a trainer because it really helps facilitate a dog’s learning and ultimate success. A big part of being a good trainer is helping owners by not only address existing issues, but giving them the building blocks to help prevent issues from developing in the future.
- What are the most common reasons people turn to a dog trainer?
There are a number of reasons, but for the most part people will call a trainer when their dog is being continually disobedient or there is a behavioral issue they can’t control. More and more puppy parents are going to trainers to give their pups much needed education, which is good to see, because the first months of a pup’s life is so crucial to his or her success as an adult. Some of the most typical problem behaviors we see are inappropriate greetings, reactivity, and aggression.
- What are the biggest mistakes people make in selecting a trainer?
People naturally want quick fixes so they gravitate towards trainers that promise them quick results, but who then use intimidation and punishment to do so. They neglect to get references or to speak to people who have had their dogs trained by a particular trainer.
It is confusing selecting a good trainer because dog training is an unregulated profession and there are some very bad trainers out there that use force and intimidation but have good marketing skills and promise all kinds of results that are achieved with a heavy hand. There are some trainers who say they use positive reinforcement but use harsh punishment as well.
When looking for a trainer you need to ask how they reward, how they use discipline, what equipment they use and what their philosophy is. If they use shock collars (sometimes also called stimulations, e-collars, static correction etc) or prong or choke collars I tell people to run away as fast as they can. You do not want these kind of trainers touching your dog.
If they use words and phrases like Alpha, top dog, calm submission, or be the pack leader they are also using outdated theories and need to be avoided.
Find trainers that follow modern behavioral science, do not believe in outdated pack leader theory, that use discipline to guide rather than instill fear and use humane equipment options. A really skilled trainer will use positive training techniques to reinforce good behavior and will also use humane techniques to stop unwanted behavior.
The beauty of these techniques is that they can be used for all breed types, dogs with all kinds of drive and from pups to ‘red zone’ aggressive dogs.
Positive techniques are much more effective short and long term and are a lot safer for people to use. Trainers and people who use confrontational techniques are much more likely to be bitten.
- Do you advocate adopting shelter pets?
Absolutely. I’m not against good breeders that breed for the love and the betterment of their breed type but I’ll always advise someone go to a shelter to adopt a pet rather than go through the breeder route. Pure bred dogs can be found in shelters too and there are breed specific rescues out there but, the mixed breed dog is just as loveable and needs a home!
- Are there special needs these pets have for training by a professional trainer?
I think every dog, regardless of where they come from and what breed they are needs to have some kind of positive education. Dogs need it in order to cope with the pressures of human domestic life and need to learn what is and what is not acceptable. A good canine education helps dogs survive!
- Where can pet owners go for more information about training?
Pet owners can go to my website www.positively.com to find out more information. To find a world-class positive trainer that uses force free methods only they can go to: www.positively.com/trainers. They can also read my book ‘Train Your Dog Positively’ and can purchase it at: www.positively.com/store.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
One of the most important things is to remember to have fun with your dog. Training should be fun and motivating for both of you, and a great way to build a healthy, lifelong bond.