PTR Senior Staff Writer
Confession: I'm now following AP.
No, not the Associated Press.
True, Damages and The Closer it is not.
But Victoria Stilwell and It's Me or the Dog it is.
And I'm hooked.
It gives me a much needed break from my usual coverings of homicide detectives, serial killers, conniving high-powered attorneys conjuring up murder plots, Bering Sea fishermen dancing with death and Skynet machines out to destroy mankind (yes, I've said this before, but it's worth saying again).
It's Me or the Dog just wrapped up airing its first full season here in the US and has begun filming its second season. If you haven't watched the show, you should - and this is coming from a cat person. I confess Victoria makes me feel as if I could become a dog person, and she recently took time out of her rather busy schedule to chat with me about the show, the differences in training methods available to dog owners today, and what she hopes viewers are able to get from the program.
How’s the show going for you thus far? You’re now filming the second season, correct?
Yes. What’s happened in the last two years [on Animal Planet] is you've actually seen four seasons of programs that were filmed in England [and were the English versions of the show]. Now, we’ve finished the first season here in the United States and just started filming the second season. There’s going to be 25 episodes in the second season, with five clip shows that are sort of the “Best Of.” I think it’s going to be a very exciting season. We’ve got some great families lined up, some great dogs, some very interesting problems. We’re filming pretty much until the new year, but the new season should start airing in June.
Do you have additional celebrities coming in for this season, or do you know as yet?
Yeah, we might have. I’m not allowed to say at the moment who they are, though.
Ah, got it. And you film the show in both Los Angeles and Atlanta?
Yes. So we film, like, 10 episodes in LA and 10 in Atlanta. And if there is a third series, we might travel a bit. But with family commitments, it’s sort of important to keep it simple.
Do you get back to England much these days?
I used to. This year I haven’t; last year I didn’t. But we are going in a couple of week’s time. It's pretty tough being away from mum, my sister and my family over there. So when we do go, it’s extra special.
What’s the biggest difference between the US and UK versions – or is there a difference? Is it the people? The pets?
The British programs were half an hour, and the American programs are an hour long. So, you see more of the training process. And, some of the comments I’ve received is that the British program seemed to be a bit edgier. I think the only real reason for that is because things had to be crammed into a shorter amount of time.
With regards to dog owners in both places, there are very few differences, more similarities. Both Britain and the United States are passionate, dog-loving nations, but I think dog owners in Britain enjoy a big freedom with their dogs because most parks and green spaces in Britain are “off leash.” So, you don’t have to take your dog to a dog park, for example, like you have to do here in the States. So, in a way, there’s less leash aggression. Dogs are able to greet each other under their own terms, and have the space to increase distance if they want to while not being tied to their owner at the other end of the leash – which can cause problems, especially if the dog is uncomfortable in another dog’s presence. The leash laws are tough here [in the States]. I'd say that is probably one of the [biggest] differences.
I would also say that in Britain, British dog owners have embraced the positive reward training methods more than American dog owners have, and I think that is because the information has been available for longer [in Britain]. They seem to understand that the positive, reward-based training is the better way, now. I was actually quite shocked when I first came over to the states to see how traditional the training still was. And, unfortunately, the dominance-based training is based on highly flawed research that was done in the 1970s and has now been debunked by not just the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) but also top behaviorists and methodologists in the world. So, we’re moving into a new era of training our dogs.
What do find the most challenging aspect of what you do – both as a trainer and what you do on the show?
I would say motivating owners to work at the training after I've left is the biggest wall I have to climb.
The follow-up visits always show us how the owners are doing after you’ve left. You can see whether they’ve stuck with what you’ve told them to do, or gone back to their old habits. Are you disappointed when they do take a few steps backwards?
Yes, of course. But, as soon as I go into a house that very first time – within the first hour – I know whether these people are going to work at it or not.
Is it just a vibe – a feeling that you sense?
Absolutely. It’s a feeling. When you train to become a trainer, you have to be a really keen observer of human behavior, and I don’t believe you can be a good trainer without loving people as well. So, I’m a keen observer, and I’ve studied human behavior. I feel like a detective when I go in [to some of the homes] because I pickup clues from the environment at all times. On the show, it might just look like I come in and chat [with the family], but I’m actually scanning [the environment]. I get a lot of information very quickly from people’s body language, what they tell me, their attitude, so I pretty much know who is going to work and who is not.
At the same time, I always try to work so hard to motivate people, and it is disheartening when I do go back and some people haven’t tried. Sometimes, I’ll be a little tough on them. Other times, I’ll be like, ‘Alright. Let’s do it again. Let’s try it again.’ At the end of the day, it’s up to owners whether they want to continue. I just don’t ever like leaving knowing somebody is just not going to do the work because their animals are really worth it - and they’re going to have an easier life because of it.
Do you find that some of your celebrity clients, like actors, are more suited to work at the training – given that in their profession they are used to being directed on what to do – as compared to the regular family off the street? Or is there much of a difference?
I really don’t see too much of a difference. It comes down to personality. Now, the differences that I have seen are, for example, when I was training in Manhattan, and I would go to the Upper East Side into these incredibly wealthy family homes where the maid [or housekeeper] was in charge of the dog, not the owner. Even though my consultation was with the owner, I would always say that we need to have the housekeeper or whomever [is going to handle the dog] along [for the training]. In those circumstances, I would get less success than going to the Bronx or Harlem or the Lower East side with people who were working with the dogs themselves. In that respect, I did see a difference.
But every problem is unique, and there are totally different techniques within one behavior methodology. It’s not just about rewarding with treats, for example. There’s so much [to explore] with the reward-based training methods, so many different techniques people can use. That’s why I like it. Every single consult is tailored differently so that every single dog is successful. That’s why I think it’s a really great [method] for people because there are so many different things they can try. And it's all positive.
What has been the most rewarding or favorite part of doing the show?
It really is seeing the dogs and the owners blossom, and the massive improvement in behavior problems. The success of that is fantastic for me – not just on television but in my private consultations as well. The biggest success is keeping the dogs in their homes, and improving the lives of the dogs and their families. That’s why I do this job. I believe we have domesticated these animals, and we have a responsibility to treat them with dignity and respect and do what we can as owners to keep them in our homes rather than see them as disposable property to chuck into a shelter if things go wrong. That’s what I like about my program – it’s information that anybody can use with their dog. It’s like people training for dogs. Anybody can watch the show, pick up a technique, go back to their dog and use it. It’s great take home information.
What are your inspirations – either in your work or in life in general?
My inspirations … I just want to provide people with the right kind of education so that there’s less animals given up to shelters. I want there to be a resource that can help people. I think that’s a massive inspiration for me.
But I suppose personally-wise, I’m a mother, and the biggest thing in my life is to make my child’s life the best it can possibly be. My daughter is my true inspiration. My husband as well is the most amazing man – we’ve been together now for 12 years. I think [my inspiration] is my family – there’s nothing better than family.
I know the show keeps you awfully busy, but is there anything else you’re working on?
Yes, I am actually working on another book. I’m very excited about it because you basically follow me through a whole bunch of case studies. It's my experience, and you can get a lot of great information about how to tackle a particular behavior problem. So, that’s in the works. It’s tentatively called “Positively" and should be out next year.
We're also starting the Victoria Stilwell Think Dog Foundation in June. We want to raise money for the smaller rescue shelters. The larger rescues always get considerable funding, and it's always the smaller shelters that [tend to] lose out. But, not only that, we [also] want to raise money for various foundations that work with dogs and disabled children, for example, or hearing dogs for hearing-impaired people – that kind of thing. So, we're going to be raising money for assistance dogs and their organizations as well as the rescues.
We here at PTR look forward to the second season of It's Me or the Dog and thank Victoria for taking the time to chat. Tune in Saturdays at 9 p.m. to Animal Planet for It's Me or the Dog. And be sure to visit Victoria's official Web site, VictoriaStilwell.com to catch up on all-things Victoria. For more of Victoria's insights from this Q&A, you can also visit BlogTails by Love Da Pawz.