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Natural Awakenings San Diego

Victoria Stilwell: A Conversation with the Dog Training Diva

Oct 24, 2011 08:15PM ● By Linda Michaels

Animal Planet’s Victoria Stilwell, the “Dog Training Diva,” is the new heroine of dog lovers everywhere. Stilwell’s smash hit TV show, It’s Me or the Dog, airs in more than 50 countries. Anyone who has seen her program knows she means business—and everyone recognizes the signature boots she wears. Importantly, professional animal behaviorists and progressive veterinarians applaud her affirmation that, “It’s scientifically sound advice to be nice to your dog.”

Welcome to San Diego, Victoria. You’re considered a dynamo in dog training, with an exploding and devoted fan base. What’s your mission?

I’m a passionate cheerleader for positive training that’s based on mutual trust, respect and love, rather than fear, punishment and intimidation. Our mission is to turn the tide of public awareness away from the traditional punishment- and dominance-based methods which have been so popular in the past.

Many people may not yet be aware of the differences in dog training methods, although they are quite dissimilar in important ways.

You’re right. To the casual observer, all dog training looks the same. But it’s not. Dominance trainers believe that most behavior problems stem from a dog trying to “dominate,” while positive trainers know that the root cause in the majority of cases is lack of confidence. Two trainers on opposite ends of the spectrum can look at the same aggressive dog and see two totally different things. There’s still a lot of debate about which side is correct, but it’s really all moot, because science has spoken.

Dominance trainers believe that they must impose their will on the dog in order to earn “respect.” This is very dangerous, because the dog has not fundamentally changed and will still act out, sometimes aggressively, when it’s safe to do so.

So, what’s wrong with the “alpha” and “pack leader” theories?

Those theories are based on 40-year-old research that is now, admittedly, inherently flawed. Scientists studied wild, unrelated, captive wolves and translated the findings to domesticated dogs. We now know that a wolf pack is comprised of a mother, father and their offspring, and the “alphas” are the breeding pair.

What about the need for leadership?

The most powerful and effective leaders lead without the use of force. Positive trainers believe that leadership should be used as constructive guidance, rather than a punitive imposition of will. It’s similar to the way we raise children these days: Build up their confidence and give them the tools to make the right choices.

Ricochet and Victoria Stilwell
Ricochet and Victoria Stilwell

Today, there is a proliferation of shock, prong and choke-collar equipment training. What type of leash-walking equipment do you recommend?

For “serial pullers,” a chest-led harness helps work through the behavior problem. For smaller dogs, I recommend a mesh harness.

I understand that your network of expert trainers now reaches from Athens, Greece to San Diego. Tell us a bit about your new project of networking trainers and what you hope to accomplish.

I founded Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT) to provide the public with a name brand they can trust to use the latest science-based, reward-based training methods.

Since last year, I’ve been enlisting the most accomplished, professional positive reinforcement dog trainers into my global network. The idea is that if someone is hunting for a dog trainer, they’ll recognize that the trainer is aligned personally and professionally with me—they will recognize the type of training I do on my TV show and say, “I want that.”

We have fantastic VSDPT members in the San Diego area, including you and Julie Schmitt.

What’s next on your agenda?

I’ll be continuing work on my new product line, developing new and innovative solutions to canine problems. We’re focused on promoting healthy, balanced relationships to make the world a better place for us, as well as our dogs.

For more information about Victoria Stilwell, visit

Contact Linda Michaels, dog psychologist, speaker and Victoria Stilwell-licensed trainer, at 858-259-WOOF (9663) or email [email protected] for private obedience instruction and behavioral consultations. Also visit