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Victoria Stilwell on training dogs: Stay positive

 
 
Victoria Stilwell and her dog Sadie
Victoria Stilwell and her dog Sadie

Whether she’s teaching a Pomeranian not to bite his owner when he gets in bed with his wife or treating a Wheaten Terrier with severe OCD, trainer Victoria Stilwell always thinks positive.

The star of Animal Planet’s It’s Me or the Dog and a judge on CBS’ Greatest American Dog, Stilwell — coming to town for two local events — preaches the virtues of training dogs through positive reinforcement. Think praise and treats instead of shock collars and physical punishment.

“People want quick fixes,” says the author of Train Your Dog Positively (Ten Speed, $14.99 in paper). “If you’re teaching dogs something, you can do it quickly. But changing a habit takes longer. You can suppress those behaviors with punishment, but they’re still there.”

In the book, which she’ll sign from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Stilwell offers solutions for behavioral problems including separation anxiety, housebreaking, leash pulling and excessive barking. (One tip: A walk each day does wonders for your dog’s well-being — and yours, too.)

On Friday, she’ll talk about aggression at the daylong Dog Bite Prevention and Awareness Conference at DoubleTree Ocean Point Resort & Spa — North Miami Beach, presented by Stilwell’s Positively Dog Training network. The event is open to the public as well as animal industry professionals, shelter workers, medical professionals, first responders, animal control officers, lawyers and trainers. Also appearing are expert bite investigator Jim Crosby and attorney Claudine Williams.

Stiwell, who lives in Atlanta with her family and two rescue dogs, disapproves of such measures as Miami-Dade’s ban on pitbulls. “It lulls people into a false sense of security, that that shepherd is fine or that shih tzu is fine.” She points out the flaw in bypassing human responsibility: “We can’t deny that many large powerful breeds are owned by reckless people.”

But whatever breed she’s training, Stilwell and the trainers in her network use the same methods, even for aggressive behavior.

“Aggression is its own beast,” says Stilwell, who estimates that she can teach a dog to walk on a leash in 20 minutes. “It’s a behavior that serves a purpose — to increase distance to keep yourself safe to survive. The root is insecurity and fear. If your dog is lunging, and you punish that dog, you make it more insecure. We work to change the way the dog feels.”

So why do so many trainers still use punishment as a tool?

“I think some trainers are resistant because they don’t want to see their market share go down,” Stilwell says archly. But such methods “build up confrontational relationships between dogs and owners. Those are not the kind of relationships we should be having with our dogs. I do see the scale tipping as more people are becoming knowledgeable. ... It takes awhile to change a belief. And people don’t want to be told they’re being unkind or abusive. But when you cause pain and anxiety, that is abusive.”

For more info on the conference visit DogBiteConference.com; for more info on Stilwell’s training network, visit Positively.com

Connie Ogle

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