Victoria Stilwell's Advice: 'Train Your Dog Positively'


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“If I, say, put a shock collar on a child, people would look at me with horror,” says Victoria Stilwell, host of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog.” “But dogs feel pain just as we do and have the same emotions we do. I think it’s equally as abusive to use shock collars on dogs.”

The topic was brought up following an appearance by actress Eva Mendes on “Late Night with David Letterman” March 21. On the show, Mendes said, “All he (her Belgian Malinois) wants to do is to prove his love to me. I’d feel terrible if he hurt a little thing (such as a squirrel), so I use a shock collar on him.” She added that people “yell” at her for using the collar, so she tested it on herself. After trying the collar on her arm, Mendes conceded that the shock was more than merely a tingle. Still, she defended the practice.

Stilwell doesn’t agree, calling the use of shock collars “lazy training.” She added that there’s a good reason why Mendes didn’t try to wear the collar around her own neck. “Try wearing one around your own neck, and not knowing when that shock is going to come,” she says. “The effect would be enough to drive you crazy, literally. You can change the electrical energy in the brain. Some dogs’ brains get fried because again and again these awful contraptions are used,” Stilwell says with her typical candor and conviction.

Stilwell, talking by phone, says her most recent book, “Train your Dog Positively” (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2013; $13.99), details why she prefers kinder training methods, which are also more effective.

She’s also no fan of choke (chain link) or prong (spike) collars. “If you see a trainer using either, or a shock collar, don’t think twice about the class,” she says, “Run away.”

Stilwell continues, “It baffles me as why we use devices which cause torture and pain on our best friends when they’re not needed.” So argue, that may be well and good when it comes to puppies and puppy classes, but what do you do with unruly larger dogs?

“It’s not a problem,” answers Stilwell. “I work with them (unruly and larger dogs) all the time. You don’t need a heavy hand. Chuck away those devices, and instead choose trust, which will develop if you are a good teacher.”

There are still dog trainers who disagree, including Cesar Millan, who speaks endlessly about dominance and being a pack leader. These are notions Stilwell tosses off with a single word: “Rubbish.”

She continues, “This (attitude about dog training) shows tremendous human insecurity and weakness. Dogs don’t want higher rank than humans. Dogs aren’t out to achieve human domination. It’s really very simple. If a dog is “misbehaving” from our perspective, it’s because the dog was never taught what to do or how to act, or feels anxious. It’s not that the dog is trying to rule the house. I think these outdated theories about dominance are the biggest tragedy in dog training today.”

Instead, as she details in her book, Stilwell is all about encouraging and motivating dogs, how dogs develop a trusting relationship with family members, and allowing dogs to express themselves.

“I am in no way suggesting there shouldn’t be rules,” she says. “In fact, structure is a good thing. However, the rules don’t need to be taught punitively. It’s simply unnecessary. Dogs have evolved with us over thousands of years. They have an amazing ability to respond to us, to want to please us.” All of which leads Stilwell to add that in some ways dogs may have historically treated people better than we’ve treated them.

Stilwell reiterates her plea to toss the abusive equipment and move from the dark side to the bright light of positive dog training.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services