Advice from the Experts

Victoria Stillwell rejects intimidation

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Victoria Stillwell says, "It's c---, just c---." She's referring to the notion that dogs need to know who's the leader of the pack, and that the leader needs to dominate the dogs.

Stillwell, and her trademark high leather boots, returns for another season of "It's Me or the Dog" on Animal Planet, Sunday, Jan. 8 (8 p.m. ET). In one episode, there are six unruly Chihuahuas in the house. One even nails Stillwell. "Thank God for the boots," she says.

Clearly, if you listen to some dog trainers, the problem is that the Chihuahua owner is not dominating the pack. "No, no, that's the old-style of training," says Stillwell. "That's about attempting to suppress behavior, you know, being dominant and punishing the dogs, and all that c---. The way to do it is positive reinforcement. We're not trying to just suppress behavior, we're trying to change the way the dogs feel emotionally."

Getting back to the six Chihuahuas, four turned out to be fearful of people.

If you punished the dogs, what would you do? For example, even the petite Stillwell could have rolled the small dogs over, or held them on their sides. "Dogs being held like that will calm down, and actually they will shut down," says Stillwell. "The dog instinctively is actually panicking. It doesn't appear to be panic; the dog may appear calm. Instinct, though, kicks in at this point, and the dog, at some level, realizes, 'If I do nothing, the threat may go away, and besides, there's nothing I can do.' So, the dog shuts down, and the threat goes away."

As filming ends and the TV cameras shut off, it appears as if the dog is trained to be calmer. The emotionally and perhaps physically-exhausted pet shakes itself and slinks off into a corner. But what has the pet really learned? Stillwell says, "Absolutely nothing. But the public obviously drinks it up, wanting to believe in instant fixes, and that what they see on TV must be right. You absolutely don't need to use force. Some of the best trainers I've seen are women barely 5 feet tall who can handle an aggressive Mastiff without putting a hand on the dog."

So, for those fearful Chihuahuas, the solution was simple. Whenever people appeared, Stillwell instructed them to offer the dogs treats. Over time, the dogs actually seemed to look forward to visitors. Of course, Stillwell is the first to concede that not all solutions are so easy.

Aggressive dogs do require hands-on help from a professional, but overall, Stillwell's training methods are meant to be duplicated at home. This is very different from "The Dog Whisperer" (on National Geographic), where warnings pop up on the screen advising viewers not to replicate Cesar Millan's techniques.

Talk to Stillwell for more than a few minutes about dogs, and the word "respect" will crop up at least once. "Respect is paramount," she says. "We've domesticated and brought dogs into our homes. They have feelings just like we do. Their brains are wired just like ours. On so many levels, they're just like us. That's why we can live with dogs, and have the great relationship we do."

Dogs are supposed to be man's (and women's) best friends, so isn't it appropriate that we respect our friends? Apparently not, as some dog trainers are going back to an older style of training, based on dominance, fear and intimidation, sometimes using choke collars or electronic shock.

Stillwell sighs, and responds, "I know. It's really sad, isn't it? I can tell by looking into a dog's eyes if the dog was trained using forceful training or positive reinforcement. The dog who was trained using forceful methods does what he's told, but there isn't a lot of soul behind those eyes. I can also tell how those dogs, sadly, may like their people OK - by the little nuances, and the way the dogs tilt their heads - but they don't adore them. Dogs will follow a forceful leader because they have to. That is so very different than dogs following leaders because they want to. And the relationship is different. I can tell."

Besides, Stillwell adds, using intimidation and punishment might actually communicate what you don't want the dog to do. Those intimidating methods don't teach dogs what they should be doing.

Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207 or send an e-mail. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend