BLOG POSTS BY Victoria Stilwell
Fatal Dog Bites Share Common FactorsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/05/13 at 03:12:13 pm - No Comments
The Journal of the American Veterinary Association has released the most comprehensive study to date regarding fatal dog bites and the common factors that link them. The authors of the study found that there were some significant errors reported by the media in certain stories, so rather than relying on a potentially biased media source, their findings are based on investigative reports from interviews with animal control agencies, investigators, and homicide detectives.
Interestingly, the breeds of the dogs involved in fatal attacks could only be identified in 18% of the cases. Often times, the media's report of the dog's breed conflicted with animal control reports. Within that 18%, twenty different breeds were identified, which correlates with previous studies that have found that no single breed of dog is more likely to attack than another. The results of these studies make it clear that the solution to preventing future dog attacks is better management and husbandry practices, and not banning specific breeds.
The findings from this study are intriguing, although not entirely surprising. Here are the various factors they found to be commonplace in fatal dog attacks:
#1: There is no able-bodied person present to intervene (87.1%)
This common factor is why I persistently beg parents not to leave their infants or young children alone with a dog under any circumstances. It only takes a split second for a tragedy to occur, and this staggering statistic shows just how vital it is for an able-bodied person to be present in case of an incident between a dog and a child, or any person who is unable to defend themselves against an attack.
#2: The victim has no prior relationship with the dog (85.2%)
This factor serves as an important reminder that we need to be particularly careful with dogs when there is a new person around them, especially if the dog has a history of fear or aggression. The statistic shows that the majority of fatal dog bites occur when the victim does not have a relationship with the dog, so it's important that you manage your dog's environment so that he is not set up for failure and you don't put a guest in a position to get bitten. On the other hand, it's also vital to be careful when you're interacting with unfamiliar dogs.
#3: The dog is not spayed or neutered (84.4%)
There are many reasons why spaying and neutering is important, but this might be the top one. In almost 85 percent of cases, the dogs responsible for fatal attacks on humans were unaltered. Be a smart, responsible owner and spay or neuter your dogs. You lessen the chance of your dog being the perpetrator of a fatal attack, and your dogs will be happier and healthier as a result.
#4: The victim is unable to manage their interactions with the dog (77.4%)
Usually due to the victim's age, or as a result of their physical or mental health state, they are compromised in some way. Teaching children how to safely interact with dogs is imperative for preventing fatal attacks, but it's also in the hands of parents and guardians to monitor all interactions between dogs and people who are physically or mentally compromised in any way. Check out our friends with Family Paws Parent Education or American Humane's Pet Meets Baby campaign to learn more about protecting your child from a dog attack.
#5: The dog is not kept as a family pet (76.2%)
We've all seen a "backyard dog"--the dog who barks incessantly at all hours of the day and night and who has minimal interaction with people or other animals. Dogs who live in this way are much more prone to aggressive behavior since they live most of their life without any positive social interaction. This is why chaining and tethering is such a bad idea--it breeds the pent-up frustration that is often a precursor to aggression.
#6: The owner has mismanaged the dog in the past (37.5%) or has abused or neglected the dog (21.1%)
Abuse, neglect, or general poor ownership are all factors that can contribute to aggression and violent behavior in dogs. Dogs who are starved or who suffer physical abuse or mental intimidation can seemingly "snap," even though the frustration has been building long before an attack ever happens. If you suspect a dog you know of suffering from abuse or neglect, contact your local authorities.
Are Dogs Able to Figure Out Who Has the Best Treats?Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/03/13 at 08:12:36 am - 4 Comments
Have you ever glanced over at your dog only to see that he has already been watching you? It may happen more often that we realize. A new study out of Argentina provides evidence that dogs carefully watch our interactions not only when we are interacting with them directly, but also our interactions with other people. The study determined that dogs are able to watch people's interactions with each other and use the information to figure out who had better treats in hand.
The researchers tested the dogs by having a man ask two women for their cornflakes. The two women had the same cornflakes, but the man acted as though one woman's cornflakes were delicious, and that the other woman's cornflakes were terrible. The dogs that chose to go up to one of the women tended to prefer the women who they perceived to have the better cornflakes.
Studies like this one confirm what dog lovers and dog professionals already suspected--that dogs are incredibly attuned to our every emotion, movement, and signal. The extent of their perception of our world is still being discovered, and this study is particularly interesting in that we can see dogs how dogs monitor our interactions with the people around us. It's why positive training is so effective. Dogs are constantly looking to understand what we want from them and are evolving constantly to cope in our domestic world. When you use a dog's cognitive ability to your advantage by reinforcing good behaviors and showing him what you want without the use of force or intimidation, the results can be incredible.
If you want to learn more about how your dog thinks and perceives the world, check out the dog games by our friends at Dognition.
Scoop Your Poop–Or Get DNA Tested!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/02/13 at 09:12:36 am - 6 Comments
A Massachusetts apartment complex is taking extreme measures to keep dog poop from ruining the community's common areas. Condo manager Barbara Kansky has instituted a DNA monitoring system to track down owners who don't pick up after their dog.
The complex started by registering the DNA of all the dogs in the community by collecting a sample from cells in their cheek. They can then use that sample to test against waste that is left out in the complex.
Dog owning residents paid a one-time fee to have their dog registered into the DNA program, and offending residents have to pay a $150 total fee.
The results of the DNA testing program were felt immediately within the complex. Grass that was formerly riddled with dog poop is now spotless, and residents no longer have to watch their every step. While to some this may seem like an incredibly tedious program to solve the issue of unwanted dog poop, residents of the complex are relieved at its visible results.
I have been fighting the war on dog poop in my own neighborhood for years. Dog poop is not only a nuisance, but it's also a health hazard to both dogs and humans. There are all kinds of debilitating and potentially fatal diseases that can be spread through contact with dog feces. Not to mention--you're breaking the law when you don't pick up after your dog!
Would you like to see a similar DNA testing program in your area? Leave your comment below.
Watch American Humane’s Oklahoma Rescue DocumentaryPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/26/13 at 09:11:57 am - No Comments
When a natural disaster strikes, American Humane's Red Star animal rescue team is always one of the first on the scene. The devastating tornado that hit Oklahoma this past May was no exception. In the aftermath of the storm, countless animals were left homeless, lost, or abandoned.
American Humane recently released a short documentary by legendary filmmaker Ric Burns, who followed the Red Star team throughout their month-long stay in Moore, Oklahoma. The team cared for over two hundred animals and reunited countless animals with their worried owners, many of whom had lost everything in the tornado.
I am constantly amazed by the incredible impact that the American Humane Association and the Red Star rescue team make on our community. This video is a beautiful tribute to their work. Watch the documentary below or click here if the video player isn't loading.
Victoria’s Tips for Keeping Your Dog Stress-Free Over the HolidaysPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/25/13 at 08:11:24 am - 4 Comments
It's hard to believe that Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Holiday decorations are already lighting up homes and businesses, and I even ran into Santa Claus at the mall! The holidays are a wonderful time to spend time with family and friends, but they can also be a challenging time when you have pets. Anxious or reactive dogs are especially prone to stress during the holidays. Here are eight tips for keeping your dog safe and stress-free this holiday season:
1. Plan ahead.
- If you know you're going to be having guests over, whether for a few hours or a few weeks, plan ahead.
- If your dog is nervous around strangers in your home, set up a safe space for her to go to when she's feeling overwhelmed. This may be a small room away from guests, or a crate with her favorite toys.
- Ask your guests not to bother your dog when she's in her safe place. For more extended visits, you can build a positive association between your shy dog and your guests. Ask guests not to directly interact with your dog; instead, they can drop treats on the ground when your dog comes around.
- If your dog has shown any aggression towards strangers, manage the situation by keeping your dog in another room any time guests come over. Consult a trainer to help you work through these issues.
2. Know your dog.
- If you know your dog is shy or fearful towards guests, don't force your dog to interact with them. We don't like everyone we meet, and we can't expect our dogs to, either.
- Is your dog a notorious counter surfer? There are sure to be extra goodies lying around over the holidays, so make sure to keep them out of reach of your pet.
- If your dog jumps on guests, work on this behavior before the start of the holiday season so that your guests can have a more peaceful entry into your home.
3. Watch out for common holiday toxins.
- Grapes, raisins, chocolate--all common around the holidays and all are toxic to dogs.
- Coffee, alcohol, and nicotine are all potentially hazardous to your dog. If you have a guest that's an avid smoker or drinker, make sure you plan ahead to make sure your dog stays out of reach of these harmful items.
- You might be tempted to toss your dog table scraps from a delicious holiday meal, but keep in mind that rich, fatty foods can severely harm your dog's digestive system.
4. Keep your pet from getting lost.
- You shouldn't leave your dog outside unattended for long periods any time of the year, but this is especially important over the holidays.
- If you have a dog that likes to dart out the door, teach her a wait cue to prevent a tragedy in the future.
- Keep a collar and tag on your dog at all times. I recommend PetHub's revolutionary ID tags.
5. Don't leave your dog with just anyone.
You have several different options for what to do with your dog when you go out of town. Choose the best option for your dog.
- Hire someone to feed and let your dog out several times a day. If your dog struggles being left alone, this may not be the best option. If you do choose this option, make sure your dog is never left outside unattended. I do not recommend this option for long periods as dogs do not do well spending large amounts of time by themselves. A boarding facility or petsitter is a much better choice.
- Board your dog at a doggie daycare, vet, or kennel. If you choose this option, make sure your dog is up-to-date on all vaccinations, and make sure you research the facility in advance.
- Hire a petsitter to watch your dog in their home or in yours. This may be the most expensive option, but it may also give you the most peace of mind.
6. Be wary of holiday hazards.
- Make sure your Christmas tree is securely anchored to the ground, and minimize your dog's temptation to jump on the tree by avoiding edible ornaments like popcorn strings.
- Clean up pine needles frequently and don't allow your pet to drink water from the tree stand.
- If you're celebrating Hanukkah, make sure to keep your menorah or other candles out of reach of your pets.
7. Don't forget Fido.
It can be easy to get caught up in the busy holiday season, but don't forget about your dog in the process. Regardless of the weather or your schedule, your dog still needs exercise and mental stimulation to avoid boredom and stress.
- Don't miss that daily walk with your dog. Not only will walking your dog reduce his stress level--it will reduce yours, too.
- If you're going to be away from home more than usual, provide your dog with interactive toys or treats to keep him busy.
- Plan a doggie playdate with a friend.
8. Think twice before bringing home a Christmas puppy.
There is a huge surge of dogs being given away and dumped at shelters after the holidays. A puppy may seem like a fun project for the family, but many dog owners underestimate the amount of work and responsibility they require.
Check out my top ten questions to ask yourself before bringing home a new dog.
A Home for BoPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/18/13 at 07:11:12 am - 1 Comment
My dear friends Marty and Mikkel Becker and his team have been working feverishly to save the life of a sweet dog named Bo. Thanks to their efforts, he was rescued by Peppermint Pig Animal Rescue, but he does not have a foster or adoptive home and is now living in boarding.
If you live in the Cincinnati, Ohio area and are interested in fostering or adopting Bo, please email AHomeForBo@gmail.com.
A little more about Bo:
- Bo is a young dog, around 2 years of age.
- He's a mix, around 60lbs, black and white with a GREAT smile!
- He loves to play and is good with other dogs.
- Bo is very friendly with all humans and his tail wags a mile a minute when he sees people.
- He knows "sit" but needs help learning other basic manners.
- He is healthy, neutered, vaccinated, and microchipped. He's also heartworm negative.
Retiring Police Dogs to Receive PensionsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/18/13 at 07:11:59 am - 2 Comments
In the UK, some retiring police dogs are getting special recognition for their lifetime of service. In the first three years of retirement, each Nottinghamshire police dog will receive up to 500 euros a year. The pension was created to help with medical costs related to injuries or illnesses. In the coming years, nine police dogs are expected to retire and their handlers will certainly welcome the much-deserved pension for their four-legged partners.
I have spent the last few months filming with an exceptional K-9 unit here in the States, and have seen firsthand the unique bond that exists between a police K-9 and his or her handler. Dog and human rely on and trust each other deeply. To these brave policemen and women, their K-9 is more than just a dog. He is a partner, a friend, and many times, a hero.
I hope that a pension scheme, like the one developed in Nottinghamshire, will become a more widespread practice. These dogs give their mind, body, and spirit to the job, and often suffer from ongoing medical conditions as a result of the hard work they perform on an almost daily basis. The pension may not cover all the dog's medical needs, but it is at least a reminder that these hardworking heroes are not forgotten after retirement, and their service has not gone unnoticed. Way to go Nottinghamshire!
My Take on the “Real Horror” of Beverly HillsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/15/13 at 09:11:02 am - 35 Comments
If I'm not traveling or working, I'm spending time with my family, so that doesn't leave much time for watching TV. I knew of the Real Housewives series, but had never watched it myself. However I couldn't ignore the flood of emails and messages I have received this week about the latest episode of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. After watching the footage in question, I came away feeling so disappointed, disheartened and disgusted at what I saw.
The dog at the center of the scene is a young pit bull mix named Kingsley, who is owned by Real Housewife Kim Richards. Pit bulls are an energetic, excitable breed that need intense physical and mental stimulation. They are also highly sensitive and eager to please people, which makes them excellent candidates for training.
This show had a great opportunity to showcase the incredible intelligence and gentle nature of the pit bull breed by using a trainer that employed positive methods, but instead a trainer was chosen that put on a theatrical disaster for the camera. I could only sit and grind my teeth as I witnessed a stressed out, highly aroused dog be subjected to kicking, yelling, scruffing, and pushing. Everyone on camera is very lucky they weren't bitten.
When you fight fire with fire, you're going to get burned. When trainers use physical and mental intimidation to "dominate" a large, powerful dog, you're not only asking for a bite, but you're also completely bypassing the root of the problem. The only way to truly change a dog's behavior is get to the bottom of the underlying stress or anxiety causing it.
After so much progress has been made regarding dog training on TV recently (including the decision by Real Housewife of NYC Jill Zarin to appear on an episode of It's Me or the Dog), I'm so disappointed that these ineffective and dangerous methods were highlighted on such a popular television show. I'm also proud of the people I saw stand up for what they knew was wrong and who raised their voice in protest of these training methods. I can only hope that Bravo and other networks will take these calls to action seriously and will not make the same mistake again.
Picking the Right Dog for Your Health & LifestylePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/14/13 at 08:11:08 am - No Comments
We are just beginning to understand the extent of the remarkable bond between dogs and humans. Adding a dog to your life can be a wonderful idea at any age, but it’s not a decision to take lightly. If you’re looking for a new dog for yourself or a family member, it’s important to take your time to find the right dog for your age, health, and lifestyle.
Here are a few tips for picking the right dog for your stage of life and activity level:
#1: A dog for an active family
If you’re an active family looking for a dog that can keep up with your high-energy lifestyle, your dog options are essentially limitless.
- Check out your local rescue—they’re sure to have a fun-loving dog with the right temperament for your family.
- A timid or senior dog may not be a good match if you fall into this category. Consider a puppy or young adult dog, and look for a dog that’s active and outgoing.
- Some breeds or breed mixes that are known to do well as active family dogs include the Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, and the Beagle.
- Contrary to popular belief, the American Pit Bull Terrier can make an excellent energetic family dog. They were once nicknamed “Nanny Dogs” as they can be especially gentle towards children.
- Regardless of the breed or breed mix you choose, it is essential that you never leave a small child alone with ANY dog for an amount of time.
#2: A dog for a working person or couple
If you work long hours away from home, you may want to think twice before getting a dog. Many dogs don’t cope well with being left alone for long hours. If you’re determined to get a dog, there are a few ways you can make life better for you and your future dog.
- I recommend adopting an adult dog that’s out of the puppy stage. You should be looking for a dog that’s already potty trained and has a relatively laid back personality.
- Get in touch with a local rescue organization—they’ll be able to match you with a dog that can handle long hours alone.
- Invest in a dog walker or pet-sitter. Doggie daycare is another option for highly social dogs. You’ll thank yourself at the end of the day when you come home to a tired, happy dog.
- Remember that any dog is going to have an adjustment period when you first bring them home. An otherwise potty trained dog may have accidents while they adjust to your schedule.
- Dogs can be a great stress reliever when you have an otherwise chaotic and busy life. Studies have shown that dogs may prevent heart disease and improve overall health.
#3: A dog for a senior citizen
A dog can be a wonderful companion for a senior citizen. Recent studies have shown that dogs can serve as early warning detectors of when a person’s health is declining, which can give loved ones peace of mind. If you’re looking for a dog for yourself or for a friend or family member, make sure you pick a suitable dog.
- Many adoption centers have “Seniors for Seniors” programs where a senior citizen can adopt a senior animal for a reduced cost. See if there’s a program in your area.
- A puppy or young adult dog is generally not a good idea for a senior citizen.
- You’ll want to look for an older dog that has a calm temperament and that has already had some basic training.
- Regardless of which dog you choose, it’s vital to have a friend or family member willing to care for the dog in the event that the dog’s owner passes away.
Dogs May Be Used to Make Schools SaferPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/12/13 at 10:11:04 am - 6 Comments
In light of the tragic school shootings that have taken place across the country, one organization is sniffing out a new level of security: the use of specially trained gun and drug detection dogs.
K9s4Kids is a new non-profit branch of a K9s4Cops, a company that provides trained K9s to law enforcement agencies. K9s4Kids is seeking to create a safer learning environment for children by providing approved schools with a fully trained dog, free of charge.
Traditional training for police and protection dogs has leaned heavily towards aversive and punishment-based methods, including harsh corrections with choke or prong collars, as well as widespread use of shock collars. Breeds commonly used for protection and detection work, such as the German Shepherd and the Belgian Malinois, are among the most highly intelligent and sensitive dog breeds in the world. Using aversive methods on these dogs can, and often does, prove disastrous. Proponents of aversive methods will often disregard positive training as nothing more than doling out treats and lavishing dogs with praise. However, what many people don't realize is that positive does not equal permissive, and while treats and praise are used as motivators, discipline is a necessary piece of the training puzzle. It just doesn't come in the form of fear, pain, or harsh corrections.
Fortunately, there are forward-thinking handlers and trainers that are discovering the power of positive training on working dogs. A common myth about positive training is that it's only effective on small dogs and puppies with minor behavioral issues, when in fact it's just as effective on large, high-drive dogs. If more of the highly respected men and women who train and handle high-drive working dogs begin to use positive methods, I believe it will set an incredible example for dog owners and trainers everywhere.
It's my hope that a program like K9s4Kids takes advantage of the opportunities that positive training provides in teaching dogs effectively, as well as demonstrating to children how to properly handle and work with a dog. Kids tend to mirror what they see, and if kids consistently saw the dog protecting their school being jerked and yanked around, they will likely mirror these methods in their experiences with their own dogs. K9s4Kids has a wonderful opportunity to set a positive example for today's youth.
The program is only in the beginning stages, so questions remain about the safety and effectiveness of the program, as well as how to deal with issues like children with allergies or who are fearful of dogs. Read more.
What do you think about dogs adding safety and security to schools? Comment below.
BlackfishPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/28/13 at 11:10:16 am - 4 Comments
When my daughter was three years old, I took her to Seaworld in San Antonio. We were both mesmerized by Shamu, the Orca whale, who we saw perform in an incredible show. I cried throughout because I couldn't believe how beautiful the relationship was between the trainers and the whales. It was one of the most stunning things I had ever seen.
I look back on that now and wonder how I could have been so niave. A polished show with amazing music and incredible stunts hid a very dark secret that has now been exposed in the new film Blackfish. It wasn't until a year later after researching about whales and dolphins in captivity that I realized I had been just another clueless patron moved by an amazing performance.
There is overwhelming evidence that keeping animals such as whales and dolphins in captivity for human enjoyment is psychologically and physically damaging for them. Sure it brings them closer to us and allows us to learn more about them both for our own education and for behavioral research but at great expense to their well being. Keeping an Orca whale or a dolphin in a Seaworld pool is akin to keeping it in a bathtub for the whole of its life and that goes for dolphins and manatees in other aquariums in the USA and around the world.
Blackfish has been a long time coming. Trainers have been killed working with these animals, but this hasn't stopped Seaworld and places like it from breeding future "stars" from the same whale that has killed. It is a shameful industry and profits from the confined torment of these sentient beings.
There needs to be change but as happens too often, money trumps common sense, kindness and decency. Until audience numbers start dropping as the consumer becomes aware of the abject cruelty of having whales and the like in captivity, then the industry will continue to profit from their torment. Seaworld and places like it might be a great fun day out for the family but when people go home at the end of the day, the animals are left in their tiny bath tubs until the next time they have to perform.
Should we be keeping killer whales and dolphins in captivity for our own enjoyment? Watch Blackfish and see for yourself.
Ten Dog Safety Tips for AutumnPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/16/13 at 11:10:31 am - 4 Comments
The leaves are changing, the cool air is drifting in, and the dog days of summer are making way for a beautiful autumn. As the holiday season approaches, it's important to keep your dog happy, healthy, and safe.
Here are my top ten tips for keeping your dog safe over the fall months:
- Keep a collar and tags on your dog at all times. I recommend a PetHub tag for extra safety.
- Don't leave your dog unattended outside, especially during the cold winter months.
- Holidays usually mean lots of yummy food, but make sure you don't leave any food out on the counter within reach of your dog. Watch out for foods like chocolate, grapes, and raisins.
- Your busy holiday season can take a toll on your dog. Make sure you get him out for regular walks and playtime despite your jam-packed schedule.
- If you're planning on having guests over and have a dog that dashes when you open the door, teach him a "wait" cue.
- Keep your dog indoors on Halloween night. It may be a fun holiday for the kids, but it can end up being one traumatic evening for a dog.
- Don't forget your dog's monthly heartworm preventative; it's just as important in cooler weather.
- Watch your dog carefully in the snow. The ice in the snow can tear up a dog's paws.
- Put your kids' Halloween candy where your dog can't find it. That much chocolate could be seriously harmful to him if ingested.
- Dressing up your dog might look cute, but it can really stress out even the most patient of dogs. Save the costumes for the kids.
Follow these tips and you're sure to have a fabulous fall with your four-legged friends!
Victoria’s Top 10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Adopting a DogPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/15/13 at 01:10:43 pm - 3 Comments
October is "Adopt a Shelter Dog" month, and you're likely hearing all the reasons why you should bring home a new addition to the family. But are you ready for the commitment and responsibility of a new dog? Have you done your research yet? Check out my top ten questions to ask yourself before you add a new dog to your home.
Do I have time for a dog?
Dogs are fun and loving companions that can make a wonderful addition to your home. But if you work long hours or are frequently traveling, you'll have to consider options like a dog walker or doggie daycare. Dogs thrive on exercise and mental stimulation, so it's important that you don't bring home a new dog only to have him left alone with no stimulation for 8+ hours every day.
Am I prepared for basic training and problem behaviors?
Regardless of whether you buy a puppy from a breeder or adopt an older dog from a shelter, your dog is going to need some basic training. Find a positive trainer near you who can help you through your new dog's adjustment period, which can span from days to months. Remember-bringing a new dog into your home is just as much an adjustment for the dog as it is for you. A puppy or dog may come to you with some more serious behavioral problems, so it's important that you have a good relationship with a veterinarian and a trainer so you have a good support system to work through those problem behaviors.
What breed or breed mix should I get?
This is one of the most important questions to ask yourself before falling in love with a specific dog. One of the biggest mistakes a prospective dog owner can make is choosing a dog based on its appearance. Heavily research the breeds or breed mixes you're interested in, and don't expect your dog to be the exception to the breed's typical temperament. A herding breed like an Australian Shepherd, for example, may not be the best pet for a couch potato owner, and a sighthound, such as a Greyhound, may not be a good match for a home with cats. Do your research beforehand so you find a dog that's the right fit for your family.
Should I get a puppy or an adult dog?
Many people choose to bring home a puppy because they feel they can shape him into the perfect dog. Keep in mind that a dog's personality and temperament is partially shaped through genetics, so even a perfectly raised puppy may have its own set of issues as an adult. It's also important to decide whether you're prepared for the responsibility of raising the near-equivalent of a human baby. Be prepared for barking, whining, pooping, peeing, and chewing. Adult dogs will have a more developed personality and don't have to potty nearly as often as a puppy. They, too, can come to you with some behavioral issues, although if you choose to adopt from a rescue group, they will be able to tell you a great deal about a dog's personality.
Can I afford a dog?
The expenses of responsible dog ownership go far beyond the basics of food, water, and shelter. A happy and healthy dog receives routine veterinary care including spay or neuter, is fed high-quality food, and receives regular exercise and mental stimulation. Small expenses like a collar, tag, and dog bed can really start to add up. Make sure you're prepared for these additional expenses before committing to a dog.
Am I prepared for the responsibility of a dog?
When you adopt or purchase a dog, you are making a commitment for the rest of that dog's life. Many dogs live to be 15-20 years old or more. You need to be prepared to care for this dog for the rest of its life--are you willing and able to make that lifelong commitment?
Should I adopt a dog or buy from a breeder?
This decision is a purely personal one, but make sure it's a smart decision for your family. Rescue dogs make wonderful pets, and when you adopt from a rescue group, most of that dog's initial vetting will be completed and the group will be able to tell you about the dog's temperament and personality. You're also saving two lives by choosing a rescue dog-that dog, and the one that will be saved in its place. With the world's extreme pet overpopulation problem, rescue is a wonderful choice to make. If you want to know your dog's history and lineage, and are dead-set on a specific breed, find a reputable, responsible breeder in your area.
If I want a purebred dog, should I go to a pet store?
The short answer--absolutely not. Pet stores are notorious for purchasing their puppies from puppy mills, where they are raised with minimal care or socialization and the puppies' parents are used as nothing more than breeding machines. If you purchase a pet store puppy, you can expect to be getting a puppy with genetic health issues and extensive socialization needs. Rather than purchase from a pet store, find a breed-specific rescue in your area or find a responsible breeder. A responsible breeder will provide you with health certifications, won't allow puppies to leave their mother before 8 weeks of age, and will require you to sign a contract before purchasing a puppy.
Are all my family members (animals included) ready for this new addition?
Adding a dog to your home is a decision that affects all members of the household, including any existing pets in the home. Make sure everyone in the family is on board with the decision, and confirm beforehand that no one has any severe pet allergies. Introduce your new dog slowly to existing animals in the home. Take special considerations when you have a small child in the home. Teach your child how to be safe around dogs, and never leave your child alone with any dog.
How do I pick the right dog?
Don't rush this decision or take it lightly. You're making a long-term commitment, and you want to choose a dog that will be a mutually good fit. Get in touch with a local rescue group and learn more about the dogs in their program. Visit adoption events in your area, and if you want to purchase from a breeder, talk with local breeders and see which seem to be right for you. Adopting a dog is an emotional decision, but it's important to think with your head, and not just your heart.
With Harsh Discipline, No One WinsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 09/05/13 at 08:09:14 am - 1 Comment
It has been long argued that physically disciplining a child through means such as spanking or hitting is detrimental to the child's emotional development and well-being. But what about harsh verbal discipline? A study was recently released that found children are more prone to depression and behavior problems if their parents resort to shouting or swearing at them when they misbehave. The study, conducted by Dr. Ming-Te Wang at the University of Pittsburgh, looked at almost a thousand middle class two-parent families. The results clearly showed that harsh verbal discipline is not only ineffective, but can potentially exacerbate the child's issues.
Dogs, too, are detrimentally affected by harsh verbal discipline. Similar to a child becoming more delinquent if harsh punishment is used, dogs with aggressive tendencies will often become more aggressive if subjected to harsh, punitive training methods. Perhaps even worse, some dogs shut down completely as a result of harsh punishment, and enter a state of learned helplessness.
What we can all take away from this is a better understanding of how our children and our dogs learn. Harsh physical or verbal punishment simply does not effectively teach a child or a dog right from wrong. Hopefully, as studies like this one continue to come out, such methods will become a thing of the past.
Massive Multi-State Dogfighting Operation BustedPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/27/13 at 12:08:40 pm - 5 Comments
A multi-state raid on one of the largest dogfighting operation in history is sure to be sending a serious message to dogfighters everywhere. The raid uncovered close to 400 dogs living in horrific conditions; many were without food, water, or shelter. The dogfighting ring stretched from Georgia and Alabama into Texas, and authorities uncovered huge sums of cash, guns, narcotics, and dog fighting paraphernalia.
These raids change the lives of every dog seized by authorities, but serve as a lasting reminder that dogfighting is still alive and well in the US and around the world. A huge operation like this one will certainly put a dent in the fighting world and might even deter some from participating in this disgusting sport, but we are still in an ongoing war against this brutal and cruel underground sport.
The dogs seized in this raid will need serious TLC, including mental and physical rehabilitation. The severity of the abuse and neglect they have lived through is hard to imagine. I'm hopeful that some wonderful people and organizations will step up to help these strong and resilient survivors, and that dogfighters everywhere will learn that people are watching, and that participants in this cruel sport are no longer going unpunished.
If you would like to report suspicious activity and possible dogfighting, contact one of the following organizations:
President Obama Speaks Out Against BSLPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/22/13 at 09:08:07 am - 10 Comments
The President himself has condemned BSL in an official White House response titled "Breed-Specific Legislation is a Bad Idea." Despite mountains of data and research which shows that BSL is ineffective and does not have a positive impact on public safety, there are still fierce proponents of such legislation.
The White House has adopted the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's stance on BSL, which states that a community-based approach is more effective than breed bans.
Those of us who know and love pit bulls know that any dog, regardless of breed, is dangerous in the wrong hands. I'm hopeful that the President's stance will help educate the public about the dangers of BSL. As important as it is to put an end to BSL, what's perhaps even more important is to protect our families and our dogs by educating ourselves about dog behavior and warning signs that a dog is about to bite, and teaching our children how to stay safe around our four-legged friends.
My hat's off to you, President Obama, for speaking up for those that cannot speak for themselves.
The New White House Dog, “Sunny”Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/22/13 at 07:08:06 am - 2 Comments
The newest four-legged addition to the White House has arrived - a female Portuguese Water Dog named "Sunny." Sunny joins "First Dog" Bo, who is almost five years old, alongside the Obama family. Sunny will no doubt be mentored by her seasoned four-legged housemate who has made quite an international impression. Bo conducts visits with soldiers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and serves as one of the most frequent targets of White House photographers.
Bo and Sunny are stunning dogs and make quite a pair, and the Obama family's decision to welcome a second Portuguese Water Dog into their home will certainly generate interest in the breed.
Although these dogs are beautiful and can make wonderful pets, it's important to consider a few variables before following in the Obamas' footsteps.
Should your next dog be a Portuguese Water Dog?
- Portuguese Water dogs are active and highly athletic dogs. This breed is not for the couch potato owner.
- They require extensive daily exercise and activity to keep them well-balanced.
- Highly attentive and intelligent, Portuguese Water Dogs excel in dog sports and obedience training, but without mental stimulation may become bored and destructive.
- Their coat requires regular maintenance; grooming costs must be considered.
Positively Success Story: Dr. PhillipsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/13/13 at 06:08:12 am - 2 Comments
I love to hear success stories about how positive training has impacted the lives of people and their dogs. Check out this wonderful story I received about how positive training methods truly saved a life.
"Dear Ms. Stilwell:
THANK YOU FOR SAVING MY LIFE.
Allow me to explain. For over 40 years I served as a psychologist, administrator and university professor in the field of developmental disabilities in children. In 2009, I was abruptly forced to retire from working with children, parents and educators whom I loved as I developed emphysema.
For three years I struggled with feelings of helplessness, insecurity and most of all loneliness. My wife is deceased and my children are adults. Though we remain very close, they have lives to live.
In September 2012, my son suggested that we get a dog. I had grown up with dogs and had several dogs when my children were young. I was unsure if I wanted the responsibility of a dog at my age and given my health. He kept insisting, so I finally caved in. I believe that it was my despondence doing the talking.
We visited the local animal shelter and discovered a two-year old Rat Terrier named Max. He was charming from the get go. As a psychologist I can recognize a vibrant personality when I see one. My son concurred. We asked to spend time with Max and asked all the pertinent questions about his history. The assistant told us that he had been surrendered by his previous owners because they had been unable to train him.
I looked at him and something told me that he was no different from the thousands of children with disabilities whom I have met during my lifetime. Most of them are bright, gifted in other areas and simply approach life to the beat of a different drummer. Unfortunately, many parents either spoil them until the child becomes a tyrant or they ignore their needs and the child never reaches his full potential.
We took Max home. The attendant was right, but so was I. Max was a disaster. He had no manners. However, he had personality. He loved a challenge. We noticed that he loved to play, enjoyed the company of humans and was eager to please. Even our two cats, who are very selective about their friends, settled in with Max within a few days.
Since my son has a full-time job and my daughter lives out of state, it was up to me to spend the days with Max. Little did I know that my son had this in mind from the beginning. I started reading everything that I could find on dog obedience, personality, behavior, psychology, neuroscience and personal anecdotes. I ran out and purchased lots of treats and a clicker. I also discovered two TV programs on dogs. “It’s Me or The Dog” and another on Nat Geo Wild.
“It’s Me or The Dog” caught my attention. Your methods are those that I have been teaching to educators and parents of children with disabilities for 40 years. They’re basic common sense. I’m not sure why I had to get a PhD to learn common sense, but that’s another story. The more I watched, the more excited I became.
I started to use your methods with Max and they worked. Once in a while, I couldn’t find a video or tape for a specific problem and I would ask myself, “How would Victoria Stilwell do this?” I’d try and it worked.
From September to November Max is housetrained, obeys all the basic commands, no longer pulls on a leash. He is no longer dog reactive. He goes to his place when visitors come to the door, rather than tackling them as if he was at the Super Bowl. He complies with house rules such as “Off the bed.” He even allows a bath every other week, necessary because of my respiratory problems.
His favorite activity is walking with me. Because of my emphysema I walk slowly and I take rests. I take about five or six 10 minute walks. That’s as much as I can walk in one day. Max seems to enjoy those short walks. On some walks he works for me and on others we just enjoy the world around us. When my son comes home in the evening, they go off on their daily jog, which Max thoroughly enjoys. He has learned to talk it slow and easy with the old man and give the young man a run for his money, proving again that sometimes, dogs have more common sense than human beings.
I’m no longer depressed, nor do I feel useless. Max has a safe and loving home and will not be put to sleep at a shelter. We owe it to your brilliance and your generosity with your online videos, blogs, interviews and your common sense approach. I’m not sure how to say thank you for saving our lives. I wish that I could do something for your work. I’m not wealthy, as I am retired. But whatever I can do to promote the cause of dogs who are on death row, because someone gave up on them rather than use common sense, I’d like to help.
Thank you for giving Max and me a second chance.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.
Positively Success Story WinnerPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/05/13 at 11:08:28 am - 4 Comments
We had so many incredible entries in the Positively Success Story contest. It was so hard to pick just one. The winning submission is an incredible story of how positive training helped a person who was fearful of dogs to establish a lifelong bond with their dog.
The Winning Submission
"I am writing this because, for a long time now, I have wanted to write to Victoria and tell her that she saved my dog’s life.
During my younger years I worked as a pizza delivery driver, during the course of which “career” I was bitten several times and developed a fear of dogs. But I have always had a dog; as long as I raised them from a puppy, there was never a problem. Four years ago, we adopted Cobie as a nine-week-old puppy, a husky-boxer Heinz mix, pick of a large accidental litter out of my daughter’s dog. Mama was a good dog. Cobie was horrible. He bit and bit and bit. He was my worst nightmare, and growing larger by the day. My arms were black and blue. My clothing was in tatters. He once ran along the back of the sofa, bit my ponytail, and leapt over my head, injuring my neck, and all this while he was still small.
I was afraid of him. What kind of damage was he going to do when he reached his full size? And what the heck was wrong with him? None of my other dogs had ever been monsters.
Meanwhile word was other adopters were “getting rid of” their puppies because of similar behavioral issues. Getting rid of them, or making them yard dogs.
I didn’t think Cobie stood a chance at a shelter. Who wants a dog like that?
So I went to the library and got books, and watched a certain other television program. I tried things I am now ashamed of. The “alpha roll” made Cobie instantly hysterical, and other attempts to exert “dominance” had likewise disastrous results.
I hated this puppy, but I still didn’t want him to die. I cried all the time.
Meanwhile one of my friends had been posting on her blog about a program she was watching called “It’s Me or the Dog.” Yeah, I thought. I need more stupid TV star advice.
One day I happened to turn it on by accident and there was an episode about a full-grown husky that was terrorizing his owner’s wife (or perhaps his girlfriend) in the exact way I was terrified Cobie would me once he achieved full growth. I watched, frozen with fear, waiting for the end when the dog would be “got rid of.”
But instead, I learned to be boring. I learned what I now call shunning. Cross your arms; turn away; look up; ignore, ignore, ignore…
It’s very hard to ignore a dog that’s launching itself at your face meaning to bite you, and maybe more so when you are afraid of being bitten, but somehow I managed, partly by telling myself, “This isn’t really biting, it’s mouthing.” I did it twice, the shunning. And Cobie stopped biting me, that quickly. He still bit everyone else!
My family initially ignored my attempts to teach them what I had learned until they realized I was no longer being bitten.
Today Cobie weighs over a hundred pounds. He is mostly a good boy, gloriously athletic and possessed of a kind of deliberate, problem-solving, intelligence that sometimes takes my breath away. It’s my job to make sure he has as many successes a day as possible. I usually have treats in my pocket, and where other people have candy dishes, I have treat jars so that extra good behavior can be rewarded.
I have learned so much from Victoria, to many things to go into here, but her positive training methods taught me to teach my dog “No.” And then they taught me to teach him, “Yes.” Without those two things, I don’t think I could have lived with him at the size he is now.
So yes, I think Victoria and her methods saved my dog’s life…and probably my soul. And even though it’s not enough, I just wanted to say, thank you.
For every time I bury my toes in his fur and he sags over onto my feet with a big trusting sigh…
#PositivelyDog Photo Contest on Victoria’s InstagramPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/02/13 at 09:08:10 am - 1 Comment
Victoria is now on Instagram at @VictoriaStilwell, and she wants to see what makes your dog's tail wag!
To help us celebrate, jump on over to her new Instagram page and follow her to explore behind-the-scenes Instagram photos and participate in the #PositivelyDog contest.
How to Participate
Enter the contest in a few easy steps:
- Upload a photo or video (or choose an existing one) of your dog doing what makes him happiest to your Instagram page
- Tag the photo or video with hashtag #PositivelyDog
- Watch Victoria's Facebook and Twitter page for weekly contest winners every Friday.
What You Could Win
A winning photo will be drawn at random every Friday in August, so everyone who tags a photo or video using #PositivelyDog during the month of August will be automatically entered for a chance to win one of the weekly prizes or a special grand prize!
- Weekly prize winners will receive a personalized copy of Victoria's new book and will be prominently featured on Victoria's Facebook page.
- A special grand prize winner will be chosen at random at the end of August, and will win a personalized Positively gift basket from Victoria (including books, t-shirts, training tools and more).
Contest runs through the month of August.
Xena the Abused Puppy Trained PositivelyPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/27/13 at 03:07:18 pm - 1 Comment
Xena is a pitbull mix whose amazing transformation from a neglected, emaciated puppy to a thriving companion dog for Jonny, a boy with autism, has made national headlines. The bond between Jonny and Xena is incredible.
Xena's story was brought to my attention by Atlanta-based (VSPDT) trainer Lisa Matthews, founder of Pawsitive Practice in Alpharetta, GA (pictured kneeling). She is helping the family train Xena and I couldn't think of a better person to teach and guide them. Linda, Jonny's mother is adamant that Xena will only be taught with positive methods, not just because she is a special dog who is incredibly bonded with a little boy, but because she, like every dog, deserves to be taught with kindness and respect rather than with intimidation and fear. I have no doubt that Xena will be a wonderful symbol of the power of positive training.
Of course I'm thrilled that Xena's family has chosen a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer (VSPDT) to help her acquire more skills, but what really warms my heart is that this beautiful dog has now found comfort and companionship in a loving home as well as becoming a little boys' best friend.
Watch Jonny and Xena's story here:
How Detroit’s Financial Hardship Has Affected the City’s DogsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/23/13 at 12:07:59 pm - 1 Comment
Given the news reports over the past few days about the city of Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing, I’ve been reminded of the four days last year I spent filming there with Detroit Dog Rescue. I knew the city had been suffering for many years but I don’t think I appreciated quite how bad it was in some areas until I saw it for myself. Entire communities were gone, streets upon streets of homes had been abandoned and there were stray dogs everywhere. Mother Nature was gradually reclaiming what had been taken from her and in some areas I felt like I was in the countryside.
This short film about Detroit and Detroit Dog Rescue gives a taste of the devastation while highlighting some of the people that work so hard to help some of those affected.
“Pet Flipping” on the RisePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/18/13 at 07:07:09 am - 3 Comments
TIME.com has reported that an alarming trend known as "Pet Flipping" is becoming more and more common, presumably because the internet has created much easier access to buying and selling animals. Criminals get hold of a pet in various ways, from pretending to be a found dog's owner to stealing the pet outright.
The best way you can protect your pet from being part of a flipping scheme is to spay/neuter and implant a microchip so that the animal can be tracked back to you.
How to Safely Introduce Your Dog to Your New BabyPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/16/13 at 07:07:05 am - 3 Comments
Preparing your dog for your incoming bundle of joy begins long before you give birth. Introducing your new baby to the existing pets in your home is much less stressful if you start to prepare early, and if done properly you can ensure your baby's safety and well-being. The sooner you begin to prepare your dog, the better chance you will have a successful and easy transition once baby arrives.
The most important rule to remember is to NEVER leave any baby or young child unattended with any pet, no matter how docile and friendly that pet may be.
The Tips below will help your whole household (including your dog) prepare for the successful introduction of your new baby into the home.
- Make a conscious effort to gradually decrease the amount of attention you give your dog throughout the day. Give your dog longer periods of undivided attention (such as playing fetch in the yard or going for a long walk) rather than short bursts of attention throughout the day. This will prepare your dog for the inevitable decrease in attention he will receive when baby comes.
- Slowly start to make any schedule changes before baby actually arrives.
- Play recordings of baby sounds at low volume, and only increase the volume when your dog is not stressed and remains calm.
- Use a realistic baby doll that moves and makes noise to prepare your dog for what a real baby will look and sound like. Praise and reward when your dog is polite and calm around the doll.
- Walk past children at a safe distance, such as walking past a playground or school. If your dog reacts negatively to the sight of children, consult a professional immediately.
- Bring home an item that your baby wore in the hospital to get your dog used to the smell of your baby.
Other Preparations Before Baby's Arrival
- Move your dog's things, if any, out of the nursery before baby arrives.
- Begin to teach your dog to stay off beds and furniture.
- Continue to provide exercise and mental stimulation for your pet, even if you have to hire a dog walker or pet-sitter.
- Hire a professional trainer to handle any form of aggressive or problematic behavior in your dog.
Understand Your Dog's Behavior
- Growling is a warning sign that gives you a chance to address the problem. Do not punish warning signs--otherwise, your dog may go directly to overt aggression without issuing a warning next time.
- Watch for signs your dog is stressed out, including panting, freezing, and tense body language.
- Bring a helper along to assist with the introductions.
- Let the dog smell and greet all existing members of the household before bringing baby inside.
- Multiple pets should meet the baby one at a time, and should be on leash for maximum safety.
- If your dog displays any questionable behavior, remove the baby from the area immediately and seek help from a qualified force free trainer. Find a Victoria Stilwell Positively licensed trainer.
A Great New Way To Play Music For Your DogPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/13/13 at 08:07:26 am - 1 Comment
I love playing calming music for my dogs. Whenever Jasmine and Sadie hear the Calming CD from my Canine Noise Phobia Series, they relax onto their beds and drift off to sleep. I use it in the home and in the car. The music in my series (developed by my friends at Through A Dog’s Ear) helps prevent and reduce canine stress and anxiety and is used in private homes, veterinary surgeries, daycares, grooming parlors and shelters. I developed the Canine Noise Phobia Series in conjunction with leading sound researcher Joshua Leeds and concert pianist Lisa Spector, the creators of the incomparable Through a Dog’s Ear. They are the leaders in their field and have helped prevent and reduce stress for millions of dogs around the world. So when they said they wanted to tell me about their new idea, I was very excited. Now as I write this I am listening to more of their beautiful music from a small device that is again revolutionizing the way we prevent and treat canine stress.
The latest creation of Through a Dog's Ear is called iCalmDog, a portable player for the calm dog on the go. I think they should also call it iCalmMe because I’m feeling very relaxed just listening to it.
iCalmDog plays four hours of clinically tested calming music on automatic repeat and is the size of a Labrador’s paw. It’s a dog’s security blanket at home or can be taken to the groomers, vet clinic, dog sitter’s, on vacation, to the boarding facility and beyond.
iCalmDog includes music that has been clinically demonstrated to relieve canine anxiety issues, so for a trainer like myself who regularly works with stressed out dogs, it’s a blessing. Check it out for yourself by going to: www.throughadogsear.com/icalmdog.
New San Diego Law Moves Against Puppy Mills Via Pet Store BanPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/12/13 at 08:07:02 am - 5 Comments
Just this week, the city of San Diego joined the ranks of the enlightened by passing a law banning the sale of dogs, cats and rabbits in pet stores throughout the city. Beginning one month from now, commercial retailers can only sell animals that come from city and county shelters or other rescue organizations. This is another victory for the anti puppy mill movement who campaign tirelessly to stop the sale of pets that from mass commercial breeding facilities.
And before the breeder community raises a fuss about how this new law will undermine their business, everyone should understand that the restrictions will only apply to commercial (i.e. pet stores) businesses selling animals. There will be no change which would affect responsible breeders who raise and sell puppies privately. Instead, this move will target those heartless thugs who may raise puppies and kittens as livestock in puppy mills privately but now have nowhere to sell their ‘wares’, since the usual backstop of the pet store option will be taken away.
Puppy mills and breeding facilities for other household pets breed in bulk and for profit with no concern for health or temperament. The breeding dogs and their puppies are kept in appalling conditions and given minimal care and attention. Puppies and kittens are taken away from their mothers and littermates too early and are shipped off to pet stores where they are sold to unsuspecting consumers. Many of these young animals are sold with or go on to develop debilitating health conditions as well as exhibiting behavioral issues as they age. Lack of proper care and socialization can render many pet store puppies into reactive, unconfident and sometimes dangerous individuals.
The decision in San Diego should be celebrated by animal lovers everywhere. While the pet store owners, the puppy millers and their middlemen will undoubtedly resent the decision, the concerned citizens of San Diego are celebrating a decision that will help reduce the vast number of animals euthanised in their shelters every year.
But beware! The puppy millers will try and find a way round this ban. There might be many new ‘rescue’ shelters and 'rescue' websites that suddenly pop up around the county providing a front for what is still a commercial breeding operation.
As a general rule, adopt – don’t shop, and if you now see a cute rescue puppy, kitten or dog in a San Diego store window, do your research as to which rescue facility or organization they came from.
Beloved Bat Dog RetiresPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/12/13 at 08:07:10 am - No Comments
The next bat dog for the Trenton Thunder has some big paws to fill. Chase is a 13-year-old Golden Retriever who has delighted fans for over a decade by retrieving players' bats in every game. Sadly, Chase has been battling lymphoma and is retiring from his duties, but he will always be remembered as a truly special dog.
The Fight For Lennox – A Year LaterPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/11/13 at 08:07:24 am - 34 Comments
It’s been a year since Lennox was killed by the Belfast City Council. Lennox was an American Bulldog mix that was taken from his home because he looked like a pitbull, a breed type that is banned in Northern Ireland. He’d lived without incident as part of the Barnes family for five years. He had been licensed, DNA tested and ‘legal’ until the council decided he was a banned breed and locked him up, keeping him in a secret location away from his family while they desperately fought for his release. Sadly Lennox lost his life on July 11th 2012 after a two year battle to save him. His devastated family has tried to pick up the pieces ever since.
Lennox became a tragic symbol of the pain and suffering created by Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). He was an innocent dog that was persecuted for the way he looked. However hard the Barnes family fought to get their dog back, Lennox was doomed as soon as he was taken from his home. Belfast City Council did everything they could to ensure they would ‘win’ the fight and no amount of expert testimony from the defense could sway the courts into thinking any different. Human ego battled truth, and ego won.
A year after Lennox had been taken, the Barnes family got in touch with me and I agreed to give a truthful evaluation of his behavior after reviewing the entire video of Lennox’s first behavioral assessment performed by behavior expert David Ryan. I read his detailed written report as well as the report provided by the council’s expert. Interestingly, the council’s expert was only brought in to take Lennox’s measurements and not to assess his behavior. He wasn’t a trainer, nor was he versed in the complexities of canine behavior. In his written report, however, he not only concluded that Lennox was of pitbull type but also finished the report by giving his opinion on Lennox’s behavior, saying that Lennox was a ‘dangerous dog.’ It was this opinion that was given more weight by the courts than David Ryan’s detailed behavioral assessment and the subsequent second thorough assessment given by dog trainer and behavioral expert Sarah Fisher. Their combined years of experience in canine behavior and their detailed and truthful findings far outweighed any behavioral expertise by the council’s expert, but these findings were dismissed and devalued by the courts. Even though I submitted my report, I was never called in as a witness nor was I allowed to go and evaluate Lennox myself, even when I expressly asked for access months before his death.
I was impressed that Lennox let himself be handled by people that were strangers to him even though he was in a terrible state. Here was a dog that had been taken from his family and put in a shelter surrounded by strange people and other dogs. The sudden transition must have been very traumatic for him as well as the resulting loneliness and depression he felt. The Barnes family told me that Lennox had sensitive skin, which they managed well, so when he was taken from them his coat was in good condition. A year later his body was covered in bald patches and wounds that were red and sore and even though he was in considerable discomfort, this ‘dangerous dog’ still didn’t bite a single person. He was put on the drug amitriptyline, a tricyclic anti depressant that helps ease depression and is also used to manage pain. The fact that he was put on this drug was clear evidence that Lennox was in a bad way, both physically and mentally. Sarah Fisher also noted during her assessment that Lennox was very sensitive around his neck and that he was holding himself in a way that clearly told her he was in some discomfort. When dogs are stressed or feel pain they can respond aggressively especially when touched in a sore area. Lennox lunged at David Ryan once when he had him in a corner and bent over him to attach a leash to the collar he was wearing around his sensitive neck. At such close proximity Lennox could have severely bitten Ryan but chose to warn him out of his space instead. This showed me that Lennox had incredible bite inhibition. This was his only lunge throughout both assessments. I reiterate again that during his two years of stress, pain and being handled by strangers he never bit anyone, yet the council’s expert, a large, imposing man with a strong voice who handled Lennox himself while measuring him, called him one of the most dangerous dogs he had ever seen. He did so because he misread and misunderstood some of the seemingly strange behavior Lennox displayed during his time with him. Lennox laid down with his back to the man and didn’t move even when the man came into his kennel run. He allowed the strange man to leash him, lead him out of the run, measure him, bring him back, unleash him, walk out and only then did Lennox lunge at the kennel door as he walked away. This behavior concerned the man and he wrote his report accordingly. I have worked in rescue shelters for nearly twenty years and this is very typical kennel behavior especially from dogs that are stressed and fearful.
I know the details of the council’s witness because not only did I read his report but I also sat and talked face to face with him a few months ago about his part in the Lennox case. We had battled each other on radio shows and articles on the internet. He had even tried to bring legal action against me for speaking out and giving my informed opinion about the disastrousness of the case, but we had never met. When we finally sat down with one another it was tense, but we ended up having a civil conversation. It was evident to me that he clearly didn’t understand Lennox’s very typical stressed kennel behavior, but however misguided he was in this case; he was a man that had a desire to keep the public safe from dangerous dogs and truly believed that what he was doing was right.
When it became clear that Lennox wouldn’t be released to his family I provided another option and offered to personally fly him to a sanctuary in the States where he could live the rest of his life in peace. When all hope of getting him home had gone, it was the family’s desire to see their dog happy. Other sanctuaries in southern Ireland and the States had also offered to help and had opened their doors to him. There were many excellent and safe places where Lennox could have been taken, which would have satisfied the court’s concerns for the public’s safety, but all these offers were turned down. The council had a point to make and they weren’t going to be stopped, even when it was obvious how wrong they were.
Appeal after appeal was denied and the date set for Lennox’s death. The case reverberated around the world and more offers of help came flooding in, some from people that just wanted part of the media spotlight and others that genuinely wanted to help. I went to Belfast, met with the family and spent hours speaking with lawyers, trying to procure a meeting with the council. The family’s lawyer still believed there were certain loopholes that meant Lennox could be taken out of the country, but all of these efforts were rejected. Sarah Fisher (who continues to be a beacon of light for the Barnes family) also offered to help and has remained a champion for Lennox’s cause and the anti-BSL movement.
On July 11th 2012 Lennox was euthanized. The courts and the council had their victory. Lennox was dead and the Barnes family mourned their beloved dog. They begged the courts to release Lennox’s body to them so they could give him a proper burial and say good bye. This was denied, supposedly because the council was worried about what the family might do. Lennox’s body was clearly in a poor state as seen during Fisher’s assessment of him, and the last thing the council wanted was to have pictures of a dog they had destroyed circulated around the world. So Sarah offered to pick Lennox’s body up instead of the family, have him cremated and then returned to them. This offer was also turned down. A while later a white plastic bag turned up on the Barnes’ doorstep, and inside was a box with some ashes and a short note stated the ashes were Lennox’s remains, but there was no way to test if they were telling the truth. Amazingly, the unconscionable cruelty shown by the council throughout the case carried on after Lennox’s death.
Lennox was a fearful dog but he was not a dangerous dog. He never bit anyone before or during his incarceration, even when under extreme stress, but he was labeled a liability and killed because of irrational fear, human ignorance and incredible incompetence.
Breed Specific Legislation is a flawed concept that rips innocent family dogs from their homes while failing to address the real issue of dangerous dogs. As a trainer and behavior expert that regularly works with all breeds of dogs including pit bulls and who also investigates bites, maulings and human fatalities from dogs, I have first-hand experience of how ineffective BSL is. Assessing whether a dog is dangerous or poses a risk to the general public is an immensely important process, and one that shouldn’t be based on what the dog looks like or whether he fits certain measurements, but rather by examining the way he behaves in all kinds of environments and situations as well as the way his owners handle him.
The UK’s EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Activities) committee that is reviewing proposed new legislation in the UK is finally admitting that the Dangerous Dogs Act that came into effect over twenty years ago is not keeping people safe from dangerous dogs. In a statement they “accept that the current ban on certain dog types in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has not prevented attacks by dogs either of a banned type or those of types not banned.” But until the laws are truly changed to target irresponsible owners and their celebration of or passivity towards aggressive responses, innocent dogs will still be taken from their homes. People like the Barnes family will have to continue to fight to get their dogs back while reckless owners of all breeds get away with irresponsible behavior.
Lennox is the poster child against a law that is fatally flawed and needs to be changed. His family continues to fight against BSL so that other innocent lives can be protected and so that other families don’t have to experience the pain of having a beloved dog taken away from them, deemed guilty and killed just because of the way he looks.
Pets May Prevent Heart DiseasePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/08/13 at 08:07:27 am - 2 Comments
Just in case you needed one more reason to keep a furry friend around, it turns out that owning a pet is associated with reducing your risk of heart disease. A new scientific statement from the American Heart Association looks at the association between pet ownership and heart health. It's just one more reason to own a pet, and a great reason to take your dog for a walk! Your heart, and your dog, will thank you for it.
How a Dog United Two SoldiersPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/01/13 at 07:07:13 am - No Comments
Karen Shirk has spent much of her life matching service dogs for people in need. She had a German Shepherd named Gabriel ready for disabled war veteran Derek McConnell, but he sadly passed away due to complications from his injuries before he could meet Gabriel. Jake Murphy was the next veteran matched for Gabriel, and Shirk was stunned at the link between the two soldiers. Unbeknownst to Shirk, the two veterans served in the same unit and were injured on the same day. It seems it was truly fate that a dog united these two heroes.
Watch the amazing video below.
Giddyup! The Differences Between Horses and DogsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 06/22/13 at 09:06:44 pm - 16 Comments
Tanque Verde Ranch is located in southern Arizona, close to the border of Mexico, and is surrounded by beautiful desert landscape right next to the Saguaro National Park. Here, the unique and strange Saguaro cacti grow into odd alien-like shapes that populate the landscape. They have spikes so large that falling onto or against one would certainly mean a trip to the hospital. I think about this as I ride past them in 95 degrees of heat on my western horse. I feel like a cowboy in a western movie, riding through the hot desert on my trusty steed.
I rode a lot as a child. At six years old I was taught to ride by a welsh farmer called Max Jones who was my hero. My family couldn’t afford fancy vacations to foreign lands when I was young, but I didn’t care because the only place I wanted to go in the school holidays was Max’s farm in Wales. His farm, Pantyderi, was vast, supporting thousands of sheep and hundreds of cattle that grazed on thousands of acres of rugged but beautiful Welsh countryside. His business also included a flourishing bed and breakfast in the country house in which he lived with his wife Janet. Families from all over the UK converged on Pantyderi at Easter and summertime, and while the adults relaxed, the kids played around the farm and rode the horses. I had been riding since I was three, so by the time I was six years old I was riding unaided. My first welsh pony was Goblin, a skittish gelding that had a habit of throwing everyone who rode him, so of course the first time Max led the guests on a trail ride, I fell off and cried. My concerned mother said that maybe I should go back to the stables to nurse my wounds, but Max told my mother to be quiet and told me in no uncertain times me to get off my $%!@$ backside and get back on my pony. By the end of that week I was riding as if I had been born on a horse. By the age of nine I was herding sheep on horseback, and by eleven I was entering competitions. I spent nearly every Easter and summer at Max’s farm for thirteen years, perfecting my riding skills, herding sheep, helping with lambing season, taking the sheep and cattle to market, driving the farm trucks and working the sheep dogs. It was absolute heaven.
More than twenty years later I thought of Max and how he would have love to have ridden western style through this harsh but beautiful Arizona landscape. What would he think of me loping on my trusted horse like John Wayne, with one hand on my reins and the other by my side? Western style riding is quite different from the English style and I certainly prefer it – it just feels more relaxed.
Even though I spent a good portion of my younger years around horses, I don’t know them as well as I know dogs. Dogs have been my life’s work, while horses were my hobby, but while I was out west spending so much time on horseback, I found myself wondering how the relationship between human and horse differs to that of a human and domestic dog, if at all. I am not a horse expert by any stretch of the imagination, but in speaking to people who have spent their whole lives around horses it was interesting to see how different yet also how similar it was to the world of dog training and human/dog relationships.
Horses are prey animals with a deep herding instinct. They are highly sensitive to their environment, hyper aware and ready to take flight if needed. Just like dogs, some horses are more confident than others, but just like dogs, all need a confident handler to teach them what to do. Some horses are highly reactive and can be spooked by the smallest things as are dogs, while others are more able to deal with change and novelty.
The fact that dogs are predators and horses are prey should not define how we treat them. For far too long, horses have been trained using harsh methods and unfortunately the trend still continues (as it does in the dog training world.) These days, however, there are more and more people training horses with less punishment and producing more successful, confident and predictable animals as a result. There are horse people who believe you have to be leader of the herd and others who say you don’t. Sound familiar? How many dog trainers still spout outdated and flawed pack leader theory? Being a pack or herd leader seems to suggest that these animals view us as their own kind rather than some strange, confusing two legged species. I think both dogs and horses are much smarter than people give them credit. I do believe we have to be leaders but that means we should not place ourselves as part of their herds or packs but rather as humans that teach and guide these animals while they navigate the challenges they face living so closely alongside us.
Another distinction between horses and dogs that became clear to me once again was that while dogs have been domesticated, horses have been tamed. This is an important element to consider when comparing our relationships with each species, because the difference between domestication and taming is profound. As I wound my way up a steep and rocky path past rattlesnakes and prickly cacti, I had to work hard to convince my horse to keep moving at a decent pace and keep up with our guide. As far as Uno the horse was concerned, there was nothing particularly beneficial for him to do what I was asking him to do – it was all for me. Coming from the dog world where we strive to make our dogs’ lives better for their sake as well as our own through daily decisions both big and small, it was somewhat conflicting to realize that most of what I was asking the horse to do was mostly for my own benefit. Sure, the horses on the Tanque Verde ranch and countless others just like it love to run, they relish and need the exercise we gave them and they’re far better off than their equine predecessors of just a generation or two ago. But if he had had his own choice, I’m pretty sure Uno would have preferred to avoid the trails I was asking him to traverse.
Compare this to a similarly common dog activity: the daily walk. There are plenty of similarities (giving mental and physical stimulation, etc) but there’s also an element of relationship-based bonding that goes on during a good walk with your dog where it’s time equally well-spent for both parties. We get a lot out of it, but we also want the dog to have the ability to make her own (ideally correct) choices. In general, horses have less of a say in what they want to do and must follow our wishes pretty closely, while more of the choices we make with our dogs seem to be based on what’s best for them. Obviously we still develop relationships with our horses and develop deep understandings of one another despite our differences as species, but I think it’s fair to say that on average, dog owners have ‘closer relationships’ with their dogs than horse owners might with their horses. I’m not saying either of these approaches is better than the other. Indeed, when you consider the difference between domesticating dogs as our companions (and that the species slowly continues to move away from its original intention as working animals) and taming horses so that they can help us work and play, we’re probably more or less on target with what should be expected.
Like dogs, each horse is unique – an individual with its own personality. Each horse needs a confident and fair handler, one that can be assertive without being overly harsh and can guide and direct the horse into doing what is needed of it. Like dogs, horses have had a profound influence on humankind, and without the horse, the struggle for human survival would have been a lot harder. It’s interesting to me that man owes much of his success to both species. Without horses, plowing our fields, traveling from place to place, conquering new lands and fighting our wars would have been much harder. Without dogs, protecting our homes, livestock and our fields would have been impossible. Both species have influenced our culture more than any other species on the planet and both, regardless of what humans believe, deserve the utmost respect for surviving alongside humans, the most dangerous, complex and inconsistent species on earth.
A Fatal Dog Attack – How Missing Key Signs Led to TragedyPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 06/20/13 at 12:06:17 pm - 19 Comments
Yet another tragedy! A poor little boy lost his life to a dog bite. According to newspaper reports about the incident, he was 'engaged in some kind of horseplay' with the dog and 'may have attempted to climb onto the dog's back.' Media outlets are highlighting the fact that the dog was a pitbull mix and have quoted one behaviorist who states that it’s common for pitbulls 'to show no signs of aggression' until some kind of trigger makes them attack. I wonder how many pitbull types this 'expert' has actively come into contact with, because I know of no dog breed or mix of breeds, including the pitbull, that doesn’t give warning signs during times of discomfort, irritation, annoyance, anxiety or fear. Yes, these signs can be very subtle and easily missed - especially by those that don’t understand canine language. These signs can happen within a split second before the dog reacts. But there are environmental and situational signs in this tragedy that need to be taken into account and they are very clear:
- The dog was a two year old unneutered male. Unneutered males are responsible for many of the severe attacks and human deaths because the presence of testosterone can cause heightened reactivity, intolerance and sensitivity. Most responsible owners will spay or neuter their dogs unless the dogs are used for police or military work, showing, competition or responsible breeding.
- The dog was an outside dog – ‘he was never allowed in the house’. Dogs that are kept outside are generally less socialized than dogs that live closely with the family unit. Outside dogs are often purchased to protect property.
- The child was engaged in what appears to have been highly physical ‘play’ including trying to ‘ride’ the dog before the dog turned and bit him. I write and speak constantly on the importance of educating parents and caregivers to monitor their children around their own dogs and dogs of friends, relatives as well as dogs they don’t know. But just go online and see the hundreds of YouTube videos that parents post of their kids doing all kinds of things to their dogs, including standing on them, holding onto their faces, riding them etc and thinking that it’s cute!
There are some people who don’t like it when I speak out about punitive training methods and say that because I’m a positive trainer I don’t work with aggressive or ‘red zone’ dogs. Well that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I work extensively with canine aggression in private homes and shelters. I work hard to rehabilitate dogs that have bitten and get them to a place where they no longer feel the need to bite. I do it without yanking, jerking, hitting, kicking, poking, restraining or using shock collars. I believe in giving every dog a chance but I am also realistic in the fact that some dogs are just too dangerous to be around humans. I work with all kinds of breeds and mixed breeds, from Pomeranians to pitbulls. I also work with my colleague, retired police lieutenant, canine aggression and forensic expert and VSPDT trainer Jim Crosby. We are brought in by police departments if they need help investigating severe maulings or human fatalities by a dog that has happened in their communities. I help Jim physically evaluate dogs that have killed people as well as working through crime scene pictures or going to crime scenes to determine what happened. The work can be very distressing but it’s needed in order to find out the truth of what happened and why and to assemble data to educate dog owners everywhere so these preventable tragedies never happen.
So the question comes up yet again: who was to blame for this horrendous attack? The dog, the child or the parent or relatives that were responsible for the child’s care? Yes, some attacks are simply tragic accidents while others could have been prevented. But the plain facts are these: bites, severe maulings and fatal attacks do not happen ‘out of the blue.’ They are often the result of a perfect storm of environment, situation, misunderstanding and human failure.
Choice Training – Working with a Leash Reactive DogPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 06/18/13 at 11:06:43 am - 16 Comments
My Labrador Sadie spies a dog in the distance and as the dog approaches she turns her head to look at me. Her eyes catch mine and I smile at her, telling her what a good girl she is. She turns again to look at the dog as he walks past and then back at me. I praise her courage and the decision she made to remain calm in a situation that previously caused her fear.
When Sadie first came into my life four years ago, she was what I would call a reactive dog, lunging towards and barking viciously at any dog that walked past or came close to her. In the first five years of her life with another family, she had obviously learned to protect herself by behaving in a threatening manner. In her mind, each time she aggressed, she kept herself safe by making sure no dog came into her space, and by the time she came to live with me, the behavior was so deeply ingrained, it had become a well rehearsed ritual. Fortunately I was able to temper her reaction and teach her a new way to cope and behave in similar situations. The techniques I used meant I could change her behavior without physically punishing or imposing my will upon her in any way. I just gave her choices.
Choice training is not a new concept, but is one that I have used for many years to guide dogs into making better decisions in all kinds of situations. Because modern day dog training is still polluted by the more traditional punishment based methodology, choice training has been somewhat pushed into the background, but the beauty of this method is that it works, and yes, even with the aggressive or ‘red zone’ dogs.
It saddens me how dogs are manipulated and pushed around. For example I regularly see owners and trainers teaching their dogs to sit by pressing down on their poor animals’ backsides, or punishing them by poking, kicking or restraining them on their sides or backs in an effort to dominate and gain control. The flawed idea that a dog will only learn to behave through force and fear is sad and misguided, but people are still misled into thinking that these methods are the right way to go. This leads to elevated stress levels that could be avoided if time was taken to understand how dogs’ learn and how they can be taught effectively. Choice training is a beacon of hope in what is still a dominating world.
Choice training involves catching actions and behaviors that you like and marking them with rewards that your dog finds motivating. These actions and behaviors can then be the dog’s ‘default’ behaviors that he or she can use in certain situations. A default behavior gives the dog an alternative and makes him more positively confident in a situation that previously made him insecure. The dog is then gradually exposed to increasingly stressful situations and is watched to see what alternative behavior he offers. If the behavior is something that counters a previously undesirable behavior, the dog is rewarded. If he chooses negative behavior, he is quietly removed from the situation until he is in a place where he can learn again.
The only way Sadie knew how to deal with a scary situation was to lunge and aggress. Suppressing that behavior with punishment would have probably worked momentarily, but as in most cases, punitive suppression does not change the way a dog feels, but merely puts a bandage on the problem, which is likely to resurface again in a similar situation. Not only that, it is simply wrong to punish a dog for being nervous or insecure and only serves to make the insecurity worse. I changed Sadie’s behavior by showing her that not only was there another way to behave, but it actually made her feel better.
I began by teaching her a variety of actions she could use, such as sit, walk on and watch me and paired her success with rewards she loved, which ensured that her learning process was a fun and enjoyable one. I then taught her a combination of actions. Whenever she looked at a dog in the distance, I said look and rewarded her for looking but not reacting. I then asked her to watch me and when she turned her head towards me, she got another reward. After many repetitions (and a very kind friend who brought her dog along and worked with us) she was eagerly looking at the strange dog and back at me because the action was now reinforcing for her. I then faded out the food reward I gave her for looking at the dog and used it only at the end of the sequence – when she looked back at me. As the dog came closer we continued with the sequence. At no time did Sadie have her back to the approaching dog. If Sadie reacted negatively at any point, I turned her away and took her to a place where she felt safer and learning could continue again. Because Sadie is highly motivated by food she easily learned the process. We quickly got to the point where she could watch the other dog walk past with no reaction whatsoever.
I repeated the sequence with a number of different dogs and then when I believed Sadie was ready to make her choice, faded my cues out of the picture. Would she used the series of alternative behaviors I had taught her or revert back to lunging and aggressing? I gave her a loose lead and stood still, as a dog that Sadie had never seen before, approached. Saying and doing nothing I waited for her to make her choice. Each time she looked at the dog and back at me I smiled and quietly praised her, but at no time did I issue a cue or do anything else. When the dog walked by, Sadie watched him and then looked back at me. I could see in her eyes how happy she was and rewarded her for her bravery. She knew she had accomplished something that day, and as we continued over the next several weeks, her confidence increased and her new ‘choice’ behavior became fixed.
I can’t tell you how wonderful it is for me to see a dog learn, think for themselves and grow in confidence through success. It is what makes my job so rewarding. Of course, I start the process by giving dogs’ alternatives, but at the end of the day they are the ones that make the final choice. The beauty of this training is that it encourages dogs to think for themselves while gaining confidence from the choices they make, without being pushed, punished or physically manipulated in any way. My presence was still important for many months, as it gave Sadie confidence, but she was gradually able to walk with other people and is now even greeting other dogs successfully on and off the leash. Lunging and barking was not only stressful for her, but exhausting. Her ‘choice’ in comparison, requires little energy and the rewards are much more satisfying for her. Sadie will never be a highly social dog because of her past experiences, but she now has a group of canine friends that has made her life infinitely more rewarding.
Choice teaching is a great method for teaching all kinds of reactive and fearful dogs, but can also be useful when teaching pups and adults simple cues. For example when I teach a dog to ‘sit’ on cue, all I do is find out what motivates the dog, be it a toy or treat, and hold the motivator in front of them. The dog then has to work out how he is going to get the reward out of my hand. He might try a variety of actions such as pawing, licking or nibbling at my hand but the reward is not given until he puts his bottom on the ground. As soon as he does so, he gets the reward and this is repeated again and again until I am ready to put a cue word to the action of sitting.
For so long dog training has been about force, fear and physical manipulation, which renders the dog into some kind of performing robot and doesn’t allow for the dog to think for himself. It might sound strange to those well versed in the more dominant style of training, but all dogs, regardless of breed and drive, have evolved to have excellent problem solving skills, and therefore have the ability to think for themselves, be guided to listen, take direction and make the right choices.
The New VSPDT Phone Consultation Program – Talk to a VSPDT Trainer!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 05/25/13 at 09:05:13 am - 4 Comments
We get hundreds of emails every day asking for dog training and behavior advice from dog owners around the world who are committed to raising their dogs the right way. In the past, those looking for answers to their dog-related questions had only two options. Either they could try to navigate through the thousands of available web sites about dog issues (which even if they found solid advice from good science-based sources, it would be a one-way conversation). Or they could search for a local trainer near where they lived, in which case they’d be at the mercy of whichever trainers happened to market themselves most effectively. Sadly, a majority of such trainers these days still employ outdated, less effective, and often dangerous training techniques which misdiagnose the root of most behavior problems and misapply the concept of dominance while using punishment to ‘correct’ a behavior.
Now there’s another choice.
Starting in May 2013, Victoria Stilwell Positively has made our global network of world-class dog trainers available to every person in the world who is looking for science-based, professional help with their dogs. Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainers (VSPDTs) are professional dog behavior experts who are personally approved and licensed by Victoria herself, and who practice only the same powerful, force-free, positive training methods employed by Victoria.
While I may not be available to help you personally with your dog, now you have access to the next best thing – a qualified, licensed trainer who you know you can trust to employ the same science-based, force-free, pain-free and intimidation-free techniques that I use on TV and in private practice to help get you back on track.
Whether you’re simply looking to get off on the right foot with your new puppy, just added a new rescue dog to your household, or are looking for help solving an existing behavior issue with your dog, contacting a qualified positive, force-free dog trainer should be your first step and most important course of action. With the new VSPDT Phone Consultation program, you now have access to the finest trainers in the world who can help get you started, identify key training protocols, help define what to look for when hiring a local trainer, and provide a qualified support system which you can trust to be a positive solution.
While phone consultations with VSPDT’s are valuable starter tools and perfect solutions for those looking for training help who are not in an area served by a licensed VSPDT, it is important to note that nothing can replace the value of an actual in-person session with a licensed Positively trainer. For those not able to find a VSPDT trainer near them, however, or for those looking for a little general guidance before determining their next course of action, a phone consultation is an ideal bridge solution.
So go ahead. Get started. Register for your phone consultation today and get connected with one of my amazing VSPDT trainers – you and your dog will be glad you did.
Why Are Dogs AggressivePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 05/23/13 at 01:05:46 pm - 13 Comments
Defining what aggression means is not easy, because there are so many variables associated with what is a highly complex behavior. But by investigating the function served by an aggressive act as well as why it occurs and what result it achieves from the dog’s point of view, we can begin to gain a better understanding. At its core, aggressive behavior addresses the dog’s need to increase distance from a perceived danger and includes threat and action displays, ranging from a subtle lip lift to a deep bite. In most cases the intention is not so much to harm as it is to change the “threat’s” behavior by making it go away.
Aggression is deeply rooted in the dog’s instinctual need for safety. Growling, snapping, lunging, and biting are critical ways of communicating intent, and whether that intent is to warn, intimidate, resolve conflict, increase distance, defend, or cause harm, it’s designed to ensure personal safety and survival. Even on an emotional level, when a dog is fearful, frustrated, angry, anxious, stressed, or in pain, safety is of paramount importance. Most dogs don’t live their lives walking on eggshells, but the functional need for safety is intricately woven into most aspects of aggressive behavior.
Of course, there are those who explain all aggressive behavior in terms of dominance, but as we now know, using the “d word” to describe every dog’s intent can be misleading. Because the term itself suggests a preconceived plan by the dog to use aggression as a means of establishing an elevated status over others, this fuels an owner’s anger and encourages a rank reduction protocol involving punishment, confrontation, and other unpleasant methods to establish an owner’s authority, which in turn increases the likelihood that the dog will aggress again in the future.
Although aggressive behavior is an effective way for dogs to control their environment, affect behavior in others, ensure priority access to resources, and achieve reproductive success, using the dog’s supposed desire to be the ‘alpha’ to explain why dogs aggress does not do justice to what is really going on in the dog’s mind. A more accurate explanation lies in the fact that if a dog has not been taught how to function successfully in a domestic environment he will behave the only way he knows how. He may control access to food, space, furniture, or other things that provide comfort and pleasure, by aggressing, but this is more likely done out of fear that he will lose access to those resources and not because he wants to be “above” everyone else in the household.
So if attaining the position of ‘alpha’ is not the root cause of domestic dogs’ aggressive behavior, what is?
Genetics, health, age, sex, fear, an imbalance of brain chemicals, hormones, and whether the dog is intact or neutered--all are factors that influence aggression. Studies show, for example, that due to higher testosterone levels, intact male dogs between eighteen months and two years of age have a greater incidence of aggression than females or neutered males. It is also important to point out that even though dogs can bite when in pain and because of other medical reasons, there are some cases of aggression that simply cannot be easily explained. These cases are categorized as idiopathic (unexplained) aggression, which manifests itself as a sudden explosion absent of any known trigger. Idiopathic aggression has been linked to chemical disturbances in the brain, such as canine epilepsy.
There is a clear link between anger, anxiety, and fear-based aggressive behavior. This has recently been demonstrated by Dr. Karen Overall of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, who found that dogs with a history of aggression problems have levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones similar to those of dogs that suffer from fear and anxiety. When a dog aggresses, he surpasses his stress threshold, causing his limbic system (the emotional brain) to take over as he prepares for flight or fight. When this occurs, the cerebral cortex (the learning brain) is inhibited, explaining why it is so hard to get a dog’s attention and encourage him to learn when he is reacting, as he is at that moment incapable of rational thought. To overcome this situation, a punitive trainer would try to suppress the aggressive outburst with punishment, whereas a positive trainer would immediately remove the dog from the stressor by quickly walking him away or creating some distraction to cut through the reaction. Only when the dog is in a calmer state can he begin to learn again. The secret to successfully treating aggression is to never put your dog in a situation where he goes over his stress threshold. Achieving this requires sensitive, compassionate handling and the manipulation of his environment to set him up for success while working on ways to change the way he feels about a particular stressor.
Unfortunately, we cannot sit down with our dogs and ask them how they feel, but we can observe them closely to understand why they feel. Helping an aggressive dog become more confident by teaching it to see a perceived threat or potential loss of a valued resource in a different light is the key to successfully changing the behavior. For some dogs this can be achieved in a relatively short period of time, but others require more time; each dog learns at a different pace. Positive reinforcement is the most effective philosophy to use in these cases, because the methods have a lasting impact, even on the “red zone” dogs.
Owners want quick fixes for their dog’s aggressive behavior because they worry about what damage their dog may do, but the “quick fix” idea demeans a dog’s emotional experience and is psychologically unachievable. When a dog is suffering from anxiety or fear, it is sheer foolishness to profess that he can be “fixed” quickly; this idea of “success” is dangerous and fundamentally wrong.
Imagine what would happen if people who suffered from chronic fear or attacks of anxiety went to their psychotherapists and were guaranteed they’d be “cured” in an hour, a day, or even a couple of weeks. Those therapists wouldn’t be in business for long. Successfully addressing fear and anxiety-related behaviors in both humans and dogs takes time, patience, and an understanding of what’s going on in the brain and body. It’s true that some positive behavioral modification processes take more time and work on the front end, but the result is a lifetime of positively changed behavior. Quick fixes may suppress the behavior at that moment, but because they don’t actually change it, you could spend a lifetime dealing with the problem
A dog needs time and support to change the way he feels emotionally; punitive training only puts a bandage on the problem without really addressing the cause and changing the way the dog feels inside. Even though it may look like the dog is “behaving” better, continual suppression of aggressive behavior through punishment is very dangerous because every incident creates another negative experience for a dog that is already a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
Unlike other manifestations of aggressive behavior, predatory aggression is not emotionally driven and is largely influenced by genetics. Some dogs do find it reinforcing to chase other animals or moving objects as it fulfills an instinctive need but this is only the beginning of the predatory sequence. Humans have bred the desire to bite and kill out of the domestic dog, but occasionally a deeper instinct takes over. Although many dogs, including my Sadie, enjoy shaking and disemboweling stuffed toys, this sequence does not translate to live animals or people. Herding breeds are adept at eyeing, stalking, and chasing their “prey,” but they will seldom attack and kill the animals they are herding. Dogs that are motivated by the chase, grab, bite, and kill part of the sequence can be very dangerous to live with, especially around small animals and children.
Aggressive behavior serves many important functions for dogs; it is a deeply rooted natural instinct that ensures reproductive success, safety, and survival. If aggression is successful it can be an effective way to repel a perceived threat and to control resources, space, and environment. On an emotional level, aggression causes extreme stress for dogs, especially if triggered by a traumatic incidence, abusive handling, or an inability to cope with continually changing environments. Regardless of its origins or intent in the dog’s life, aggression is almost never a useful or wanted behavior in any domestic environment and must be treated appropriately in order to preserve the well-being of the dog, the environment, and his human family.
You can find more about aggression and workable solutions for aggressive behavior in my new book, Train Your Dog Positively.
Using Positive Reinforcement on Dogs vs PeoplePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 05/20/13 at 02:05:53 pm - 4 Comments
Everyone knows I use positive reinforcement in my dog training. You’re probably sick of hearing me go on about it. But an issue that comes up more frequently than you might think is the idea of using positive reinforcement in the human side of dog training – and let’s be honest, the human aspect is the biggest part. The dogs are usually pretty easy – it’s the humans that need the most help!
The short answer to whether my passion for positive reinforcement applies to my work with my human clients is ‘yes – of course.’ Like all dogs and almost all other animals, we humans respond better to encouragement and praise than we do to fear of punishment and pain. Just look at how we’ve developed as a society in terms of how most of us raise our kids. When I was going to school, I still remember getting the switch (British version of the paddle) when I was naughty or got something really wrong. Nowadays, thank goodness we’ve evolved and our children are built up and encouraged to try, fail, try again and eventually aim to succeed – all with a positive spirit. That’s why I say that the way we raise our kids is very similar to the way positive trainers work with dogs. It’s very much the same.
The only caveat to the whole ‘positive trainers should only use positive reinforcement with the owners too’ concept is that there’s a big difference between a mature, world-wise, emotionally complex and intelligently aware human adult and both dogs and most kids. Some people argue that positive reinforcement dog trainers should only ever practice positive reinforcement with their human clients as well, and that it’s a double standard if they don’t. And while that’s a noble goal that is almost always the preferred and first choice for how to approach a situation with a client or friend regardless of dog training techniques, the comparison breaks down a bit when you try to ascribe the same level of expectation and communication techniques to dogs and sentient, intelligent human adults.
Think about it for a minute. Say you and a grownup friend both want the only glass of cold water in the room after you return from a long run. You’re both thirsty and are dying for a drink. Now say your grown friend acted like a selfish, petulant baby by slamming the glass of water down, breaking the glass and saying ‘If I can’t have all of it, no one will have any of it!’ If that exchange happened with a 3 year old, you’d have different expectations and handle the situation quite differently than if it were an 8 year old, an 18 year old, or a 48 year old. We quite rightly expect more mature people to better understand the consequences of their actions on others, exhibit more restraint, and generally behave better than a toddler.
Now apply this to dogs. Keep in mind that most dogs have the emotional maturity and intelligence level of an average 2 year old human child. You can’t reason with them to the same extent you would a teenager or an adversary across a boardroom table. You can’t expect the dog and toddler to be able to understand the complex nature of what you may be planning like an adult should. More specifically, you don’t expect a mature adult to consciously make as many potentially dangerous, ego-centric choices, and your ability to withstand such immaturity from someone who should know better is understandably much less.
Over the course of 110-plus episodes of It’s Me or the Dog, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation for not being particularly restrained when it comes to expressing my opinion and letting people know what I really think in a given situation. (Did I put that fairly?) Obviously a portion of that is due to the fact that while it’s a dog training show, the networks need a bit of a story to be told and a bit of slight dramatics never hurt in that cause. But I never put anything on for the camera. If I acted shocked, disgusted or dumbfounded by something the owners or dogs did on a show, it was because I was genuinely shocked, disgusted or dumbfounded.
Some people who are not the biggest fans of positive training in general and me in particular have occasionally reached for the argument that I’m ‘not nice’ to people I work with on the show, and that that shows a certain hypocrisy in my methods since I preach so vehemently for positive, enriching relationship-building in my dog training methods. I respectfully disagree.
If someone is being a jerk, I’ll tell them they’re being a jerk and will not back down from it. If they’re acting like a bully or endangering those around them – especially children – I’ll let them know that I completely disapprove. I hold humanity in high regard, and expect a certain level of empathy, awareness, compassion and generally good, safe behavior from grown adults who should know better. When people don’t act that way – whether it’s my husband, someone on my TV show, or a work colleague – I have no problem calling things like I see it and labeling their words, actions or behavior as unintelligent, ignorant, or uninformed. I also fully expect everyone who interacts with me to hold me to the exact same standards (if not higher, given the added responsibility I’ve been blessed with due to my increased public profile).
But I wouldn’t treat a dog or a young kid like with the same level of expectation. And I also wouldn’t insult a grown adult by assuming they have the same level of awareness and inter-relational insight skills as a dog or a two year old toddler.
Sometimes dog training clients can be rude. Sometimes they can willfully make your life miserable. Sometimes they can get combative regarding suggested techniques just to spite you. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for not being respectful of others and having an open mind regarding new ways to approach things, especially with an expert in their field. Turning the other cheek is great and something we should all do when we run into nasty people, but when supposedly mature people who should know better display ignorance or a superior attitude that just peeves you off, it’s not always possible (or even advised) to look for an opportunity to ignore or redirect the bad and reward the good the way we do with young kids and dogs as positive trainers.
So where does that leave us?
While positive training has been proven by modern behavioral science to be the most effective and long-lasting approach to building solid, trusting relationships with our pet dogs (and other animals), it’s also generally a good guide to live your life by in your interactions with others. Sadly, however, there is ignorance, mischief and even malice in our human world among those with whom we sometimes live, work or play, and that malignancy comes from a different plane of consciousness than the more simple, beautiful mind and hearts of dogs and young children. With dogs, you never need a heavy hand – they don’t understand why they’re suffering it and it doesn’t help them to learn deeper or faster. Plus it’s not as fun and it breaks down the relationship. With mature human beings, though, very occasionally you may need to get in someone’s face to make a real difference in the world – but only if there are no other options and you’re sure that as sentient, rational beings they’re fully able to comprehend the complexity and nuance of both yours and their own behavior and the impact it has on the world.
So do I use positive reinforcement when working with dogs? Yes, 100%. Do I use positive reinforcement on young children and those without an adult sense of maturity? Yes. Do I employ positive reinforcement concepts 100% of the time with grown people? No, not always when I’m dealing with those who should know better.
Kitties!!!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 05/09/13 at 12:05:17 pm - 7 Comments
For the past couple of days, we've been fostering 3 adorable little spring kittens until they get adopted. We've been feeding them, doing some light socialization and generally loving on them, and my daughter is nearly beside herself with joy. Meanwhile, Sadie and Jasmine have become inordinately alert at all times (we keep the kitties in a separated saferoom far from the dogs), especially when they get a chance to listen to the baby squeals and smell the fresh kitty smells.
Miami Dog Bite Prevention ConferencePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 04/17/13 at 05:04:24 am - 4 Comments
A lot of people have asked why we would choose to host a VSPDT Dog Bite Prevention conference in Miami - a city in the news recently for its unwillingness to overturn a law banning certain types of dogs based on the way they look.
As any regular readers of this website and/or my social media feeds knows, I am a vocal and proud supporter of the worldwide efforts to overturn breed-specific legislation (BSL) like that which is currently on the books in Miami. But far from shunning such municipalities, I feel it is even more crucial that those of us armed with the statistics, knowledge and common sense about the inefficiencies and unfairness of BSL to attack the issue in such cities' back yards.
Miami is not alone in its decision to restrict ownership of certain breeds in an effort to reduce dog bites. Indeed, the proliferation of BSL in communities is global and widespread. What the generally well-meaning proponents of these laws don't know or don't make public, however, is that we've yet to find any municipality which has instituted BSL and seen the number of dog bites decrease. In fact, bites in the UK have risen steadily since the introduction of the BSL-laden Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 - a trend mirrored worldwide.
Big, strong bully breeds have continually been demonized as 'killer dogs' and correspondingly decreased in number, only to see the tragic news of more serious maulings and deaths of young children become more and more frequent.
Such tragedies are the inspiration for the creation of the Dog Bite Prevention Task Force and the global Dog Bite Prevention Conferences like the one we're holding in Miami on April 26th. These dire and fatal attacks must stop, and they can if we continue to educate everyone - not just dog owners, and not just people who have certain types of dogs. Every parent, every child, every educator, mail carrier, aunt, uncle and nanny needs to understand more about dog body language, what are warning signs from potentially dangerous dogs, and that any breed of dog can bite, just as any breed of dog can make a good family pet.
The Dog Bite Conferences are igniting a conversation about that need for education. We don't want to preach to the choir - we need teachers, doctors, lawyers, animal control officers, parents, and dog owners all to come together to begin to understand what does (and what does not) constitute a dangerous dog in order to stop these heartwrenching tragedies from occurring.
The next Dog Bite Conference is on April 26th in Miami, and I encourage everyone to spread the word to everyone they know so that we can begin to turn the tide in this fight against ignorance and dangerously misplaced warning systems.
Dog Tattoos – A Horrifying New TrendPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 04/05/13 at 06:04:19 am - 21 Comments
I am horrified by this interview with a man who has made headlines by elaborately tattooing his dogs. As if one man doing this weren't disgusting enough, the worldwide attention he is garnering is only going to encourage others to do the same. This is a result of the same "macho" mentality that keeps people from neutering their male dogs and has made cropping a dog's ears a popular trend. Our dogs shouldn't be used as status symbols. If you need to express yourself, do it on your own skin--not your dog's.
Train Your Dog Positively Book ExcerptPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 03/18/13 at 10:03:01 am - 6 Comments
An exclusive excerpt from Victoria's new book, Train Your Dog Positively, which is available from March 19th in the US:
Positively Website Suggestion BoxPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 03/18/13 at 10:03:47 am - 1 Comment
We're working on an all-new Positively.com, and we need your help! There are a lot of exiting new additions and features that we'll be rolling out in the new layout, but we'd love to hear from you regarding what you'd like to see in the new incarnation.
Want new training articles? More videos from Victoria? Easier-to-find tips? Let us know!
Complete the form below to put in your request. (Oh, and before you ask, yes, we'll be changing the background and text color so that it's much easier to read!)
Snowshoeing with VSPDT Trainer Louisa Morrissey and Her DogsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 03/05/13 at 12:03:28 pm - No Comments
I'm not much of a skier (learned too late, much too cautious, etc), but I do love being in ski-country during the winter. Last year, I visited Aspen, Colorado and spent some awesome days hanging out with avalanche dogs, sled dogs, the Aspen Animal Shelter, and learning about the very cool sport of ski-joring with one of my CO-based VSPDT trainers, Louisa Morrissey. You can check out the avalanche and skijoring Ehow videos here, or see the Aspen Animal Shelter segment here.
But I thought you might like to see a little clip of my daughter Alex and me snowshoeing yesterday. Our host and guide was once again Louisa (her business is called Skijor N More), and this time she brought two of her lovely dogs who were used to hitting the snowshoe and cross country ski trails in their skijor harnesses. So this was a great opportunity to spend some time working with them to stop pulling as if they were doing their usual jobs, but still pull us just enough to help keep us moving up the mountain.
Here's a video we shot yesterday on the trail:
Dognition Is Here!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/08/13 at 03:02:27 am - 4 Comments
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I receive a lot of calls, emails and letters from companies and people asking for my opinion or endorsement of their new product or service. Very often, the idea behind what’s being pitched is quite interesting, and in many cases the product is actually pretty good. But I take very seriously the responsibility that I’ve been given as a public figure in the pet industry, and I feel it’s really important to ensure that I’m very selective about those individuals and companies with whom I’m associated, even if it’s a somewhat tangential connection.
In a field as fast-growing and complex as the pet industry, it’s pretty tough to distinguish yourself with something truly novel and noteworthy which also aligns with my relatively precise requirements to promote positive training. Every now and then, however, something comes along that makes a real difference in our ability to better communicate with and live alongside man’s best friend. DogTV was one such idea, and I remain quite honored to be involved as a consultant as its footprint continues to grow around the world. The groundbreaking Canine Noise Phobia Series I developed in partnership with Through A Dog’s Ear to address noise sensitivity desensitization and prevention is another. That brings me to what I honestly believe will serve as another breakthrough in our ability to better understand our canine companions and to help build truly healthy, balanced relationships with our pets:
The brainchild of the esteemed Dr. Brian Hare, assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University and the driving force behind the Duke Canine Cognition Center, Dognition is a user-friendly, scientifically-based online tool designed to identify key personality traits in individual pet dogs while providing users ongoing support specifically tailored to their dog’s unique strong suits. Basically, think of it as a Myers-Briggs personality test for dogs with a custom-designed followup plan to help you communicate better using an enhanced understanding of what exactly makes your dog go (as well as what doesn’t.)
There are two primary components of Dognition which made my decision to join its expert panel a no brainer.
First, this is more than a cute little concept designed to help you pass some quality time with your dog. Yes, it’s fun, but there’s also real, serious science behind the Canine Assessment Toolkit (CAT) which is at the heart of Dognition. This test which serves as the entry point for a user’s experience with Dognition is the result of years of study and work by Dr. Hare and his team of behavioral scientists. It’s not for the faint of heart, as it takes a couple of hours of concerted effort, but it’s also a rewarding and enriching experience in its own right.
The second unique factor is the fact that Dognition does not simply email you a report and wish you luck. Instead, contributors such as myself have agreed to work with the Dognition team to provide a high-level followup process that includes training articles, games and suggested tools which are customized for your dog based on the results of the CAT test.
As a leading proponent of science-based positive dog training methods, my team knows that I will not even consider partnering in any way with an entity that doesn’t fully comprehend and help to promote positive training at the expense of dominance and punishment-based ideologies. It’s an uphill battle, to be sure, so extra care must be taken to make sure that no part of anything that associated with myself and the Positively movement can even be seen to tacitly endorse methods and philosophies against which I’ve campaigned so vocally for years.
Regular readers of this website or fans of my TV shows have no doubt heard me talk about how modern behavioral science has proven to us that positive reinforcement is a more effective, longer-lasting and safer method of training than using pain, fear and intimidation. I often quote those drivers of scientific thought who have revealed some of our most dangerous and damaging misconceptions about pack leadership, misguided comparisons between dogs and wolves, dominance and punishment in dog training. Well, Dr. Hare is one of those scientists who are helping lead the way out of the darkness in terms of our understanding of our dogs and how we should treat them. That’s why I’m so excited to be working with him and the Dognition team to bring this valuable new tool to the dog-owning public.
Check out Dognition at www.dognition.com and see for yourself. I’m pretty sure your dog will thank you as well.
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Military Spouse of the Year Nominee Helps Military DogsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/05/13 at 04:02:14 am - 1 Comment
It doesn't matter how many times I see it, but every time I witness a story about the warm reunions between those serving our country and their human family members, it gets me down deep. As a mother, I have the utmost respect and admiration for those that answer their country's call and are able to leave their families behind to protect and serve. I honestly don't think I could do it.
But what about the pets that are left behind? Ever wonder what happens to all those pets whose owners are deployed overseas for extend periods of time with the military?
All members of our US military go above and beyond in their service to our country, but I was told recently about someone extraordinary who extends that service to the well-being of military pets as well. Through her organization, Dogs on Deployment (DoD), Alisa Johnson matches military pet families with foster families needing homes.
According to its website, "Dogs On Deployment is a 501(c)(3) national non-profit which provides a central online database for service members to search for individuals or families who are willing to welcome a Dog On Deployment into their home for the length of their owner's deployment." Having placed animals with over 200 families, Alisa and DoD also rescue animals and assist with medical issues and spay/neuter costs.
Alisa is currently training in Texas to fly C130 planes, while her husband, Shawn, is on active duty in the US Navy. Although they are separated physically, that doesn't stop Alisa from finding ways to connect. "Despite our physical separation, we are connected to each other through our passion in helping improve the military community, specifically in the aspect of pet ownership," states Alisa.
In honor of her work with DoD on behalf of military pets, Alisa has been nominated for the Military Spouse of the Year award. We encourage you to vote for her before the end of the day today, February 5th, when voting closes.
You can find out more information about Alisa's nomination and vote for Alisa today only here.
DoD is also working to standardize military pet policies with breed neutrality in private housing, access to pet education on military bases, stronger consequences for military pet cruelty/abandonment and to have the military create an overarching pet policy. Check out their Change.org petition to the Department of Defense.
Too often, we take for granted both the large and the small sacrifices made by those serving in our armed forces. While we must always strive to celebrate those who put their lives on the line for our safety, we must always be aware of the toll that sacrifice takes on our four-legged companions as well.
Do You Have Time For Your Dogs?Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/22/13 at 01:01:27 pm - 31 Comments
Today I have a hundred and one things to do. As well as filming for the various shows I have, I run a business that takes up a lot of my time. I am also a mother, and when I am not on the road, my daughter and her needs take precedence over everything else. Yes, there is a team that works with me, but like a lot of people, my workload is still vast and it’s hard to find the time to get everything done. I’m not complaining, but I think that sometimes my dogs might.
I have never been comfortable with having dogs that just fit into my day. I fully admit that there are some times when I don’t want to take them for a walk or play with them – there are so many other things I need to get done and it would be a lot easier if I had those extra hours each day to do them. However, I just don’t feel right until my dogs have had daily exercise and all their needs have been attended to. I personally cannot concentrate until I know they are fulfilled, which means I make sure a certain portion of the day is set aside just for them. I am responsible for making my dogs’ lives the best they can be and I encourage all my clients to try and do the same with theirs – making time for the animals in your life is essential for their physical and mental health.
Almost all of the dogs I work with that demonstrate negative behaviour, do so because they have little to no daily outlet. Many people bring dogs into their lives for selfish reasons and don’t make the time to fulfill their dogs’ needs. Consequently, these dogs spend long hours by themselves with nothing to do, forcing them to find their own ways to cope with boredom. All too often, this means chewing on household items, barking uncontrollably, or becoming reactive and anxious. Ultimately the prescription for problem behaviours like these is an easy one – a simple modification protocol that includes more physical and mental enrichment. Advising my clients to utilize the tools I give them is the easy part, but the follow through can be a lot harder.
If you’ve watched my show, you will, on many occasions, have seen me shake my head in despair, when after advising a family on the importance of enrichment and having given them a plethora of ideas, I return to a myriad of excuses as to why they couldn’t follow the plan. This is sometimes coupled with an irritation that their dog is still behaving badly, as if it is somehow my fault. I’m sure there will be many trainers and other animal professionals reading this who have had similar experiences. And when I think I’ve heard every excuse, another one always comes along that is more far-fetched than the last.
Why am I writing this now? Because just the other day I had a client tell me they did not want to give their border collie too much exercise because she would only build up more strength and stamina and then require more exercise if they did. I suppose they had a point, but I had been called in because this was a dog that was already climbing the walls in her urban household, and without more outlets for her boundless energy and super canine intelligence, the poor thing would go out of her mind and become even more of an irritant for her lazy owners.
If you and your family were interviewed by your dog before she came into your home, how would you have convinced her that you were the right home and family to spend the rest of her life with? Would you have passed the interview process? Could you offer her everything she needed? How do you think you measure up now to the promises you made then and her expectations of you? I love asking my clients these questions because it really makes them think about what they have to offer and what they could improve. I know many dogs that could have avoided lives of interminable boredom if they had had the chance to interview a family before going to live with them. If my dogs sat me down and told me how they felt about me I’m sure they would fail me in certain areas, but I know they would also give me a high score for trying. They would tell me that they love their walks, but not the way I stop them from indulging in their favourite pastime, rolling in fox or coyote poo. They would probably ask if I could spend a little less time on my computer and more time curling up with them. My lab Sadie would definitely demand more food and both would appreciate a standing invitation to the dinner table. Jasmine would tell me how much she loves playing with the chase it toy and both would thank me for loving them as much as I do and for giving them a safe and comfortable home.
Enrichment positively changes lives. Walking, playing and socializing. Problem solving, chewing and eating. Team activities, games and quiet together time. Finding the right balance can help modify or in some cases completely eliminate problem behaviour, dramatically changing a dog and a person’s life for the better. And the beauty of enrichment is that it can be so simple and easy to do, it just requires a little thought and good management of your time.
So throughout a busy workday my dogs get a morning and afternoon walk, or one long walk a day if I can’t get to both. They have quiet time to recharge and then game time, which might involve vigorous play or problem solving exercises like hide and go find. They have a daily activity/chew toy that is filled with part of their daily food allowance and the rest of their food is fed at mealtimes through a different and more complex puzzle/activity toy. In the evening they enjoy the simple yet much loved pleasure of just being close and cuddling up together.
I’m lucky, because in my household there is always someone around who can make sure that my dogs get what they need if I’m not there, but even if your dogs spend more time by themselves, there are still ways to give them appropriate outlets throughout the day. Dog walkers, day care, durable chew toys, calming music, (and in America, a new and wonderful invention called DogTV) to mention but a few. For those of you who work out of the house all day, getting up a little earlier in the morning to exercise your dog and then hiding toys and treats around the house for your dog to hunt for while you are at work is part of the prescription. (Care should be taken with the hunt and go find it game if you have a multi dog household that has disagreements over resources such as food and toys). A combination of these two activities can tire a dog out for hours and is a lot cheaper than hiring a dog walker or dropping a dog off at day care.
I am not a very organized person but I work hard at being the kind of person I think my dogs want and need me to be. I certainly seem to be on the right track, as my dogs appear very happy and content. I know I don’t always hit the mark for them, but where enrichment is concerned, I do my best to make sure they have as many outlets as they need. That is why I waited so long before I had dogs of my own, because I wanted to give them the best life possible. Sure, my dogs complete me and make my life better, but I work as hard as I can to do the same for them.
Martin Luther King – How to Lead Without ForcePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/21/13 at 03:01:37 pm - 6 Comments
Today we celebrate a great leader. We all know about how he helped advance civil rights and effect change around the world. We teach our children about the value of sticking to your core beliefs and allowing strong but understated confidence in the power of justice run its course like he did. But perhaps the most defining characteristic of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is his unwavering commitment to advancing his cause through the use of nonviolence.We continue to learn much from MLK, but the impact he continues to have on us as a society today applies not only to our human relationships.
The most effective and powerful leaders are able to change the behavior of others without imposing their will through the use of physical force. I wish we could all take this to heart as it relates to our relationships with our pets as well.
Despite the significant advances we've made as a culture over the past several decades in our understanding of animal behavior, there remains a virulent and undiminished undercurrent of resistance to the concepts of building relationships with our pets that are based on mutual trust, respect and love rather than pain, fear and intimidation. Despite the successes of my various TV shows and other projects, I'm continually confronted by those who believe that positive training is nothing more than a cute little sideshow that's helpful for naughty chihuahuas and earnest soccer moms.
Like Dr. King's, the battle to change people's perceptions of how we should interact with our dogs is an uphill fight. But as the evidence from the scientific community continues to mount and our collective willingness to allow others to treat pets more like livestock than cherished family members erodes, it becomes clearer and clearer that there is no alternative in sight but to win the fight.
Though the sentiment is obviously on a far different plane than the struggle over civil rights for all humans, we positive trainers, too, have a dream. We dream of a world where it is commonly understood that punishment and pain have no place in dog training. Where forced cooperation and submission through the use of intimidation and fear are universally recognized as outdated and less effective. Where positive reinforcement is celebrated as the most humane, long-lasting tool to combat unwanted behavior in all dogs - whether it's for common housetraining issues or severe aggression. Where we don't have to counteract and undo the damage inflicted on those whose owners are susceptible to the zen psychobabble of popular media culture.
On this Martin Luther King day, we celebrate the legacy of a great leader who harnessed the power of nonviolence and gentle, persistent persuasion. Let's try to do his memory justice not only by how we interact with our fellow humans, but also our four-legged companions.
Enter the Dog is Good Contest!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/21/13 at 02:01:51 pm - No Comments
Many of you are familiar with our good friends at Dog is Good with whom we produce the Victoria Stilwell Collection of apparel. The essence of their brand is about how great we feel when we are with our canine companions, and they do this in very clever ways. To describe the wonderful feeling we have when we are with our dogs, they came up with the word "dogvergnügen" which they define as "the unique joy you feel in the presence of Dog."
This month I am honored to be a judge for the first month of their year-long contest called If "You've Got Dog, You've Got Dogvergnügen." Photographs need to be of you and your dog(s) and must depict "dogvergnügen." This month's winner will get a $50 gift certificate to the Dog is Good webstore, an "I Like Big Mutts" tote bag (which I love), and a special gift from me. The winner will also be entered in the annual contest.
Please enter by going to facebook.com/dogisgood, like their page, and then click on the contest banner near the top of the page. You will need to act fast, the contest ends Jan 27th!
Change is PowerfulPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/06/12 at 02:12:42 am - 35 Comments
I have always enjoyed a challenge. Whether I’m working on a complex behavioral case or brokering a workable deal among quarreling families, it’s a challenge I welcome and work hard to resolve. The most dedicated trainers are the ones that never stop learning, never sit back and think they know it all and always work to perfect their skills. Even after fifteen years of teaching, including eight years of It’s Me or the Dog, I am still growing and perfecting my skills with each new experience I encounter. Failing a case has never been an option and maybe it’s this trait that has kept me going for so long.
I’m not going to pretend the journey has been easy because however much I do, there is still so much that needs to be done to guide people towards a better way of teaching their dogs and improve the well being of animals around the world. This is one of the reasons I formed Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT). The VSPDT network is comprised of some of the best positive reinforcement trainers in the country dedicated to spreading awareness of humane methods to the dog loving public. If you are a trainer and are interested in joining VSPDT go to www.vspdt.com or if you are looking for a qualified trainer to teach you and your dog, please go to: www.positively.com/trainers
I still find it hard to comprehend how anyone can justify teaching a dog through pain, force and fear, when decades of research and a mountain of scientific and observational evidence continues to prove how destructive these methods can be. Teaching people to train their dogs in a humane way is not just a moral issue; it has become an issue of public health and safety. Punitive training methods are having a profound affect on our canine companions, making them more insecure, unable to communicate and more aggressive as a result. Mankind is destroying what was a beautiful relationship and putting their dogs, themselves and their children at risk as a result. There are approximately 10.5 million dogs in the UK and 78.2 million dogs in the US, and while education and humane training is not going to solve all canine problems, it will certainly go a long way to make things a lot better for our dogs and for ourselves.
While punitive trainers vehemently defend their use of forceful techniques, they are finding it harder to discredit the insurmountable evidence supporting the fact that hitting, poking, kicking, restraining, hanging, jerking and using electric shock to teach dogs causes pain, fear, anxiety, distrust, shyness, insecurity, increased likelihood of aggression, irritability, frustration, learned helplessness and in many cases, complete shutdown. And that’s just for starters. I can’t see how any sane person can validate using techniques that have such a high potential to cause harm.
Following extensive discussions with a number of notable human behavior experts on why people use force or feel the need to dominate other beings, I learned the following: The general feeling among these professionals is that some people use force and punishment because they need to be in charge and fear losing control. This might be because they have been or are being dominated themselves by a family member or friend, or because the tendency to dominate others is inherent within them. Other people simply don’t have the time or the desire to investigate what training methods are best and grab whatever is most available, even if they instinctively know the techniques they are using are inhumane. Whatever works to fix a dog’s behavior as quickly and as easy as possible is preferred and validated. Dog training is an unregulated profession, which means there are too many people advertising themselves as trainers that simply don’t have the qualifications and use force because they don’t know or don’t want to know any better. Because there is an ever-increasing amount of bad press about punitive training techniques in the media, some trainers use the ‘positive reinforcement’ buzzwords to sell their services to prospective clients even though these trainers still employ punitive methods in practice. Some trainers use positive reinforcement techniques to teach dogs what to do, but lack the knowledge and/or skills to use humane techniques to curb unwanted behavior. It is relatively easy to use positive reinforcement methods to teach a dog to do something, but it takes advanced knowledge and skill to stop a dog from doing something negative WITHOUT using punitive techniques. Viewers might be impressed by what looks like a heroic battle to ‘rehabilitate’ a deranged, aggressive animal on some television shows and copy what they see, but in reality what they are viewing is just an act of violence from a human to a dog, designed to suppress negative behavior through dominant control. The great tragedy in all of this is that when the dog finally submits to this force, his submission is labeled a ‘success’ even though he is not submitting calmly at all, but has been BULLIED and FORCED into submitting. A submissive dog’s stillness is often mistaken for calm, when in reality the dog’s body and mind have reached such a state of distress that the dog shuts down, ceasing all movement in an effort to avoid further violence. This state of stress, often mislabeled as a dog being ‘calm submissive,’ gives people a false impression of what the dog is actually feeling, including a belief that the methods employed to get him to that point, worked. This is not only desperately sad for the dog but very upsetting for those of us who really know what is going on in the dog’s mind.
I must make something clear at this point. I do agree that harsh punishment curbs negative behavior at the moment it is used, (unless the dog fights back, which is often the case and is why so many punitive trainers and their clients get bitten when they use domination), but here again is the reality: When you use pain, punishment and intimidation to teach dogs to ‘behave’ you are likely to see a difference in behavior very quickly and this will positively reinforce that what you did to get that difference did indeed work. This will make you feel good, even though you might feel slightly guilty that you used combative methods to get the desired result. But be aware, just because you might see an improvement in behavior, this does not mean that the behavior has been CHANGED. You might think your dog is behaving better, but this is only because your dog has been intimidated or dominated by you or your trainer into submission, and he is now ‘behaving’ out of fear of repeated force. He still feels the same inside, even though the outward expression of how he feels has been suppressed… for now! This improvement in behavior is labeled, by those who don’t know any better, as a success, a great rehabilitation; the dog is fixed or cured! But again, shut down, suppression and learned helplessness is NOT CHANGED BEHAVIOR. If anything, your dog is now even more insecure because of the treatment he experienced and worse still, by using punishment, you haven’t taught him anything useful. You haven’t given him a new skill or shown him that he can ‘be’ and ‘feel’ another way, which will help him behave in a more positive way in the future. That’s the beauty of humane training. Instead of putting the emphasis on punishment, positive trainers put the emphasis on teaching dogs new behaviors and new ways to cope in different situations, and yes, it even works with the aggressive ‘red zone’ dogs or dogs with high drive. It’s not about just stuffing a treat in a dog’s face, it’s about finding each dog’s individual drive and using that to help him learn and overcome any behavioral issues he might have.
If you use punitive techniques, be warned that your dog will associate you with negative experiences and distrust you as a result, even if it looks like he is still your best friend. Dogs are very forgiving! Forcing submission on your dog won’t change the way he feels inside and increases the likelihood that he will revert back to his former behavior at some point, and when he does, it will be much worse than it was before. This is especially true for aggressive dogs. After punitive handling, their aggressive response might be suppressed for a time, but when the stress becomes too much, the aggression will resurface again with a lot more intensity. If you fight fire with fire, you will get burned.
I can write numerous columns, books, produce videos, film TV shows, or do seminars all day on this subject, but that won’t help change things unless people are willing to learn, discover and change for themselves. We are creatures of habit and it’s hard to change our behavioral patterns. But I think it is time to ask the question: am I truly doing everything possible to ensure my dog is happy, trusts me, and is pain free and secure? Am I someone who my dog truly wants to be with or does he only follow me because he’s scared of what will happen to him if he doesn’t?
If what I write annoys or angers you and you think I’m wrong or are sick of being preached at by the British girl who trains dogs on TV, then I encourage you to read the numerous books and articles written by some of the brightest animal behavior minds in the business: Dr. Patricia McConnell, Suzanne Clothier, John Bradshaw, Karen Pryor, Dr. Sophia Yin, Jean Donaldson, James O’Heare, Alexandra Horowitz, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Nicole Wilde, Turid Rugaas, Dr. Ian Dunbar, to name but a few.
My biggest challenge is to continue promoting positive change, even though this sometimes makes me the target of ridicule by those who are threatened by what I say. I understand that it takes courage to change, but the more humane you are towards your dog, the better your lives will be. The right kind of knowledge is very powerful. As more and more people make the switch to gentler teaching methods, the canine and human nation will be safer and more stable because of it.
Get Ready for Severe Winter WeatherPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/04/12 at 05:12:45 pm - 1 Comment
A Q&A with Charley English, Director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency/Homeland Security (GEMA)
Winter weather can be hazardous for you and your dog, especially if you aren’t prepared. I recently spoke with the director of Georgia’s emergency management agency to get some tips for pet owners on weathering winter storms and other disasters.
Victoria: Charley, let’s start with the basics of emergency preparedness. Why is it important to prepare, and where do we begin?
Charley: Anyone can get ready in three basic steps – prepare, plan and stay informed. Prepare by assembling a Ready kit filled with all the emergency supplies you would need to survive for three days without assistance. Make a plan for communicating and reconnecting with family members. And stay informed by educating yourself on how best to respond to various disasters. Taking these three steps can save your life.
Victoria: What should we dog-lovers do to prepare? Are there specific items we should include in a pet-friendly Ready kit, especially as the winter months set in?
Charley: For those that are unable to help themselves, such as our pets, it’s critical that we make time to prepare on their behalf. During winter months, a blizzard or ice storm can often strike without much warning and you could be stuck at home for several days. You don’t want to get caught short on dog food or any medications your pet takes on a regular basis, so go ahead and stock those in your Ready kit now. Also make sure that you have a warm, dry place for your dog to take shelter during extremely cold weather.
Your Ready kit should also include copies of important documents such as proof of vaccinations, identification tags, blankets to keep your pet warm and a photo of you and your pet together, in case you were to get separated in a disaster. Our online pet resource page lists these and many other necessary items. It also features more information on how to protect your pet in emergency situations.
Victoria: That covers the Ready kit, but what should we do to include our dogs and other pets in our emergency plans?
Charley: I’m glad you asked, because this is step is incredibly important. People often assume that they’ll be able to take their pet with them in case of an emergency, but most shelters do not allow pets due to health reasons. If you had to evacuate your family due to a disaster, you would need to know where to go immediately, so I suggest keeping a list of pet-friendly hotels in your Ready kit or making arrangements with family or friends in advance. NEVER leave your pet chained outside. Another good tip is to talk to your neighbors and set up a buddy system so you can check on one another’s animals if you happen not to be home.
Victoria: Charley, thank you so much for sharing this vital information. For those us who love our dogs like family, it’s so important to know what to do in the event of an emergency.
Charley: I’m happy to spread the word, Victoria. I hope every pet owner takes the time to prepare their pets for severe winter weather and any other emergency.
Thanks To You!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/15/12 at 01:11:26 pm - 20 Comments
Thanksgiving is one of my all-time favorite holidays. Being from Britain, I of course did not celebrate Thanksgiving until I met my American husband, but since then, I’ve come to truly appreciate what is one of the least commercialized major holidays. I also value this time of year as a rare opportunity to do what we all love to do best: eat good food and spend quality time with friends and family.
So I thought this would be a good time to let you all know how very much you all mean to me.
I am extraordinarily blessed with a wonderful family, dear friends and an amazing team to work with, but I wanted to take the time as we begin a new holiday season to thank you for all you’ve done to allow me to live my dream every day. I won’t call you ‘fans’ because you’re much more than that. My daughter is a ‘fan’ of Taylor Swift, but however much she may love Taylor and however hard Taylor tries to engage and reach out to her millions of adoring fans around the world, it’s still pretty much a one-way relationship.
To me, you’re more than fans because of the passion you all share for making the world a better place for our animals. As a music fan, you can’t really do more than sing along with latest pop song on the charts on the way to school, but all of you do infinitely more than that in your daily lives. From spending extra quality time on a long walk with your pup to cuddling with kitty while watching TV, to volunteering at the local shelter to attending your local doggie meet up in the park, you are truly making a difference in the lives of animals, and I thank you for that.
As we continue the journey of raising awareness about the dangers of compulsion training and the beautiful power of animal-human relationships built on positive training ideals, it can sometimes be hard sledding to face the headwinds of several decades’ worth of misinformation. But the fact that you all engage in the discussion every day and work to change the world one person at a time gives me strength as well. Together we are making a difference in the lives of our beloved animals, and the momentum behind the movement towards positive training is undeniable.
So thank you. Thanks for watching the TV shows. Thanks for reading the books. Thanks for being involved on Positively.com. Thank you for trusting your local VSPDT trainer. Thanks for coming to see me at local appearances.
But most of all, thank you for your passion for promoting healthy, happy relationships with your own pets. Thank you for your dedication to searching for and committing to truly humane, force-free, effective and long-lasting methods, for communicating with your dogs and building relationships based on mutual trust, respect and love instead of pain, fear and intimidation. Together, we’re moving the needle, and now a world where we collectively understand what our dogs need to thrive and flourish, is within sight.
Victoria Stilwell’s Top Ten Halloween Pet Safety TipsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/22/12 at 06:10:57 pm - 5 Comments
Halloween is an awesome holiday, especially for chocoholics like me! But most of our pets don’t necessarily enjoy fright night quite as much as we do, and there can be extra dangers lurking for them that we should help them avoid. Here are a few tips for keeping your pets happy and healthy on Halloween:
Top Ten Halloween Safety Tips:
- Keep the candy bowl away from your pets. Candy is never a good idea for any pet, and chocolate in particular can be very dangerous for dogs and cats thanks to a toxic chemical called theobromide. Put the candy bowl where your pets can’t reach it and be sure to lock the cupboard door so they can’t do some scary scavenging.
- Careful with the costumes. We may love dressing ourselves up, but I’m pretty sure that if we asked our dogs and cats, they’d agree that they’d just as soon not wear that canine superman outfit you think is so cute. If you absolutely must dress your pet up, consider a simple themed bandanna, or at least make sure the outfit is not constricting, uncomfortable or harmful to the animal. Dog costumes often cover so much of the body that their ability to express important canine body language signals to us or other dogs is compromised, which can lead to unnecessary, avoidable instances of aggression or bites.
- Don’t take your dogs trick or treating with you, even if you’re confident that your dog will be able to handle it. There are too many unknown factors on a night like Halloween, and even if your dog is well-adjusted, some others you encounter may not be. Plus, seeing a bunch of four-foot tall Yodas and goblins can unnerve even the most placid dogs.
- Keep your dogs away from the door during trick or treating hours. Again, even if your dog is a good, well-mannered greeter, your smaller guests are not always prepared to see dogs bounding down the hallway or sniffing their candy bags. Just play it safe and keep your dogs and cats locked away in another part of the house for those couple of hours.
- Make sure any electric cords for holiday decorations are out of reach of your pets, especially if they’re chewers. Nibbling on a hot wire won’t turn out well for anyone.
- Be sure your jack-o-lanterns with live flame inside them are also kept out of reach. They can get easily bumped or knocked over, leading to fire hazards.
- Halloween is a great excuse to make sure your dog or cat is microchipped. Given all the crazy sights and sounds of the evening, many pets end up running away each year.
- Keep your pets indoors on Halloween and in the days surrounding it. There are just too many jerks around sometimes, so play it safe and don’t tempt fate.
- Head out for your afternoon or evening walk with your dogs well before trick or treaters start hitting the neighborhood. No reason to risk a frightful encounter with Buzz Lightyear and his noisy, flashing guns and jetpacks.
- Desensitize ahead of time. Be aware of how stressful the repeated ringing of the doorbell can be for dogs. If you haven’t already, take some time to desensitize your dogs to the sound of the doorbell or knocking in the weeks leading up to the big night so that they’re prepared.
My Busy October!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/22/12 at 06:10:50 pm - No Comments
I don’t know why, but October always seems to be one of the busiest months of the year for me. It’s also one of the most fun and rewarding, and this October has not let me down!
Between my filming schedule, the Hero Dog Awards in LA, my trip to Savannah for a school and jail dog program visit, a cat training session in Denver for the winner of the InFURvention contest, the APDT conference, ongoing development of new projects, my work with VSPDT, and of course being a wife and mom, it’s been a pretty full few weeks.
I’m not one of those people who is very good at sitting still, so I was very glad to have a full plate, but it’s also great to be home for a few days as we gear up for Halloween with my daughter and a visit from my mother.
To start the month off, I was honored to have been asked to go to beautiful Savannah, Georgia to speak to an entire school full of kids eager to learn about dogs and how to be safe around them. You may have heard me discuss the case of Javon Roberson, a sweet, courageous young boy who was the unfortunate victim of a vicious dog attack over a year ago. The incident left him severely scarred on his face and psyche, and I had the privilege of meeting him during our first National Dog Bite Prevention and Awareness Conference in Atlanta last May. His advocate, Cheryl Labon, brought him to Atlanta to discuss the importance of dog bite prevention education, and I was struck by his bravery as he opened himself and his story up so that other kids might not have to go through the same ordeal. I had the unique opportunity of talking about dog safety to Javon’s school, and had a great time talking dog with some truly wonderful kids.
Aside from the obviously powerful narrative that Javon provides, one of the most enriching aspects of my recent visit to Savannah, however, was in witnessing the evolution his advocate, Ms. Labon, underwent regarding her position on dog safety issues. While I am a firm opponent of Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) due to its inefficiencies and tendency to focus on the wrong end of the leash, I am aware that many still do not share my views. After witnessing the effect Javon’s attack had on him, she developed an all-too-common conclusion that the specific breed of dog that attacked him (pit bulls) should be limited, controlled and reduced in an effort to lower the likelihood of dog attacks in the future.
As we now know, such BSL does not actually reduce dog bite statistics – they’ve actually risen in almost every municipality where BSL has been introduced. To Ms. Labon’s credit, after over a year of concerted effort to institute and lobby for BSL in and around Savannah in Javon’s name, she showed tremendous courage and gained an admirer in me when she announced during my school visit that she had changed her mind and would immediately stop efforts to institute BSL on a local level. This type of willingness to listen to, appreciate and ultimately respect an alternative point of view on such an emotional and contentious issue is exactly what’s needed in the fight against BSL all over the world.
While I was in Savannah, I also had the opportunity to tour the fantastic jail dog program for Chatham County, Operation New Hope. Along with my excellent Savannah-based VSPDT trainer Kevin Ray, I was treated to a fascinating tour of the program at the jail by the lovely Sgt. Brooks, and came away very impressed by the work being done both by the correctional staff and the inmates with the dogs.
Later that week I headed off to Los Angeles with my family to attend the 2nd annual Hero Dog Awards presented by the American Humane Association. This is one of my favorite events of the year, as the honorees of the gala event held at the Beverly Hilton are truly the dogs who have made such a difference in the lives of others. I was honored to join an all-star roster of human supporters such as Betty White, Kristen Chenoweth, NCIS’ Pauley Perrette, Jewel, True Blood’s Michelle Forbes and many more in presenting awards and tributes throughout the evening. I even got to hold a real Olympic gold medal courtesy of my co-presenter, swimmer Ricky Berens. The human highlight of the night, however, was in being able to share such a moving and beautiful experience with my 8-year old daughter who joined me on the red carpet for interviews and photos before the awards show started. The Hero Dog Awards will be broadcast on November 8 at 8pm ET/PT on the Hallmark Channel – be sure to tune in and watch the amazing stories. Check out my photo album from the Hero Dog Awards.
While I was in LA I also had the chance to attend the kickoff event for Fido Friendly magazine’s Get Your Licks on Route 66 event. This nationwide initiative works with shelters all over the country to encourage adoption, and I am honored to serve as the official spokesperson for this year’s tour. It’s always great to connect with those on the front lines of animal rescue and adoption, and Jan and the team at the LA Animal Services East Valley Shelter were wonderful hosts to me, Susan Sims (Fido Friendly) and everyone who attended the daylong event.
After LA it was off to Denver to work with the winner of Banfield’s InFURvention campaign to help encourage cat owners to get their pets to the vets for regular checkups. A big deterrent for many cat owners is the battle royale that sometimes ensues when trying to coerce kitty into the carrier, so I helped a lovely family find positive solutions to getting their furry friend into the cat carrier.
Finally, I just returned from Cincinnati where I attended the annual Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference on behalf of Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT). I love going to this conference, in part because it’s so great seeing so many respected peers and colleagues in the pet behavior industry, but also because I learn so much every year. Behavioral science is always evolving, and we’re constantly figuring out new ways of more effectively communicating with our dogs and promoting positive training ideas at the expense of traditional, punitive training methods. So I sit in on lecture and seminars from some of the world’s leading trainers and behavioral scientists and soak up as much as I can. FYI, any trainer who claims to have it all figured out and says they don’t need to learn any more is someone to avoid at all costs – we all always have more to learn, and I love it. Check out my APDT Conference photo album.
APDT is also a great chance for me to hang out with my amazing team of VSPDT trainers from all over the world. These people are truly the cream of the crop, and some of the best trainers you’ll find anywhere. We get to share ideas, connect on future projects, and generally have an awesome time building what I truly believe is the most welcoming, engaging, supportive and inspirational group of dog trainers in the world. They’re the best, and to find one near you, visit www.positively.com/trainers. For more info on how you can become a VSPDT, visit www.vspdt.com.
European Tour Recap – Part 2Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 09/19/12 at 08:09:55 pm - 20 Comments
This summer I had the great fortune to travel around Europe with my family while delivering a series of live shows, training seminars and other appearances. In part one of this blog, I described the incredibly enriching experiences and people I encountered during the first half of the trip while in Finland and Italy. After wrapping up a successful two-week tour through Italy, I returned to England for a bit of downtime with my UK family and friends.
My mother had recently moved from the house in Wimbledon where she’d spent the previous 45+ years – the house I lived in since I was born. I grew up there and it had remained a constant touchstone throughout the various stages of my life until this year, so it was somewhat sad to know that it would no longer be where I’d return ‘home’ during visits from the US. I had some truly wonderful experiences and memories centered around that house, many of which revolved around (what else?) Wimbledon tennis.
The fence at the end of our back garden led directly into the practice court area on the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis Club where the Wimbledon tennis tournament is held every June and July. The popping sound of tennis balls from those practice courts was the soundtrack of life for our family, and while the seemingly endless rounds of major construction work being done to improve the grounds year after year was a sometimes significant annoyance for my mother, the fact that we were a part of the Wimbledon tennis experience for so many years was something my tennis-mad late father had always craved and truly loved.
My mother’s new house is lovely, and we spent a few days recharging (and doing some much-needed laundry) there before heading off to Dublin for what would be an eventful and sometimes exhausting week. I was excited that my mother was able to join us during this trip, as it provided an opportunity for her and my daughter to have some cherished grandmother/granddaughter time together.
We arrived in Dublin in time for me to make the rounds on the Irish morning news circuit in support of my training seminar in County Donegal over the weekend and of course, Lennox. The seminar was presented by a dynamic dog trainer called Clare Boyle of Lupanast Dog Training Centre. Clare is passionate about the promotion of positive training techniques, especially in the more remote (and truly stunningly beautiful) areas of Ireland like Donegal.
We were treated to a wonderful weekend of dogdom, from Clare's lovely countryside training location to the chance to spend time with her talented group of agility club members. It was also a chance for my daughter to make some new young Irish friends during my seminar and over the long weekend of activities. Another highlight was an inspiring trip to see the great work being done by Rainbow Rescue shelter - a group to which I was honored to be able to present a donation made possible by the fundraising work of Clare and her team.
The purpose of my trip was also to spend some time with Lennox’s family and try and set up a meeting with the Belfast City Council (BCC). For those of you who don’t know the story, Lennox was an American Bulldog/ Labrador mix, who was the victim of antiquated and ineffective Breed Specific Legislation in Northern Ireland (mixed with what I and many others feel was a healthy dose of bias and questionable tactics on the part of the BCC).
The case of Lennox garnered worldwide attention, in large part because of how close to home it was for many dog owners and dog lovers all over the world. Lennox was a loving family pet, serving as an unregistered therapy dog to an 11 year old girl with chronic asthma and an integral part of a imminently responsible pet-owning Belfast family of three. He was microchipped, licensed, and well-behaved, with no reports or history of aggression. One day in 2010, Lennox was confiscated based solely on his bodily measurements. While the current Northern Irish version of the UK’s Dangerous Dogs Act does indeed restrict the ownership of dogs deemed to be of ‘pit bull type’ (there’s no such thing as an actual ‘pit bull’ – it’s an amalgamation of several different types of recognized breeds) based on such measurements, the spirit of this outdated and ineffective law (dog bite statistics have actually risen throughout the UK since its introduction) was twisted for what can only be assumed to be personal or political reasons. Lennox was confiscated for two years, during which time his family was restricted from ever seeing him, inspecting his living quarters (a few alleged photos of Lennox in situ showed relatively abysmal kennel conditions), or tending to his various medical conditions. He was evaluated by two qualified, professional canine behavior experts as well as a former police dog handler hired by the prosecution solely to corroborate his bodily dimensions and measurements. The two qualified experts deemed the dog to be no danger to the family or the public, while the police dog handler graphically described him as one of the most dangerous dogs he’d ever met. The judge in the case apparently put more stock in the prosecution’s ex-police dog handler who possesses no verifiable professional canine behavioral assessment certifications rather than the two behavioral experts and ruled that Lennox should be euthanized. After a lengthy appeals process and repeated pleas for the court system to allow me to personally remove the dog to a safe haven in the US at my own expense, on July 11th the BCC announced that Lennox had been destroyed. You can read more about the details of the Lennox case and why BSL is such a flawed concept in theory and practice by clicking the links below.
During the tumultuous final days of the Lennox case, I continued to speak out publicly and loudly about the injustices and incomprehensible decision-making of the Belfast City Council as it related to Lennox. Working in tandem with Lennox’s family and the legal team while on the ground in Ireland, I repeatedly attempted to contact those with the power to reverse the fate they had so desperately fought to achieve. I offered them face-saving alternatives and the opportunity to make right what had gone so horribly wrong for two full years, but they refused, apparently set on waiting out the clock so that they could kill Lennox and try to move on. But those of us invested in his case as well as the cause of fighting BSL and discrimination of family pets based solely on the way they look, will not let them move on. We have continued to lobby for changes to the law on a large scale and investigate the myriad inconsistencies and suspicious claims and events in the BCC’s specific case.
For example, although the BCC could not help but be aware of the extreme pain and sensitivity the loss of Lennox would cause the Barnes family, they have since shown either a propensity towards total incompetence or a complete lack of common decency on numerous occasions since Lennox’s destruction. The day Lennox’s death was announced, I received a call from a reporter asking if I had any comment now that the BCC had successfully killed the dog. Assuming that the family must have already been notified, I called and left a message for them letting them know how sorry I was to hear the news. Only later did I learn that I was in fact the first person to have notified them that Lennox was gone – the BCC had not even given them the courtesy of a phone call! Since then, the Barnes family has lobbied constantly to be given Lennox’s collar as a keepsake for their distraught daughter, Brooke, and for Lennox’s ashes to be returned to them to be used as a memorial. The collar has still not surfaced, and after much cajoling, the Barnes family was the subject of one final indignity from the BCC: a paper-wrapped parcel containing some ashes (supposedly of Lennox, though DNA proof is not available with ashes) in a plastic grocery bag. Given that neither the family nor any 3rd party representative was allowed to be with Lennox during his euthanasia, see his body after the euthanasia or be given his collar, there are legitimate suspicions that Lennox died months prior to the date his death was officially announced, and that the primary factor behind the BCC’s complete resistance to letting my rehome him in a safe and secure sanctuary in the United States, allow myself or Jim Crosby to see him, or return any of his belongings to the Barnes family, was some form of coverup of the truth regarding his well-being. These of course are just rumors, but I join many thousands of observers around the world who have been given no reason by the BCC not to wonder if these rumors are true.
There are two levels to this story. On the one hand, the fight endured by the Barnes family represents the larger issue of the inadequacies, ineffectiveness and unjustness of BSL around the world. Many thousands of innocent, well-behaved dogs have been the victims of local municipalities’ efforts to try and do the right thing in keeping the public ‘safe’. These local governments are often enforcing laws put upon them by higher entities or, as was the case in the UK in 1991, bowing to knee-jerk reactions to some truly tragic dog bite incident. In both cases, BSL doesn’t work. It doesn’t reduce the number of bites, doesn’t make the public safer, and it targets often responsible dog owners who happen to have larger, more powerful, but well mannered/non-aggressive dogs.
The second issue in Lennox’s case in particular is what I and many others perceive to be poor governance, shoddy interpretation of already flawed legislation, possible political or personal motivations and the result of unbridled defense of both political and professional ego. During my trip to Ireland, I was fortunate that after a year of speaking on the phone and trading e-mails I finally had the chance to meet and spend an afternoon with the Barnes family in their home. I met their other dogs, talked with them about their ordeal and generally got a feel for the type of people they are. They also told me some of the internal indignities they’ve suffered privately at the hands of their local government, and I must say I was disgusted to hear of the way they’ve been treated by those who were put in office to serve them and the citizens of Belfast. I won’t go into more detail about their plight, but suffice it to say that if even half of what they described to me was true, it would be enough to warrant those members of the council being replaced in their government positions.
Following the final verdict on Lennox, there has been a lot of discussion about boycotting Northern Ireland and Belfast in general. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and reactions (provided they’re within the law), but I personally don’t feel that boycotting a country or city is the solution to BSL worldwide or governmental mismanagement in Belfast. Too many innocent bystanders can be detrimentally affected by such boycotts in my opinion. But that’s not to say that we should let this case lie. There are far too many suspicious and inconsistent decisions that have been made regarding Lennox by the BCC to allow it to be swept away, and we must all remain diligent in our efforts to help shine a bright light on what happened to him so that we can avoid this type of tragedy elsewhere in the future.
The Barnes family may have lost the battle for Lennox’s life, but I remain in contact with them and while they continue in their quest for answers from the BCC, they have also redoubled their resolve to fight BSL worldwide so that others need not suffer as they and Lennox did. I and countless others will be there alongside them all the way.
Throughout my European trip I met some amazing individuals, witnessed the powerful work being done by great organizations and spent time expanding my horizons with my family. Being in Ireland fighting for Lennox was exhausting, but even though we lost the battle for his life, collectively I would hope that we’ve shined a bit more light on the subject of how to keep people safe from truly dangerous dogs without demonizing entire breeds based on the way they look. As always, there is a mountain of work yet to be done, but those several weeks in Europe helped reignite my belief that together we can indeed make the world a better place for dogs and their people.
Watch PAL’s New Video; Your Pet could Star in the Next OnePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 09/14/12 at 09:09:41 am - 3 Comments
Remember a few weeks ago when I posted a great video from the Pets Add Life Campaign (PAL) that encourages pet owners to adopt multiple pets of all types, because like us, pets need friends too? Well, today I’m happy to share PAL’s newest video, featuring two hilarious ‘cat consultants’ - Jupiter and Kona. Check it out below!
In the video, PAL hires Jupiter and Kona to help devise a plan to encourage owners to adopt more than just one pet. Their idea is just brilliant, because it gives your pets the opportunity to be the new star of PAL’s next Talking Animals video! So, here’s your chance to make your pet a star! Whip out your camera and capture your pet “talking” on film for a shot at starring in PAL’s next video. Submit here!
I hope to see YOUR pet pal in the next video, and I encourage you to share Jupiter and Kona’s contest as well! Be sure to also follow PAL on twitter and Facebook for more hilarious videos, updates and news.
Celebrate National Dog Day!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/25/12 at 05:08:23 pm - 6 Comments
There are over 78 million owned dogs in the U.S., and 39% of all American households include at least one dog. This Sunday, August 26th, is National Dog Day, giving many of those dogs and the people that love them reason to celebrate. As someone who has dedicated my life to helping people build healthy relationships with their pets based on mutual trust, respect and love, I have one of the best seats in the house on days like this and I honestly believe that I have one of the best jobs in the world.
These special animals are unique among pets, and the bond we’ve developed over many thousands of years of domestication and partnership is one-of-a-kind. Anyone who has shared their life with the family dog knows this. But on National Dog Day, while we are celebrating our love for and devotion to man’s best friend, we must also take time to remember those who aren’t here to celebrate with us any longer.
Losing a pet can be a truly devastating event. We lost our beloved cat, Angelica, several years ago, and my eight-year old daughter still occasionally lights the ‘kitty candle’ to let her know that we still love her and think of her. And while any current pet owner who has previously lost a pet can use a holiday like National Dog Day to remind them to give their furry pals an extra squeeze or a few more minutes of belly rubs, there are many dogs, cats and other pets that have never felt that kind of love.
Many of you are familiar with the case of Lennox, a Labrador mix from Belfast, Northern Ireland who was euthanized recently following a two year legal battle to return him to his loving owners. Despite the fact that the dog was registered, microchipped and well-behaved, the Belfast authorities claimed that due to his bodily dimensions, he was of ‘pit-bull type’ and confiscated him, keeping him in a kennel for two years before killing him while claiming their hands were tied due to the law. I met with Lennox’s owners in Belfast last month, and knowing what conscientious, loving, responsible pet owners they were to Lennox and continue to be with their other animals, my heart goes out to them today.
But it’s not only the victims of breed-specific legislation (BSL) that we must think of. Every year, between 5 to 7 million dogs and cats enter American shelters. 3 to 4 million will be euthanized, 60% of those will be dogs (the number is even higher for cats). We are suffering from a chronic pet overpopulation problem, and the most frustrating thing is that it simply doesn’t have to be this way.
As a nation, the U.S. is improving in terms of the number of dogs we’re adopting instead of breeding or buying – 21% of currently-owned dogs were adopted from shelters. We’re also making progress regarding spaying and neutering, with up to 78% of American dogs spayed or neutered. But we still have a long way to go, as evidenced by the fact that 20% of people who leave dogs at a shelter originally adopted from the shelter as well. This is a return policy where the math doesn’t add up to a happy ending.
People often ask me if it’s ever too late to train dogs, or if their older dog is a lost cause. While it is true that, like humans, some older dogs’ brains don’t fire quite as quickly as they did in their youth, the wonderful thing that dogs have going for them is that above almost everything else, they still retain a desire to learn and simply want to please us.
Some people abuse that fact, using domination and intimidation to ‘train’ their dogs and force them into a mythical state called ‘Calm Submission’, but more and more people are beginning to see that that type of approach is outdated and ultimately less effective (not to mention inhumane!)
The short answer is that it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks, but the more important thing to remember is that it’s also never too early to begin working with your young dog. Watch the puppy training and socialization videos I’ve produced on the eHow Pets YouTube channel, read books promoting positive training ideas, and use consistency and perseverance when working with your young dog – it will pay off in the long run and you’ll be doing your part to ensure that your dog won’t become a casualty of our pet overpopulation numbers at the same time! To find a professional, force-free dog trainer certified and licensed by me, check out the Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer search page.
In between filming projects and speaking tours, I continue to work with rescue groups all over the world, and I have the utmost respect for those on the front lines of the battle to overcome our pet overpopulation problem. One of the most successful and mutually rewarding projects I’ve come across is the Gwinnett County Jail Dogs program, featured in the American Dog series on the eHow Pets YouTube channel. In this program, shelter dogs are brought into the jail where inmates train them using positive reinforcement methods in order to make the dogs more adoptable to the public. I’ve witnessed firsthand the power that these dogs and inmates can have on one another as they help to rehabilitate each other from the inside out.
On this National Dog Day, give your dog a little extra love, but also remember that there’s much work to be done to make sure that all dogs are eventually able to experience that same love and devotion.
Announcing My New Line of Premium Ladies Tops!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/02/12 at 01:08:36 pm - 14 Comments
I'm thrilled to announce that the first in my new line of premium ladies shirts that I co-designed with our new partner, Dog is Good, are now available! Featuring 3 beautiful new designs intended to celebrate the positive in our relationships with our dogs, this launch marks the beginning of an exclusive partnership between myself and a dynamic dog-related apparel company that I've long admired.
When we began looking for partners to help expand the Victoria Stilwell Positively apparel collection, it quickly became clear that there was really no decision to make at all. I've known the team behind Dog is Good for several years, having first met them during a shoot for It's Me or the Dog in Los Angeles.
I've always loved their witty, fun, elegant and perfectly-pitched products, and as we began discussions about the possibility of working together, it was quickly obvious that both companies shared a passion for promoting the ideals behind the Positively concept: make the world a better place for dogs and their people by encouraging positive relationships and avoiding the use of fear and punishment when building bonds based on mutual trust, respect and love.
These first three shirts perfectly echo that mission, and I'm proud to be bringing them to the market now:
This lipstick-red, long sleeved, fashion-fit v-neck tee features one of my core beliefs: "I want my dog to follow me because she wants to, not because she's afraid of what will happen if she doesn't." Including a silhouette of my own beloved Sadie, the inside of the design lays it out further:
Because she knows I will treat her with Kindness.
Because she knows I will care for her and return her Loyalty.
Because she can Trust that I will give her a home where she will be Safe.
Because she looks to me for Guidance and I look to her for Inspiration.
Because with a little bit of Respect and Cooperation, all things are Possible.
Kindness is Powerful... Pass It On
Proclaiming a favorite phrase of mine, this short-sleeved essential fit t-shirt says it all. I truly believe that great power lies in the ability and confidence required to be kind in any scenario, and that if we treat our dogs with the kindness they deserve, our relationship with them is on the right track towards harmony and balance. For too long, traditional trainers have claimed a monopoly on the concept that in order to be a successful leader, you must exert your power and influence over your dog by forcing him into submission. Nonsense. True, we must be effective and strong leaders, but the best leaders effect change in others without the use or threat of force or intimidation. This t-shirt celebrates the greatness that can be uncovered by showing kindness not just to animals, but also to each other.
I love this design, as it simply and succinctly conveys what I try to accomplish in my work with animals. If we can inspire one another to respect our pets instead of treating them as things we own and control, we'll all be infinitely better off. Gone are the days when we need to dominate our dogs. We need to treat our pets with the love and respect they deserve from us, and if we can inspire others to do the same, it'll be contagious. (It would work pretty well with fellow humans, too, but that may be asking too much in this day and age!)
I also love the 2-layer style of this shirt. It's similar to the very popular Positively 2-Layer Top, and this one has been regularly getting lots of positive comments since I started wearing it around.
I'm so excited to be launching this new line of premium tops, All of which are of the highest quality and were specially selected.Currently exclusively available on the Positively store and the Dog is Good website, they're pre-shrunk and designed to be an elegant, classy fit regardless of your size and shape.
Click the images above to check out the shirts on the Positively store or click the link below.
For more information about Dog is Good, visit their official site.
PRE-ORDER THE NEW SHIRTS HERE. (Orders will ship by Sept 1, 2012)
Be sure to use the promo code PREORDER15 and get 15% off your entire order when you buy one or more of the new shirts!
Pets Need Friends, Too!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/27/12 at 08:07:45 am - 1 Comment
Great Videos to Share with your Friends!
Pets Add Life (PAL) is at it again! Remember when I posted a video they made with an adorable guinea pig who has “a real problem being the only pet”? Now PAL has created another hilarious video featuring a bird, dog and cat that each give us insight into what their world is like living as the “only pet.” Check it out:
The Pets Add Life Campaign does a great job of showing how, like humans; pets need friends to talk to. Not only can our lives improve by being responsible multiple pet owners, but so can the lives of our pets. Did you know multiple pet ownership can often help your pets have happier, healthier lives with increased socialization and companionship?
The Value of RedirectionPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/18/12 at 06:07:15 pm - 15 Comments
My eight-year old daughter loves school so much that when the last day of school arrived a couple of weeks ago, she and her friends were borderline devastated to face the fact that there would be no regular contact with each other and their beloved teachers for a few months.
We knew from previous years that one of her good friends took the last day of school particularly hard, and that as with dogs, if left unchecked, the other kids would feed off of her sadness and end up as a generally morose lot. So when it fell to me to pick my daughter and several of her friends up after the end-of-year swimming party, I decided that it was crucial to employ some age-old positive dog training techniques on the kids in order to avoid disaster and tears.
My husband and I laugh when we are occasionally reminded the extent to which we raise our daughter similarly to the way I train dogs. While they are obviously different species with different needs, and while I am also well aware of the dangers posed by excessively anthropomorphizing our pets, many of the central themes which define my approach to force-free, reward-based dog training techniques are closely related to what many of us feel are the most effective concepts behind child-rearing as well.
In the case of my daughter and her friends, it was important that I redirect the potential for them to collectively descend into unhappiness about the end of school. Instead of allowing them to discuss and dwell on the negative, I decided to take a few of them on a mini field trip to one of my favorite and most inspiring places: Canine Assistants.
I am a huge supporter of the work done by the countless assistance dog training and placement organizations around the world, and the Victoria Stilwell Foundation was born to help provide financial and training concept assistance to many of them. My affinity, however, for Jennifer Arnold and her staff at Canine Assistants just north of my home in Atlanta, comes not simply from the fact that she and her staff are tremendous, nor from my relative proximity to their headquarters, but from our mutual desire to introduce people to the beauty and effectiveness of reward based training methods. I was shocked to learn that Canine Assistants is one of the very few assistance dog training organizations which employs positive training techniques on the dogs they work with. Other organizations tend to use a mixture of techniques including forceful methods, which do little to enhance the human/animal bond essential for an assistance dog/human relationship. Of course our mutual belief resulted in an immediate close friendship developing between Jennifer and myself as well as multiple trips to their facility by myself and my family. (You can find out how assistance dogs are positively trained by reading Jennifer’s fascinating book, Through a Dog’s Eyes.)
My daughter is such a big fan that for her eighth birthday earlier this year she requested that instead of gifts, attendees of her party could make donations to Canine Assistants in order to help partially fund the training of one of their amazing dogs. So when I suggested that she might host a few of her friends at their farm after school on the last day, she jumped at the chance. Riding the therapy horses, cuddling with the newest batch of puppies, and running around the property proved a fantastic distraction for the girls, and after just a few short minutes they completely forgot to feel sad about saying goodbye to their teachers and their classmates.
Redirecting focus from a negative or unwanted reaction, whether predicted or already occurring, is an incredibly useful tool to help manage behavior in dogs, too. Compulsion or forceful training relies on suppressing an unwanted behavior with punishment, resulting in a temporary ‘fix’ along with increased potential for long lasting psychological and physical damage. Positive or reward based training focuses on teaching the dog an alternative behavior instead of punishment, allowing the dog to learn valuable coping skills which start with redirection. Dogs are superb problem solvers and because of their close connection with humans, they tend to look to us for cues to help them in the problem solving process. We can aid their success by thinking ahead and either avoid situations that trigger negative behavior or create other things for a dog to do where positive behavior is encouraged (exactly like planning an activity for my daughter and her friends when school ended.) The less an unwanted behavior is rehearsed the less chance it has of being reinforced.
If certain situations are impossible to avoid, then it is vital that you observe your dog carefully and give him something else to focus on in an uncomfortable situation. For example, if you have a lead reactive dog that lunges at other dogs, people or moving objects as they go past, give your dog an activity to do rather than allow him to focus on something that elicits the negative reaction. Providing your dog with an activity such as a set of action cues (sit and stay) with food rewards for compliance or playing with your dog’s favorite toy in the presence of the stimulus that exacerbates the negative behavior, will redirect his attention onto doing something more positive, while building up a good feeling with the stimulus. This is done most effectively before your dog gets to the point where he feels the need to react. If your dog has a full blown reaction, he is too emotionally involved at that moment to learn and waving a treat or toy in his face will achieve nothing except to frustrate him more and devalue the potency of the motivator. Redirection is therefore most effective when used before your dog reacts. If he reacts negatively before you have a chance to redirect him, gentle removal from the situation is the best way to get him into a state where he can learn again.
One of my favorite games that I play with lead reactive dogs is the ‘go find it’ game. When a dog is in the presence of a stimulus and under his stress threshold limit, it is time to begin the game. This is done by throwing bits of food onto the ground one after the other and encouraging the dog to ‘go find’. By stimulating the dog’s seeker system, I am not only raising the levels of dopamine in his brain by stimulating his desire to seek or move towards the food on the ground, but the actual movement towards the motivator redirects the dog’s energy that might otherwise be used for a negative reaction, onto a positive activity. Some dogs learn much better while moving than having to sit still and focus on a toy or a food reward as the stimulus goes past. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate movement and emotional responses. If a dog is presented with food or a toy before he reaches a high stress level in the presence of a stimulus that scares him, for example, a positive emotional response occurs. There are circuits in your dog’s brain that encourage seeking or hunting behavior and circuits that elicit the fear response. When you present a motivator to your dog you effectively turn on his seeker system and turn off the fear. This is one reason why activities such as the ‘go find it’ game or playing a game of tug is so valuable for leash reactive dogs. Turning on the thinking brain deactivates the emotional center, enhancing the dog’s attentiveness with positive motivation and allowing him to move into a calmer state where learning can take place. Repetition builds a habit of behavior so that the dog now behaves differently in the presence of a stimulus that previously resulted in a negative response and naturally moves into the redirected action cue or behavior without being promoted. Redirection helps dogs make better choices.
For dogs that are too stressed to do anything but react, gradual adaption must take place until successful exposure to the stimulus is achieved. This is done by performing the game or activities at a distance from the stimulus and gradually decreasing that distance as the dog is successful.
My daughter and her friends had a full afternoon of activities at Canine Assistants and came home tired and elated. Whether helping a child feel better about something or a dog overcome emotionally charged situations, redirection is the key to successfully managing behavior as well as an owner’s expectations.
Victoria Rebukes BCC Representative on the RadioPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/11/12 at 07:07:34 am - 566 Comments
Victoria joined host Wendy Austin on BBC Radio Ulster and sparred with Pat McCarthy, the head of Belfast City Council's (BCC) Environmental Health Committee, just hours after the BCC destroyed Lennox, an American Bulldog/Labrador mix with no history of aggression or behavior issues. The dog was confiscated 2 years ago due not to his aggressive nature, but rather simply because his bodily dimensions fit the profile of supposedly dangerous dogs under Northern Ireland's breed-specific legislation (BSL). Despite pleas from millions around the world, Victoria's offer to rehome Lennox outside the UK, and personal intervention from Northern Ireland's First Minister, the BCC insisted on euthanizing this dog, claiming that they were merely following the law, although they fought tooth and nail to achieve the flawed ruling in the first place.
Listen to the exchange here:
Another Great Video from Pets Add LifePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/09/12 at 03:07:59 pm - 1 Comment
Check out this cute video from our friends at Pets Add Life (PAL) showing why its so important for your pet to have a friend at home when you are at work and out of the house all day. Out of all their videos, which can be found on their YouTube channel, this is one of my favorites so far. It’s cute and fun so I just had to share! Enjoy!
The Pets Add Life campaign is about celebrating the joys of pet ownership. Through their Facebook page, Twitter, videos, and blog they are getting the message out on responsible pet ownership, and how pets truly do add life. Please take some time and check the campaign out. I have a feeling you’ll love what you see!
Statement Regarding CasperPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/06/12 at 04:07:43 pm - 14 Comments
In a recent article in the New York Daily news, it was reported that during an episode in the 3rd US season of It's Me or the Dog,
"threatening actions were taken against a Presa Canario named Casper."
The article suggests that these purported aggressive actions contributed to the already dangerous dog's instability. These statements are false.
Casper was never subjected to any such treatment on camera or off during my time filming the episode. In fact, as part of my attempt to demonstrate to Casper's young owner the extreme power of dogs such as his and show him how dangerous his dog could be if he was not willing to take the necessary steps and follow my training, I arranged for Eric to watch a demonstration with an experienced handler and his own trained protection dog to show, in a controlled scenario, how powerful a bully breed can be. This segment included the handler, his trained protection dog and an experienced trainer in a bite suit, who waved a bite stick at the trained protection dog and NOT CASPER - a common scenario in protection work. At no time was any stick waved at Caspar. Misrepresentations such as these by respected publications like the New York Daily News are dangerous, misleading and ineffective.
It is also misleading to suggest that the issues with his local condo association regarding Casper were triggered by his appearance on It's Me or the Dog. To the contrary, the neighborhood was already concerned with Caspar and his owner Eric, and there's no doubt that the biting episodes which actually triggered the dispute would have occurred (probably even sooner) without him appearing on the show.
Casper was (as his owner Eric himself admitted) indeed a potentially dangerous dog, and while I worked with him for several days and tried to convince his owner of the need to put in the time and effort necessary to rehabilitate Casper, it was to no avail. As the episode clearly demonstrates, despite his protestations to the contrary, Eric did not follow through on much of the training we began during filming, nor did he neuter Caspar as I urged him to do. I am very glad that the judge in this case required Caspar be neutered, as I had argued vociferously on the episode and off-air that this might well help curb some of the existing issues Caspar already had and prevent future negative behaviors from occuring. Also, I am always very clear about the need to continue the training which begins during the filming of the show long after I and the crew leave. In this case, I actually arranged for Eric to work with other local trainers, as Casper was a dog in particular need of extensive further behavior modification. Eric did not follow my advice and neuter his dog or take me or the other trainers I arranged up on the offer of continued training.
In short, I'm afraid that Casper is a victim of an owner unwilling to take the steps necessary to ensure his dog's proper development and deal with the existing anxieties that Caspar had, and I completely agree with his own assessment (as well as my own original assessment and that of the court) that Casper poses a threat to those around him.
Lennox’s Last ChancePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/04/12 at 04:07:53 am - 153 Comments
As most close observers of Lennox’s case now know, the legal process which had been undertaken in an attempt to return the dog to the Barnes family (his owners) has run its course to no avail. I remain in close contact with the Barnes family and continue to be amazed by their resolve and courage while attempting to save their beloved boy’s life. It is important to understand that every possible legal avenue to release Lennox back to the family has been exhausted, and that result is no longer an option. Indeed, the latest news is that he is scheduled to be euthanized next week. My heart goes out to Craig, Caroline and Brooke for what they are enduring.
Over the past year, I have received many generous and kind-hearted offers from those wishing to help on Lennox’s behalf, and I have ensured that the Barnes family and Lennox’s legal team have been made aware of all of these.
Several months ago, I began working behind the scenes with Lennox’s legal team to begin the process of convincing the court system to allow Lennox to be rehomed in the US – a process which I personally am dedicated to overseeing and facilitating if it is allowed by the court. I have personally received the Barnes family’s approval to take Lennox, and while I can only imagine the heartache they would feel at seeing him go, they have said they would prefer him to have a happy life elsewhere rather than see it end next week. My longstanding private offer to absorb all of the cost and organize all of the travel arrangements to transport him at no expense to the Belfast City Council has been with those responsible for making the final decisions regarding Lennox for some time. Indeed, we are currently awaiting a response to the legal team's request to the BCC to meet with me directly to discuss options. As of this morning, we have not had an official response from the BCC regarding this offer.
I’d like to be clear about something: while I detest Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) and laws such as the UK’s Dangerous Dogs Act which are responsible for the incarceration and destruction of dogs like Lennox all over the world, I understand the difficult position municipalities are put in during situations like this. While I do believe that the BCC and court system have made significant errors in the handling and prosecution of Lennox’s case, I do not ever advocate overturning the rule of law and re-writing legislation on the fly as we see how it affects our personal daily lives. We cannot bend and reshape standing laws in our societies any time we don’t like the outcome they provide. Instead, we must refocus our efforts on changing inappropriate and dangerous laws completely from the top down, which is why I’ve been railing against the UK’s Dangerous Dogs Act legislation for many years. Lennox’s impending euthanasia is but one of hundreds of examples of how this law unfairly prosecutes perfectly well-adjusted pets while failing to truly protect the public from dangerous dogs – the purported aim of the legislation in the first place. We must not allow Lennox’s and the Barnes family’s ordeal to be in vain – let’s all unite behind a concerted, positive effort to overturn the Dangerous Dogs Act in the UK and other laws just like it currently on the books in countless other parts of the world.
So to the Belfast court system and the BCC, I now publicly give you my word that if you remand custody of Lennox to me and allow me to take him to a safe place in the US, I will not disparage the BCC, the Belfast court system, or those involved with this case in any way moving forward. Indeed, I will publicly recognize the courage that it will take to rise above the divisive voices clamoring on both sides of this issue, follow the law, and yet also show some humanity and allow this dog to live out his final years in peace in the US. I recognize that although I wholeheartedly and passionately disagree with the repeated rulings that found him to be a dangerous dog, once he was found to be guilty, you have little choice but to enforce the law. All I’m asking is that you recognize the special nature of this case and allow him to leave the country – a result which still allows you to uphold the spirit of the law while avoiding the death of what I and many others consider to be an innocent dog and averting an even more damaging end to what has undoubtedly become a public relations nightmare.
I’m in Dublin tonight and will be in Belfast over the weekend and at the beginning of next week to visit with the Barnes family and explore any last-ditch efforts to save Lennox. I’ll post any updates here, and I also encourage you to visit Lennox’s official page.
Why Positive Training Is Not BriberyPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 05/14/12 at 08:05:53 pm - 41 Comments
Many who discount the power of positive training often frown upon the use of food in training and claim that it is tantamount to bribery. Having heard this argument from traditional trainers ad nauseum, I have finally determined that it is usually motivated by one of two things (or maybe both):
1. A desire to have the dog ‘work’ for his food simply because it’s what we want, and given that we’re smarter, stronger and in charge, that should be enough,
2. An unnecessary and unfounded fear that once the food stops flowing, the unwanted behaviors will return.
As for the first point, there’s not much we can do with someone who feels the need to dominate such an eager-to-please species, so we’ll leave that one for their human psychologists. And while the second point above is a more understandable concern, this frequently-repeated myth not only completely disregards the scientific fact that food literally alters an animal’s brain chemistry, but also suggests a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the basic scientific principles of how reward-based training (conditioning) works.
To truly comprehend why food is so powerful, you must first understand the influence it has on the dog’s brain. Food has the power to not only enhance a dog’s ability to learn but also helps a dog overcome fear or anxiety by raising the levels of dopamine in the brain and stimulating the desire to seek or move towards the food reward. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate movement and emotional responses. If a dog is presented with food before he reaches a high stress level in the presence of a stimulus that scares him, a positive emotional response occurs. There are circuits in the dog’s brain that encourage seeking or hunting behavior and circuits that elicit the fear response. When you present food to your dog you turn on his seeker system, effectively turning off the fear. This is one reason why using food for activities such as scent work is so valuable for fearful/aggressive dogs. Turning on the thinking brain deactivates the emotional brain, enhancing a dog’s attentiveness with positive motivation and allowing him to move into a calmer state where learning can take place. Therefore, because food is incompatible with fear, using food treats for teaching is incredibly valuable, especially when it comes to modifying a dog’s anxiety and stress.
The food that is used to motivate your dog to learn must be of high value to him until he is responding reliably. Once this has been achieved, the high-value food should only be used intermittently, meaning that your dog doesn’t always get rewarded with food every time he responds to a cue, but with an alternate reward that might be of lesser value to him, such as praise. Because the dog never knows when a treat is coming he will continue to respond in anticipation that food will appear again in the future.
Such intermittent reinforcement actually makes your dog respond faster and more reliably because this learning is based on the same concept that makes a casino slot machine so addictive. It would be wonderful if a slot machine gave out money every time you played it, but unfortunately that doesn’t happen. The potential, however, that you could win the jackpot with the very next pull of the lever makes you want to play even more.
Imagine you arrived at work tomorrow and were called into your boss’ office. You like your job (pretend if you have to), and are generally quite good at it. Your boss praises you for your good work and tells you how glad he is to have you on the team, and then informs you that as of that moment, you’d no longer be receiving any salary. When you ask why, he simply states that you should be glad to work for him because he’s in charge and you’re not, and that that should be enough for you. I don’t know anyone who would put up with those terms, and yet that’s the dynamic that opponents of reward-based training suggest we employ with our dogs. Nuts.
Finally, while food should certainly be used as a reward for a dog that is food motivated, rewards such as toys, praise and play can be just as powerful if a dog happens to be motivated by them. You can enhance your dog’s ability to learn by using whatever motivates him the most first and then varying the rewards you use as your dog becomes proficient at the particular cue or action you are teaching him. Any reward which motivates a dog to learn is a great training tool because learning not only makes a dog more confident and able to live successfully in a domestic environment, it also encourages mutual understanding that increases the human/animal bond. This is not bribery.
Bottom line: if a dog sees that there are pleasurable consequences for a behavior then he is more likely to repeat the behavior because doing so makes him feel good. When a person is attached to that good feeling there is more likelihood of the dog listening and responding to whatever that person asks of him. That is why I have never understood why people choose to train their dogs using force and punishment or who belittle the power of rewards in training. I want my dogs to do the things I want them to do because they want to, not because I have made them do it through force.
Chinese Dog Guards Bike Before RidingPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 05/13/12 at 08:05:39 am - 2 Comments
This video needs no translation. Love it!
Victoria to Answer Fan Questions with Marlo ThomasPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 05/04/12 at 09:05:51 am - 3 Comments
Victoria will be a guest on Marlo Thomas' weekly web show, Mondays With Marlo, which airs on the Huffington Post and AOL.com. On the show, Victoria will chat with Marlo about why it's preferred to build relationships with your dog based on mutual trust, respect and love as opposed to pain, fear and intimidation. She will also be answering fans' questions throughout the show. Questions can now be posted directly to the episode page here.
Stay tuned here to watch this episode, which will air in late May or early June.
May I Pet Your Dog?Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 03/14/12 at 01:03:10 pm - 36 Comments
Thankfully, that phrase is fast becoming a regular part of our civic language as parents continue to educate their kids (and themselves) about safe dog interaction protocols. For too long, too many incidences ranging from the annoying to the tragic have occurred due to parents allowing kids to wander up to dogs in homes, parks and playgrounds and initiate contact in an unsafe and inappropriate manner.
While there is still much work to be done about this issue, safe greetings (or avoidances) are on the rise and progress is being made thanks to an ongoing and persistent effort to educate parents and kids.
I just returned from my morning walk with Jasmine and Sadie, and our path today took us by a popular neighborhood playground full of toddlers and young preschoolers. As we filled up the dog bowl at the park water fountain (it's almost 80 degrees here today!), two very young girls approached and asked that all-important question: "May I pet your dogs?"
Since Jasmine was pretty wired after having been in a particularly engaged squirrel-chasing mode immediately prior to this encounter, I replied that they certainly could pet the larger brown dog, Sadie, but that I'd prefer they not touch little Jasmine. Jasmine is our work in progress and can still be somewhat reactive in certain situations after a hellish start to life, while Sadie is our bombproof, child-loving, wannabe therapy dog in situations like this.
Problem is, the little girls were predictably both enamored of darling little Jasmine (no bigger than a large ferret), and kept insisting that they should pet her, too. It took some serious leash wrangling and persistent maneuvering to keep them from crowding Jasmine - something that wouldn't have been good for any party involved - but they eventually got the message and focused on loving Sadie before returning to their rock climbing wall.
This brief episode highlights a crucially important point: just because someone starts the process correctly by asking the question, 'May I pet your dog' doesn't mean that they will follow through with good results or even listen to the answer. I think it's vital that we not only teach our kids to ask first before petting (and then only if they know the dog handler, ensure that it isn't a stranger, and still have the parent/guardian nearby), but also that we encourage them to listen to and respect the answer that the dog's owner provides.
So next time you're working with your kids on dog safety and etiquette, be sure they know how to make the entire encounter a safe one, and not just pay lip service to what they think we want them to say.
What to Do When Your Dog Won’t ListenPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/25/12 at 10:02:56 pm - 15 Comments
Dog owners often tell me that they can't get their dog to behave appropriately because the dog just won't listen to them. They claim that their dog is particularly unintelligent, but I consistently find that that is absolutely not the case. So how do you get Fido to pay attention?
Punitive training techniques that center on gaining control of your dog by dominating her into obeying can damage the human/animal bond and cause your dog to mistrust you and essentially switch off. You want to ‘matter’ to her by being the source of good things in her life, so that whenever you need her attention, she will give it to you.
For so long people have been putting the emphasis on their dog’s need to be ‘obedient’ rather than ‘cooperative.’ We issue ‘commands’ rather than focusing on teaching the dog ‘cues’ by attaching these cues to actions or behaviors that we want.
Motivating your dog to learn these cues by using rewards that make her feel good, will go a long way to getting the response you desire, even in the most distracting of environments. Any reward that is used to motivate your dog to learn should be of high value until she is responding reliably. When this has been achieved the high value reward can then be used intermittently.
Even though food treats are a really effective training tool, some dogs are motivated by other rewards such as toys, play, praise, or simply being touched. I have trained many dogs using many different types of rewards: a game of tug, a kind word, or a ‘life reward’ such as asking the dog to sit before opening the door and then rewarding her for complying by going for a walk.
I also like to vary rewards so that the dog never knows what is coming next or use what I call ‘multi- motivators’ such as a food/ toy/praise combination for the desired response.
Whatever you decide to do, a reward is going to make learning fun for your dog, improve her confidence and build up a strong bond between you. Remember the key to cooperation and compliance is trust and motivation and the more exciting and valued you are to your dog, the more she will listen to you in every situation.
TV Channel for Dogs Launches in San DiegoPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/25/12 at 04:02:17 pm - 2 Comments
When she really puts her mind to it, my chocolate lab Sadie can whip up what I truly believe must be the most injured and woeful countenance any living being has ever forced another to look upon. It’s not that she thinks I don’t love her, or that she’s in any physical pain. It’s just that she honestly can’t believe that I would ever even consider leaving her alone in the house, even though this dramatic ritual has played out multiple times every single day for the four years she’s been a member of our family.
This disastrous turn is, of course, mitigated somewhat by the utter and profound joy that she and her housemate – Chihuahua mix Jasmine – exude upon my inevitable return. As someone who has devoted my life to studying the behavior of dogs, I am nonetheless always amazed (and, let’s face it - pleased) when I witness the manic scene of happiness and euphoria that occurs every time I return home, even if I’ve only been out to pick up a few groceries.
These moments of dread followed by glory are repeated millions of times a day around the world by pet owners who must go about their daily lives away from home, and while the cumulative result of this ritual is often nothing more than a temporary sadness, our repeated absences can also sometimes lead to acute separation anxiety, destructive boredom or other difficult-to-manage canine behaviors.
A recent study revealed that over two-thirds of all American pet owners have left their TVs or radios on for their pets. The problem is that the television channels our pets end up watching or listening to often do more harm than good, because constant talk becomes an overpowering irritant, or the programming contains loud music or sounds interspersed with louder commercials, meaning the dog never receives an auditory break.
So I was intrigued when I was asked to join the dynamic creative team behind DogTV – the first television channel specifically and scientifically designed to be watched by dogs. There have been several previous, relatively ill-fated attempts at creating video content for dogs, while companies like Through A Dog’s Ear have successfully incorporated the concept of bio and psychoacoustics into audio-only products (I recently partnered with Through A Dog’s Ear to create the groundbreaking new Canine Noise Phobia Series).
What makes DogTV different, however, is its steadfast commitment to providing both an aural and visual environment which is tailored specifically to the needs of today’s domesticated dog. The colors and frequencies of the visual and audio content on the channel are specially designed to resonate positively with our canine companions. Contrary to popular belief, dogs don’t just see in black and white - yellows and blues can be easily distinguished unlike the colors green and red, which appear gray (part of the reason a dog can’t always find that red rubber toy when it’s laying on green grass). DogTV accounts for this and has recalibrated its video feed to suit dogs’ primary visual capabilities.
Another aspect of DogTV that helps break new ground is the fact that unlike other dog-targeted content, it does not simply attempt to calm the dog which might otherwise suffer from anxiety. Those of us in the field of animal behavior who are involved with DogTV (joining me on DogTV’s advisory board is Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Veterinary Behaviorist and Program Head of the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences, Tuft’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Boston) have helped to make sure that the channel’s 24/7 content follows certain timing rhythms.
For example, instead of simply playing calming music and showing pictures of lulling oceans, DogTV’s content also slowly introduces and alternates between more stimulating scenes from the dog’s point of view. This ensures that throughout the several hours a lonely dog is home with DogTV on in the background, there are periods of subtly increased motion and tempo, resulting in a dog that is periodically and almost imperceptibly stimulated, helping to minimize the boredom which can often result in destructive behavior. This content is also interspersed with periods of ‘exposure’ where dogs might hear, for example, the distant sound of a vacuum cleaner played at very low levels, providing gradual exposure which effectively desensitizes dogs to everyday domestic environmental sounds, preventing noise sensitivities and phobias from ever occurring.
Several early, anecdotal reviews from its recent launch in San Diego have mentioned that after turning DogTV on for a few minutes, the reviewer’s dogs didn’t seem interested in the channel and wandered off, apparently unimpressed. Unfortunately, this is another example of why the imposition of our human sensibilities on our dogs does not always translate successfully. DogTV is not designed to be ‘must see TV’ for our dogs, and it’s perfectly ok for dogs not to want to become couch ‘pet’atoes once it’s switched on. To the contrary, the real value in DogTV can be found in those long hours when we are not around and our dogs are otherwise either completely understimulated or suffering from separation distress. As I’ve stated on several news outlets following the channel’s initial launch, DogTV should be viewed only as one (very valuable) tool in our arsenal to help enrich our dogs’ overall domestic experience and should not replace a dog’s daily need for exercise.
If used correctly, I believe DogTV will be a valuable tool to help ease our dogs’ loneliness and provide comfort on separation. We advise that all pet parents, before they leave their dogs alone with DogTV, take time to watch the content with their dog for short periods over a couple of days or have the channel on in the background when they are home with their dogs. This will ensure that every dog’s reaction to the content can be gauged. It is not DogTV’s aim to produce a nation of dogs that bark at the television when their owners are away. Moreover introducing the channel to a dog when an owner is present will help provide a positive association between the content and the comfort that the person’s presence provides, making it easier for a dog to cope when their owner leaves.
DogTV is currently only available on TimeWarner and Cox Cable in the San Diego area, but a full, nationwide launch is expected soon, followed by other countries including the UK and beyond. For more information go to www.dogtv.com.
What’s In a NamePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/19/12 at 08:01:25 am - 31 Comments
There are many different terms used to describe dog behavior and training methods and so much confusion as to what they actually mean. I posted a few already this week on my Facebook page and asked for your comments. The feedback was really interesting and showed how these terms can be interpreted in such a broad way. I also asked what you would like to discuss in future posts and received some great ideas for topics so these will definitely be covered in the weeks ahead. For now though, what does the term, ‘dominance,’ mean to you in terms of describing canine behavior and how does it impact the way we teach them? Does dominance exist in the canine world and does a human really have to establish dominance over a dog in order to get him/her to behave as old school theory would have us believe? I pick these terms knowing that they are highly controversial and spark vigorous debate but I think it is important to correctly define them. If you join the discussion please keep it civil.
Positively Parliamentary!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/11/12 at 09:01:42 pm - 3 Comments
At the beginning of December I went to England for a seminar and series of meetings. As much as I love living in the States I also miss my mother country, so going back is always a treat, even if it is for work. During my last visit I was invited by my friend and UK television vet, Marc Abraham, to attend a meeting of The Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW) at the Houses of Parliament, the seat of British government.
APGAW is an all-party group made up of MPs, Peers and associate animal welfare organisations or groups. According to its mission statement, “The aim of the group is to promote and further the case of animal welfare by all means available to the Parliaments at Westminster and in Europe. APGAW seeks to influence the development and introduction of effective wide-ranging legislation to improve welfare and also acts as a discussion forum of politicians and welfare experts to looks at areas of concern.”
Now, if you have ever watched a parliamentary debate you will know that British politicians get pretty feisty with each other. Before the meeting, I had a chance to witness a debate about the future of the British economy and what steps were being taken to revive a struggling situation. As you can imagine, the debate got very heated with both political parties throwing scorn and derision at each other – very entertaining to watch even if it was on such a serious topic. The public gallery looks right over the great room with a bullet proof glass window separating the public from the politicians. All bags and any electronics are removed from your person before being seated in the gallery. The public is also made to sign a piece of paper stating that they will not cause any disruption while in the gallery. I dared not make a sound!
The Houses of Parliament and the House of Lords fascinated me, but the part that impressed me most was Westminster Hall, once a royal palace and the seat of government for hundreds of years. It was remarkable to think that I was walking in the footsteps of kings, queens and prime ministers who had come before me. The hall itself, which is the oldest part of the Parliament estate, was built in 1097 and is spectacular by its sheer size, with an enormous wooden vaulted ceiling that soars high above you.
The Houses of Parliament is like a rabbit warren, containing hundreds of smaller meeting rooms as well as numerous rooms where daily receptions are held. APGAW had invited the main players in the dog world to hear what progress had been made in the three years since the airing of Pedigree Dogs Exposed, a hard hitting documentary by Jemima Harrison of Passionate Productions. PDE ‘lifted the lid on the extent of health and welfare problems in pedigree dogs,’ and provided a general overview about what was being done to improve breeding practices and standards in the UK.
The major institutions were in attendance including The Dogs Trust and the RSPCA, but the Kennel Club was noticeably absent. Since the meeting was being filmed by Jemima Harrison for Pedigree Dogs Exposed 2 , the KC had refused to attend because it did not trust Passionate Productions ‘to provide an unbiased account of proceedings.’ The meeting was civil and positive, but it was clear that even though a lot of progress had been made, including work by the Kennel Club itself, they had to be more aggressive with implementing the changes. If you haven’t yet seen Pedigree Dogs Exposed, you should take time to watch it. The issues addressed in the documentary don’t only affect dogs in Britain. The American Kennel Club is just as guilty for setting breed standards that sometimes compromise the health and well- being of many breeds of dogs. It seems ‘beauty’ has taken over from common sense and the way a dog looks is more important than how it feels. Take a look at the film and judge for yourself.
As this is a very sensitive issue for many people, I have gotten a few emails and questions from proponents of purebred dogs who are convinced that because I support campaigns like the RSPCA’s Born to Suffer, I must therefore also be against dog shows and the purebred culture. I am not, and I dismiss those who suggest that wanting the best for our canine companions’ mental and physical health is necessarily at odds with the breeding of purebred dogs. I have a purebred Chocolate Lab (although she was a rescue) as well as a mutt (Chihuahua/Terrier mix). While I personally am not into showing dogs, I have no problem with those that love it, provided that they maintain a healthy balance between their own desire to show and their dogs’ happiness and health. All I ask is that we all take a second look at what some of the current breed standards set by the ‘governing bodies’ are doing to our dogs and take action to reverse any of the negative effects. I really can’t see how anyone could argue against that.
After all, are dogs only here for our sake, or should we think of what’s best for them as well?
Victoria Talks With Steve DalePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/11/12 at 09:01:25 pm - No Comments
Victoria Stilwell: Hey Steve! We last met up at American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards in L.A. – What have you been up to since then?
Steve Dale: I emceed an American Humane Association animal assisted therapy dinner, celebrating the work of many dogs and their volunteer handlers in Denver.
I’ve contributed to a couple of books, with Dr. Robin Ganzert, president/CEO of the American Humane Association I wrote the Foreword to “Animals and the Kids Who Love Them,” by Allen and Linda Anderson; and contributed to “Raising My Furry Children,” by Tracy Ahrens.
Best of all was contributing to “The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management,” edited by the amazing Dr. Susan Little, and written by a long list of the most noted feline veterinarians on the planet. It was humbling to have been asked to contribute, and included among this extraordinary group. And this book is ginormous – it’s 1,400 pages. You don’t need to join a health club, just carry this around for a workout.
I am also busy assisting with a very important book – having to do specifically with dog behavior – but I am not yet allowed to say much about it. I can tell you – and I am telling you first – I haven’t even mentioned this on my radio shows or anywhere, except to my wife and my mom. So, you are right there with mom in getting the scoop.
I will apparently be honored in February at the Dog Writer’s Association of America awards banquet, inducted into the DWAA Hall of Fame. I will be the youngest inductee ever. Really, I’m not sure this happened or how do deserve this – and I have so much else to achieve. So, I’m not sure I’m ready. Although in three interviews in the past three weeks, I’ve been called “legendary.” I swear – I AM NOT THAT OLD, or legendary.
And this is also crazy, came back to a meeting with my newspaper syndicator of 17 years, Tribune Media Services. They expressed interest in publishing ebooks. I am their great experiment to determine if this works, not only if there is interest in the pet genre, but is this financially viable? It’s like I have a Great Dane on my shoulders, lots of pressure on my back.
VS: Tell us about “Good Dog!” and “Good Cat!” – what kind of info can our readers expect to find in them?
Yes, those are the two ebooks. We decided to take a sort of best of my newspaper Q & A columns from the past three or four years, one book features questions about dogs, and a second book is all about cats. They are commonly asked and answered behavior questions/answers, and some which are totally fun – real questions that you won’t believe. For example, a cat who paws at the TV whenever and only when Justin Beiber is on.
I answer, “This cat has a new illness: Cat scratch Beiber.”
Sometimes I answer the questions. Sometimes, I seek out experts like – well, Victoria Stilwell, for example. Lots and lots of veterinary behaviorists, some certified applied animal behaviorists, IAABC certified dog and cat behavior consultants answer questions and so do some of the top dog trainers, all are APDT. I am proud that truly I have a large contingent of world renown experts who are quoted here.
Can you imagine? For 17 years, I’ve had the same terrific editor at TMS (Stacy Deibler) and for nearly that long, each and every column I write I have a veterinarian review to be certain of medical accuracy. Dr. Sheldon Rubin’s eyes must be tired – but who better to write the introduction for both books?
VS: How did you get Betty White to write the Prologue – I’m thinking she’s pretty busy.
SD: I believe if you combine my schedule and yours – we don’t equal Betty White’s. She’s always been very kind to me. And I adore her….I’m thinkin’ I’m not alone there. She really does walk the walk when it comes to animal welfare. And I’ve known her for some time. Years ago, she served on the Board of Directors of the American Humane Association, where for the past several years I’ve served. She has been a Trustee with the Morris Animal Foundation for nearly 50 years. Can you believe a half a Century? She’s an amazing lady. And she knows I care about Morris, and serve on one of their advisory committees, and whenever they call on me – I say ‘yes.” So she said, ‘yes.’
But I am equally as thrilled to have my old friend Pam Johnson-Bennett write the foreword to “Good Cat!” She’s the you of the cat world. And then, to have you write the foreword of the dog book, I am still howling with joy.
You should know, the first time I saw you on TV I thought, ‘WOW!’ Not only do we need this approach, we need it now! Too many were then and may still be joining the aversive or let’s be dominant bandwagon. Thank you for your contribution to this book, and for dogs, in general.
VS: Are these books designed for experienced pet owners, are they ideal for new pet parents, or everyone in between?
SD: Everyone, from granny to little kids. The names of these books are no accident. I actually didn’t come up with them – but the story is very cool. After reading through the content Sarah Bright at Tribune Media Services said, “Your books are all about the positive, encouraging pets.” And she thought of the titles “Good Dog!” and “Good Cat!”
VS: If there is one message from the books, what might that be?
SD: Don’t assume the problem is behavior – especially if it’s new. So if you have say a dog who you know is house trained and then begins to have accidents – see the veterinarian! The problem might well be medical – so no amount of behavior modification will help.
VS: “Good Dog!” is dedicated to Lucy – tell us about her.
SD: I had the pleasure, honor of knowing Lucille Ball some. Lucy, our miniature Australian Shepherd was named for her. It turned out that – except for the red hair – our Lucy lived up to her namesake. Actually more than her namesake. Lucy was dog was very funny – which I will tell you about. Lucy, the actress, in person, was a very serious and task minded person. She loved her craft. Of course, she helped to create it There’s so much Lucy trivia.
Here’s an example, and I bet most people don’t know this….Lucille Ball once told me that watching other sitcoms was kind of bittersweet for her. It’s because she’d hear her mother’s laugh. Her mom never missed an “I Love Lucy” taping. “I Love Lucy” was taped in front of a live audience, long before canned laughter or “sweetening” sitcoms with laughs ever existed. Beginning in 1970’s, most TV sitcoms began to depend on laugh tracks or at least “sweetening” them with taped laughs. Those taped laughs are actually lifted from “I Love Lucy.”
So for many years before she passed on, Lucy would turn on a sitcom at home and hear her mother’s unmistakable laugh.
VS: How would you ever get to meet Lucille Ball? And what other celebrities have you met?
SD: I started off as a radio deejay, but also writing for newspapers, USA Today and and People magazine – and I often was the guy interviewing celebrities. I’d ask celebrities about their pets of course. I was the first to write about Oprah’s dogs in People magazine. As for the other celebrities, really the list is far too long. But I will say, Oprah really cares about animals – and you and I should be on her show together, I think. I was once her show – that was a career highlight. Oh, other celebs- too many to list, and it was so long ago. I was in awe of many, Jimmy Stewart, who would be? We actually spoke about his trips to Africa, and elephant poaching. And I interviewed both of the Darren Stevens from “Bewitched.” I don’t know - too long a list. I’ve met Benji and Lassie (though not the originals).
VS: About Lucy the dog?
SD: Ahhh yes. She was amazing. For most dogs – her included – animal assisted therapy is work. She went to the famous Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and saw clients ranging from children with severe burns to teenage gun shot victims to older people rehabbing from strokes. She made everyone smile, no matter it was.
Each week as soon as walked into the room, Lucy would go “Whahooo!” And everyone would laugh. I was always embarrassed – but we were there to make people laugh, and I admit it was cute. But she wasn’t supposed to do that. What could I do? I suppose I could have trained an alternative behavior – but people so loved it.
Then after meeting in this large room, we were always paired with someone. There are so many stories – and anyone who does animal assisted therapy has so many stories.
There was this one man – apparently suffered brain damage in some sort of accident. He just spoke gibberish. His family mostly didn’t understand. He was paired off with Lucy because the therapist was simply hoping for him to laugh, and our dog would often find a way to make that happen with previous clients.
On this occasion, much more occurred. I don’t know why – and it really might have backfired. I asked him to ask Lucy to “sit.” He looked at me like, ‘Really, you’ve gotta be kidding.” He hesitated, but decided to give it a try. He said something – but it didn’t sound like the word sit or any word. Lucy instantly sat.
I have no idea how that happened. He didn’t offer any hand movements. Maybe Lucy heard me say the word. We did often play this game where I’d ask little kids – very young kids – to ask Lucy “sit.” I’d then offer a hand signal to insure compliance. The little kids would never see the hand signal. And they loved it, of course. So, maybe Lucy just did it this time without the hand signal. Or maybe in within his gibberish, Lucy somehow made out the word.
It doesn’t matter how she did it, This man’s family walked off – and began to hug one another, all in tears. They didn’t want the man in the wheelchair to see. But he did, and he too began to well up with tears. He then said “Thank you” to Lucy. We all understood. His first speakable words since his injury were to Lucy.
If only she could have known the difference she made in so many lives. When she passed away in 2011, we began a fund with the American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards to support animal assisted therapy.
VS: Who else did you dedicate the cat book to?
SD: I had a dog named Chaser, who changed my life. And Lucy and I were definitely close – but it’s Ricky who I miss the most. His impact on cats in life and death, undeniable.
Here’s the story. Seeking to find some new and different routines for Lucy to do in animal assisted therapy, my wife, Robin, asked me to train her to do something out of the ordinary. Don’t ask my why – but I thought I’d train Lucy to play a little kids piano. After all, that is out of the ordinary. I closed of the door to the room I was training her in – or thought I did – so other pets wouldn’t walk into our training session.
However, just a few minutes into the piano class, Ricky, our Devon Rex cat pushed the door open. Ricky looked at me, and then looked at the piano. He instantly lifted his front left paw, and gently tapped the keyboard. And he did it again, and again. By gosh – he was playing a tune. Clearly I had a musical prodigy. Already well socialized, Ricky was happy going places with us, often hanging out on my shoulder on a leash and harness. We’d visit the pet store, a neighborhood video store - in those days, they still existed, the bank or the dry cleaner.
I had always wanted to demonstrate that cats can learn. And Ricky was such an apt pupil, I knew I had my opportunity. I also taught Ricky lots of other behaviors – including jumping over our dogs - when they were on a ‘down/stay’ - , jumping over little kids (also on a ‘down/stay’ -, and jumping through a Hoola hoop.
At one point in her life, she was trained to jump on to my shoulder to “ask” for his heart medication. It’s too bad that this was all before the days of YouTube. Ricky most certainly would have gone viral many times. Still he was a TV and radio attraction, appearing on several national TV shows including programs on Animal Planet as well as “National Geographic Explorer,” and lots of Chicago TV and radio show. He even performed recitals at local pet stores.
Ricky and I worked together to reach millions to dispel myths about cats.
Training cats has lots of benefits, aside from impressing friends with YouTube videos. When you work closely with an animal, your bond might be intensified. Today more cats are given up to shelters than dogs. It seems when dogs have behavior problems people are more willing to go the extra mile. Maybe with people interacting more often with their cats, this will change.
Also, the more you know an individual animal, the more you pay attention to what’s “normal.” Cats are such great actors; they’re incredibly adept at masking illness. So, perhaps people who have that more intense relationship with more quickly notice their cat isn’t quite right. And then, actually do something about it with a veterinary visit.
We know that people and dogs who learn throughout life might be less at risk for suffering cognitive problems in their Golden years – and it’s presumed the same is true for cats.
And a lifetime of learning new things might allow cats – who by nature are typically entrenched in routines - to become a bit more pliable and open to inevitable changes.
VS: How did Ricky pass away?
SD: Yes, at about 3 years of age or so, Ricky, who seemed perfectly healthy – was diagnosed with feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). This heart disease is probably the most common cause of death of indoor cats from post kitten until about 9 or 10 years when diseases of older cats become more prominent. Sometimes cats with HCM live out normal lives, and never have an idea they are supposed to be sick.
However, mostly these cats either throw several clots before finally dying or being euthanized, or like Ricky – one day – just drop. There is currently no effective treatment.
I am proud that shortly after Ricky’s death in 2002, I began the Ricky Fund – so more might me learned about HCM in cats, even hopefully to find a treatment. And in fact, as a direct result of the money we raised – at this point over $100,000 - for two breeds – the Maine Coon and Ragdoll – there is now a genetic test to determine if the gene defect for HCM is carried by individual cats. The hope is that breeders won’t breed those individuals. While the test is making a difference for those breeds, we need to do more to help all cats. Learn more at http://www.winnfelinehealth.org/rickyfund.html.
VS: Is that what you’re most proud of?
SD: Well, I don’t know – everything from defeating public officials seeking breed bans to being a part of the story of creating dog friendly areas or dog parks in Chicago – and there’s so much more….but I guess right now the answer is Mary and Honey.
VS: Who are Mary and Honey?
SD: Many wrote me about her cat Honey missing the litter box. I was able to help via my newspaper column, though sometimes it’s listeners to the radio show or when I do TV. And knowing I helped a cat and a family. It’s the emails and letters and phone calls on the radio indicating my advice saved a life that really matters.
VS: Is that the greatest compliment?
SD: Could be – or that I’m responsible for sending more pets to the veterinary clinic than anyone America. Because I know in at least some of those visits, the veterinarian saved a life. I know Victoria Stilwell, now that’s a nice compliment too!
VS: Where can people buy the ebooks?
SD: Wherever ebooks are sold. The ebooks are $2.99, except for the enhanced version of “Good Dog!” available for the IPad through Itunes, that’s $4.99. The enhanced version contains imbedded videos, so not only do I write about how to solve some behavior problems, I show people how to do it. It’s kind of like what you do – but I don’t wear the high boots and my accent is form Chicago.
Pets Add Life!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/06/11 at 09:12:03 pm - 10 Comments
The Christmas Puppy. We’ve all heard it before, and most of us know someone who has actually done it. Despite the best efforts of humane societies and shelters around the world, the holiday season is still among the busiest times of the year in terms of people adding new pets to their household. And regardless of where people get their cuddly new friend, the sad fact is that January and February are often the busiest time of year for shelters taking back recently-adopted pets whose honeymoon period with their new owners has ended just as the holiday decorations are packed away for another year.
If you’re considering adding a pet to your life over the holidays, please make sure you’re not just caught up in the festivities and optimism that comes with the holiday season and the impending new year. But for those who are intent on bringing a new furry friend into the fold, I thought now would be a good time to discuss this age old question: When is the right time to add a new pet to the family?
Dogs are pack animals and don’t do well in social isolation so I often wondered when I got my Labrador Sadie if she was happy being an only dog. I knew that she loved being with my family and me and thrived on the attention we gave her but she always looked so sad when we left her at home by herself that I worried about her being lonely. She was not highly social with other dogs but once she got to know them she seemed happy enough in their company. When I introduced Sadie into the home we also had a cat, Angelica, and even though the two tolerated each other, it wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven.
I was often asked if I thought it was alright to have just one dog and would always answer that as long as the only dog was given plenty of human attention and stimulation and not left on their own for long hours during the day, it was ok. I still believe this is the case, but the question always made me wonder if I was doing the right thing. If I did bring another dog into the home I wanted to make sure that I was doing it for the right reasons and not because I felt guilty. I also knew that introducing a dog into the household had been a little stressful for my cat to begin with, and even though she relaxed pretty quickly in Sadie’s presence, I didn’t want to put her through any more stress by adding another dog into the mix.
My work introduces me to a lot of families that have multi-dog households so that their dogs have playmates. I also meet a lot of people that ‘collect’ dogs and cats because they crave the attention their animals give them. As a responsible pet owner I cautioned that though we may feel the need to love and care for every animal that comes along, it may not always result in what is best for the pet. Of course a lot of these types of situations involved people who volunteered at rescue shelters and saw the immense need for more forever homes, but even then it was not always in the best interest of the animals they adopted. Existing dogs and cats are not able to choose their new ‘brothers and sisters’ and sometimes the stress these animals experienced trying to get along with each other did not make for a happy or calm environment.
When Angelica passed away we started thinking about getting a second dog and I knew that whoever we added, Sadie also had to have a say. If we were going to get another dog, should it be a male or female? Inter-bitch aggression is very common, as are fights between competing males, and while dogs of the same sex can co-habit peacefully, it is often better to mix the sexes up. It is also advisable that the second dog is either close in age or temperament to the existing dog, making sure their energy levels match. If a puppy is brought into a home with an established older dog, every effort must be made to keep the puppy’s desire to play with the older dog to a minimum. In some cases a younger dog will breathe new life into an older one, but age gaps can also be the cause of major irritations.
At the end of the day, the decision was made for us when my daughter and I spied Jasmine in our local rescue shelter. The tiny six month old Chihuahua mix was perhaps not the best physical match for a 75 pound chocolate Labrador but the two hit it off almost immediately. Initial introductions were made on neutral territory with both dogs on loose leashes, so that they had the ability to interact without the frustration of being held too tightly and once the initial meeting went well, both dogs were allowed to interact off leash in a safe area, giving them freedom to form a relationship.
Established dogs can become jealous when too much attention is given to the new addition so I made sure that both dogs got equal attention as well as having quality one-on-one time with us. Feeding the dogs separately for the first couple of weeks ensured that there were no fights over food bowls, and high value chews or toys were given to the dogs in separate rooms so that there was no fighting over valuable resources. We rewarded Sadie when she behaved well around Jasmine and walked both dogs together to help the bonding process.
Now, of course, I can’t remember what life was like with just one dog. Jasmine has made all our lives so much richer, including Sadie’s. The two play, eat, and hang out with each other, sharing their toys and sleeping close together. Jasmine loves to rest on Sadie’s back and Sadie loves the closeness of having her near. I have noticed a pep in Sadie’s step since Jasmine came and the eight year age difference does not seem to bother either of them. It might have taken a little while to get this point but adding a second dog was the best decision our family ever made.
I’m often asked ‘how many dogs is it OK to own?’ The short answer is that it depends on your specific situation, but I am a firm believer that adding additional pets to an only-pet household can often create far more net benefits than problems, provided you do it responsibly and take care to keep all of the animals’ best interests at heart. You can find a lot of great information about adding more pets to your household responsibly via my friends at Pets Add Life (www.petsaddlife.org).
Victoria’s Interview With Dr. Sophia Yin – Part IIPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/17/11 at 11:11:31 am - 7 Comments
Part two of my interview with Dr. Sophia Yin about her new book, Perfect Puppy in 7 Days:
Victoria: Perfect Puppy in 7 Days really focuses a lot on early learning and socialization. In fact, John Bradshaw, author of Dog Sense, says “Worth buying for the socialization advice and checklist alone.” Can you explain to our blog readers Why is socialization so important?
Sophia: People frequently have dogs who are fearful and later aggressive out of fear to unfamiliar people and dogs. They tend to think their dog must have been abused, when a much more likely scenario is that the puppy was not fully socialized starting at a young age. When puppies are between 3 weeks and 3 months of age, they are primed to be curious, and to bond to animals in their environment. But as they get older their default setting is to be fearful of all the things that they were not introduced to early on. This is a survival mechanism. It’s why wild animals don’t come out and visit and try to make friends with people all the time. It’s also how wild animals stay alive. If they approach everything without fear, they are likely to get eaten.
The implication with puppies is that we need to give them many positive experiences. with friendly, well-behaved dogs, unfamiliar people, new objects and different environments during their sensitive period for socialization and continuing into their adulthood. My rule of thumb is that they need 100 positive experiences with 100 different people in 100 days. And they need to have positive experiences with new dogs on a weekly basis.
This means that as with children, owners will have to set up play dates and make an effort to get their dog into new environments at least 2-4x a week. In Perfect Puppy in a Week, you’ll see that during that first week Lucy, the Australian Cattle Dog puppy who was the subject of much of the book, had many positive experiences with visitors as well as appropriate doggie playmates. She also learned how to be polite around cats and kids.
VS: What’s the biggest problem you see with how people socialize puppies currently?
SY: Besides just not getting their puppy out enough, the biggest problem is that people when they do get them out, they don’t realize the puppy must have positive experiences, not neutral or negative experiences. That means they need to be able to read their puppy’s body language so they can recognize fear and anxiety. That’s why Perfect Puppy in 7 Days has sections on reading body language.
A second issue is that people don’t realize the amount of things they need to socialize the pet to—sounds, surfaces, people, other species, new environments. And they don’t realized that the socialization should start with the breeder. Socialization is so important that I cover it in two chapters in the book and show pictures of the various situations and items the puppy must be socialized to. The early chapter shows how puppies develop their senses and how this coincides with what they should be socialized to starting before 8 weeks of age.
VS: A week or two really does make a difference in socialization, doesn't it?
SY: For a puppy, a week or two is the equivalent of months for a child. For instance, I document the progress of a litter of young puppies and show that one puppy is very reactive to handling at 4 weeks of age but with several minutes of handling a day, after a week, the puppy can even have clippers near him and remains calm. Similarly puppies can also learn unwanted behaviors as quickly. For instance, one puppy in the litter highlighted in chapter 1 of the book was adopted and would struggle when the owner held him wheras previously he’d been very tolerant with us. The new owner would release him as soon as he struggled and by day 2 he was learning to growl when held. After the owner realized her mistake, switched to picking him up and giving him treats and then letting him down when he was relaxed. She’d try to put him down before he started struggling. But even when he did struggle a little, because he’d been given treats in the handling situation, he didn’t struggle as much and so she didn’t let go. Within a week he was back to allowing people to pick him up and place him in different positions. So behavior can change quickly in puppies.
VS: Tell people about the advantage of training puppies as young as 8 weeks of age.
SY: Besides letting them learn the rules before they have a chance to learn to break them, when they are young they are less coordinated and this gives us a huge advantage. We don’t have to be as quick to get the food reward or other reward to them. They physically can’t jump on us as quickly or nip or grab as quickly as an older puppy. So it’s easier to remove our attention or remove the reward for jumping before they have a chance. Training is about rewarding exactly as the correct behaviors occur and removing rewards for unwanted behavior such as jumping to grab a toy, before they can perform them. When puppies are really young, it’s easier for the humans to be faster and thus have better timing than if they wait several weeks.
VS: You talk about leadership in the book, but make it clear that it’s not the same as being the boss? What’s the difference?
SY: One definition of leadership is the ability to influence an individual to perform behavior he would not otherwise perform. By that definition, pet owners do need to develop leadership skills. However we have a choice of leadership style. We can lead by force like a dictator such as Muammar Qaddafi or by providing rewards that the followers want, such as Mahatma Ghandi. Schools of marketing and leadership recommend against the dictatorial, coercive style of leadership and encourage methods of leading that motivate humans through positive methods.
A similar approach should be used with animals. Instead of using coercion we can learn to lead like a leader in a dance. When partners dance as a couple, one leads and the other follows. The leader's job is to decide ahead of time which steps to perform and then guide his partner in a clear manner so that the partner CAN follow. Partners who have to shout out the steps or who yank their follower around don't make the cut. With animals the approach is similar. If we set rules and have a clear picture of what we want, then we can consistently convey this information to the puppy through our body language and perfectly timed rewards. To see this concept in action, watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVVBGJi5v9s&feature=related
VS: Marty Becker, veterinarian on Good Morning America has said it’s not just about teaching your puppy manners, it's a step-by-step recipe for bonding with your puppy, learning to communicate with him, and preparing you pup for life! Can you explain how your book shows a step by step recipe for bonding?
SY: One aspect of the book is my version of the Learn to Earn Program where the puppy learns that the way he gets what he wants —praise, petting, to go outside, to come inside, to get bits of his meal, to play fetch—is to sit politely and ask you. It’s not about forcing him to sit, it’s about rewarding him over and over throughout the day. If you’ve read the “Compass of Pleasure” by David Levin, you know that a high rate of reinforcement can have an almost addicting affect. For instance, the reason cigarettes are much more addicting than heroin, which is much more potent is that smokers get many many little rewards on a daily basis. Similarly with puppies, if they are working for their entire meal and everything they like, they are also getting probably 200 rewards a day for good behavior and they are learning that unwanted behavior does not work. Through this process they learn that you are consistent and you are able to communicate what you want in a clear manner (with good timing). As a result, they learn they can depend on you. It’s much easier to trust someone who always does what they say they will do and who communicates in a language you can understand.
I also use the Learn to Earn Program to quickly build a bond with any new dog I take in, as a first step for training anxious dogs they can look to their owners for guidance or help in scary situations, and for helping dogs who have lost their family members to guide them into a more structured situation.
VS: In the testimonials people say over and over that the book is fun. One trainer says “ I own tons of dog training books and none of them are as much to read as this one. Was it your intention to make the reading enjoyable?
SY: Yes, both people and dogs learn best if the learning is fun. And for me, I’m more interested in writing books that will also be fun for me to read. Just having a wide array of photos that depict every type of situation you might meet make the book engaging and documenting the progress of both the litter of puppies as well as of Lucy, the main main character/puppy depicted on the front of the book, made the process enjoyable. I love watching puppies and noticing how they develop and how minor events shape their behavior and personality. So it was just natural to document these things so that everyone else could see.
Because of the fun and clear instructions, many puppy class instructors have told me they are going to use it for their classes, and at least one large puppy program will be revising their classes to follow the Perfect Puppy program.
VS: Any last messages you want to send?
SY: Yes. Blog readers, please feel free to visit my web site (www.drsophiayin.com) and Facebook fan page (www.facebook.com/sophiayin.dvm). I have lots of free downoadable posters on topics ranging from body language in dogs, how to appropriately greet a dog, how kids and dogs should interact, as well as many article and videos on behavior. In fact I was voted one of Bark Magazine’s 100 Best and Brightest because of the website.
VS: Sophia, thanks so much for all the great info. It really is a great book, and I wish you lots of success with it. I'll see you at the APDT conference in San Diego!
Note: This book will be available on amazon.com in September 2011 and on Amazon kindle, B&N Nook and ibooks by August 1, 2011. You can preorder the book at a big discount now or download the free puppy socialization check list from www.drsophiayin.com/perfectpuppy.
Introducing the Canine Noise Phobia Series!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/02/11 at 06:11:27 pm - 3 Comments
My husband often asks me, “Do you really get new ideas from hearing other trainers speak at seminars and conferences? How much more can there possibly be to learn about how to be a better dog trainer?” After having been married to me for the past 11 years, he fully understands that the field of animal behavior is constantly evolving and changing, but he’s asking about how many ways to train a dog, and whether or not they’re similar. It’s a valid question.
My answer, of course, is that like most good dog trainers I know, I’m like a sponge trying to soak in as much knowledge and learn as many novel approaches to dealing with both dogs and their humans as I can. Most people know that I’m a fierce opponent of aversive, punitive methods based on human dominance/animal submission methodologies, but as long as one approaches the field of dog behavior from a starting point of working with the dog to build mutual trust and respect, science has shown us that there are countless valuable, effective and humane ways to train dogs.
As is the case in most professions, however, it’s not very often that we’re able to come up with a truly novel approach or tool that makes a real difference in how we solve a particular problem. That’s why I’m so excited to announce the official launch of what I believe will be a real game-changer in how we deal with the problem of anxiety in dogs – the Canine Noise Phobia Series.
The Canine Noise PhobiaTM Series (CNP) is a groundbreaking new desensitization tool I developed in an exclusive partnership with my friends from the well-known Through A Dog’s Ear canine music series. The concepts we’ve worked with while creating CNP have never been used in this combination before, making this a first-of-its-kind tool to make our dogs’ lives better (not to mention our own!) The first three volumes include Fireworks, Thunderstorms and City Sounds – all of which are specially designed to help dogs overcome their fear of those particular sounds. A fourth volume – Calming – is also available to reduce general dog anxiety.
Here’s how it works. We first build a positive association for the dog with some of the beautiful psychoacoustic music from Through A Dog’s Ear. Once the dog is in a relatively calm state, a different music track begins to play while softly introducing the offending sound (thunder, for example) underneath the music. During this time, the owner is providing a positive environment for the dog using favorite treats, play, praise, etc. When the dog is suitably nonplussed by the faint thunder sounds, they graduate to the later tracks which feature progressively more intense sound effects alongside the calming music. The combination of psychoacoustic calming music with positive reinforcement protocols that are introduced while the offending sounds are playing, results in a dog that can eventually experience much lower levels of anxiety during thunderstorms, fireworks or city noise.
There are a lot of noise desensitization recordings available in the market, but until now none of them has utilized the power of specially-designed psychoacoustic music while initiating the desensitization process. That’s what makes CNP so special. And what makes it even more unique is that this is the first desensitization tool that is actually designed not only to treat existing noise phobias but to also help prevent them from ever occurring in otherwise non-noise-sensitive dogs.
I met Lisa Spector (the Juilliard-trained concert pianist and co-founder of Through A Dog’s Ear) almost a year ago at the Clicker Expo where we started discussing ways we could work together to bring my training philosophies and her canine music experience together. Along with her Through A Dog’s Ear co-founder and psychoacoustician sound researcher Joshua Leeds, we spent the better part of the summer working together to develop the Canine Noise Phobia Series. I am amazed at the wealth of fascinating information I’ve learned from both of them, after hearing Joshua speak during the recent APDT conference about how dogs experience the world aurally, I’m even more excited to get started on the next phase of the CNP series.
For now, though, I’m thrilled to announce that the Canine Noise Phobia Series is now available to purchase on the Positively website. The feedback we’ve already received from trainers who got their copies at the APDT conference has been fantastic, and we’re sure that CNP will help all those whose dogs suffer from anxiety from noise triggers as well as the stresses of everyday life. Please give us feedback about your experience using CNP by visiting www.CanineNoisePhobia.com – we welcome your thoughts!
The series is available to purchase as individual CDs or as a complete, discounted 4-CD set.
Ask Victoria – Lauren (Dominance)Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 11/02/11 at 06:11:44 pm - 21 Comments
I love your show! I have two mini Australian shepherds. My female Alice was rescued from a puppy mill. She is very territorial when it comes to men. The second a man comes near her she begins barking non-stop. I’ve tried my command leave it, ignoring her, giving men treats to entice her, but nothing has worked! How do I get her to be more comfortable around men? Any advice would be much appreciated! Thank you!
What Our Pets Are Really Saying…Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/27/11 at 11:10:09 am - 2 Comments
Ever wonder what dogs are saying to each other while they chill out in the laundry room? Or our cats when they tire of the scratching post. How about why lizards lie around on rocks all day?
I think these videos from Pets Add Life really hit the nail on the head. Of course, I'm pretty partial to the dogs, but they're all super-cute. Check 'em out!
Jim Crosby Weighs in on LennoxPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/12/11 at 10:10:55 am - 78 Comments
Valuable insight into the Lennox case from Jim Crosby, retired Police Lieutenant and Canine Dog Bite Investigator:
Over the last few months I have watched the case of Lennox, a dog seized for having the “wrong” looks, as it has unfolded in Belfast, Ireland. Lennox was seized, not for behavior, but because he has a particular physical structure. He looks like what Ireland terms a ‘restricted breed’. He is neutered, has obedience training, is properly vaccinated and was legally licensed-yet he was summarily seized and has been condemned to die. As I have watched Lennox’s case, and his impending death sentence, several things have sparked my attention. Not only does the issue of destroying this animal solely based on his looks appall me, but I am particularly concerned by the "evaluations" of Lennox that the Council and Court are depending on to make a determination of his level of threat to society.
To begin, Lennox has been held for over a year in a shelter facility. He has been deprived of his normal social contacts-his family, has had limited exercise and interaction outside his kennel, and has even been medicated with amitriptyline.
Two dog behaviorists have evaluated the dog to date. I understand both have weighed in that Lennox is not a dangerous dog. The videos and evaluations have shown Lennox to have substantial control of his behavior, that he is a sociable and pleasant animal despite his long isolation and confinement away from his home, and that he showed clear restraint when one evaluator pushed him into a trapped area in a threatening manner. At that crisis point Lennox did the only thing that makes sense to a dog; he lunged, with no contact, in order to communicate clearly that he was frightened and felt threatened when he had no where else to retreat. He did the equivalent to a human raising their voice when other means of communication fail.
This speaks volumes for this individual dog. Despite everything that has happened to him he still shows restraint in his behavior and a desire for human social contact. He still displays clear bite inhibition. He still responds appropriately to social cues. This is also despite the conduct of these evaluations in a restricted shelter environment.
The third evaluation was conducted by a police dog handler. As a retired police Lieutenant I have known a number of canine handlers-and the trainers that prepare the dogs before police get them. I have participated in the testing and evaluation of police dogs before their training. And I can say this-police canine handlers and trainers are special, valued and talented persons-but they are not behaviorists.
A police dog is a special animal. Only about ten percent of the candidates are chosen. They need terrific drive, huge levels of trainability, and a great desire to work in tandem with a human handler. They must be brave enough to go in where no person or animal reasonably should, yet must be able to instantly disengage when ordered to, despite inertia and provocation. They must not be aggressive, as anger would interfere with the ability to disengage at need. They must also be able to use nearly human levels of discrimination to understand when they must self-deploy to protect their handler, yet must recognize the difference between a violent suspect and the approach of an innocent child. We ask so much of them-and they give it all willingly, sometimes to the death.
Police dog handlers and trainers must be highly skilled to get this level or performance. But that skill is limited to the task at hand. Police handlers do not address behavior problems of other animals-they are focused on the training, maintenance and development of their special charges. These handlers conduct obedience work with their dogs as part of the control mechanism, but do not diagnose or treat problems that range from house training to nuisance barking. They do not treat, or particularly evaluate, aggression issues. If a dog exhibits aggression in training it is eliminated as unsuitable. An aggressive or "mean" dog is a risk to the Department, the handler, and the public.
Even Animal Control Officers may be deficient when evaluating what is a "dangerous" dog. They encounter animals that are often not at their best, often threatened or injured, and frankly do not get the behavioral training necessary to make the decision between treatment of repairable behavior and that which is clearly dangerous. They can say whether a dog's behavior, in a specific incident, meets the legal definition of "dangerous" in their jurisdiction, but often fall far short of being able to diagnose whether this was truly dangerous aggression or was a storm brought about by a collection of predictable, reasonable animal behavior and human failing. In the case of Lennox the dog warden's job was in some ways too easy; did Lennox look like one of the "usual suspects"? He did, so the case was closed, even though Lennox never had a chance to speak.
Assessing dog aggression, and evaluating whether a dog is "dangerous", even when presented with clear criteria (which do not exist in this case) is a job best left to those familiar with more than just whether a dog is physically able to bite. Any dog can bite-they have teeth. A competent evaluator must understand the psychological issues behind the multiple behaviors we lump together as aggression. Is the dog territorial? Is the dog a resource guarder? Is the dog fearful? Can the dog adapt to novel and potentially scary situation while maintaining an acceptable level of composure? Is the dog responsive to human signals, and is the dog able to signal its own intentions clearly? Does the dog have the inter-species social skills needed to peacefully coexist in a multi-species social environment? Those are the questions that need to be asked before determining if a dog's behavior is "dangerous".
Having a police dog handler evaluate Lennox for his suitability as a patrol or detection dog would be appropriate; it would be having a skilled technician and trainer choosing whether Lennox would make the cut as a working dog. We would not ask the police trainer to evaluated Fire Department equipment, even though he might like the red suspenders. To have the police handler evaluating Lennox as a behaviorist is a disservice to the dog-and the handler.
And the worst part of this? The case is no longer about Lennox. It is about rules, it is about discrimination, and finally about egos. Problem is, the bruised egos will heal-but when Lennox is dead, he is dead.
Jim Crosby http://canineaggression.blogspot.com
Lennox Update – Statement from Sarah FisherPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/11/11 at 09:10:37 am - 56 Comments
In a few days Lennox is scheduled to be destroyed. More and more people are calling for his release and we can only hope that somehow this might happen. There have been numerous legitimate offers from sanctuaries in Southern Ireland and the United States willing to take Lennox, with the knowledge and funding to do it. I implore the courts and Judge to consider this option. What still concerns me about this case however, is how incredibly unjust it has been from the start. What also sickens me is that those against Lennox and the case are now releasing footage of a small part of Sarah Fisher’s assessment, like they did with David Ryan’s assessment, which has been taken out of context, misread and misunderstood by these people’s ignorance. Sarah is a true professional in every respect, but she has been forced to issue the statement below because of misinformation that is being spread by the ignorant few and I would encourage all of you to read it and learn the truth about Lennox’s behavior.
Sarah Fisher is one of the nation’s leading experts in the field of canine behavior as well as being a TTouch practitioner. She has spent seventeen years teaching, lecturing, filming, writing and working with a wide variety of dog breeds in the UK, South Africa and other European countries. She works with shelter dogs, assistance dogs, working dogs, competition dogs and family dogs and specializes in working with animals who suffer from health and/or behavior problems and those in need of training. Because of her additional experience in canine physiology she notices structural abnormalities in dogs that others miss and more compelling evidence comes out from her evaluation of Lennox that this is a dog that does not deserve to be in the position that he has found himself in. This has happened to him because of highly flawed, knee-jerk legislation, developed from human fear and ignorance.
Sarah has asked that I post the following statement from her, and we encourage you to share it and re-post as widely as possible:
Statement on Lennox by Sarah Fisher
It has been brought to my attention that a small clip of my assessment of Lennox has been put on the internet. This clip has been taken completely out of context and whilst I have remained relatively quiet on this case since I spoke in court, I feel that I am now forced to make a statement to clarify what actually happened during the time I was with Lennox.
Wrongly or rightly many documents and details about this case have been passed onto different parties. I do not feel it is appropriate for me at this moment to discuss in detail everything that has been said to me, nor to put forward my own ideas regarding all the statements made, as everyone is entitled to their own opinion and beliefs. What I am qualified to do however is to discuss behaviour. My assessments, statements and videos of those assessments have been accepted in other court cases at Magistrates, County and Crown Courts here in the UK so the field of assessment in cases such as this is not unknown to me.
I do not care if I am to be criticized by members of the public or even other professional bodies as I have a wealth of experience handling and working with many breeds of dogs, large and small and I also work with horses with behavioural issues so do not need to defend the claims that I have little or no experience of working with powerful animals such as Pit Bull Types. I would however like to clarify that a Pit Bull Type is often a mix of dogs. Nothing extraordinary happens to the psyche of a dog when it conforms to certain measurements.
I do care however that Lennox is being portrayed in a poor light through this video clip as my experience of handling Lennox was thoroughly enjoyable and I now feel the need to explain in greater detail the truth, as I see it, about my assessment. I know that Victoria Stilwell has been what I would consider to be a sane voice amidst the madness that surrounds this case and she has seen full video footage of the assessments carried out by myself and David Ryan plus other documentation.
When the door to the van was first opened Lennox barked. He barked at me three times when I approached. As I said in my report this is not uncommon behaviour in any dog that is in a confined situation in a crate, kennel or in a car. He was also shaking like a leaf but this does not come over in the video that my assistant took of this assessment. He was clearly frightened as he could not have known what was going to happen to him and again this is not an uncommon behaviour in the dogs that come to me for help. No one has ever disputed that Lennox can be anxious around some strangers but I believe the key word some has sadly been overlooked.
I asked for someone that Lennox knew to take him out of the crate to keep his stress levels low. Entry and exit points can be a source of conflict for any dog. I was told I had to handle Lennox on my own for the entire assessment and that he had bitten the last person that came to see him. This is the clip that has been released. Had I had any concerns for my safety or those around me given that I was to be fully and wholly responsible for a dog that I do not know and that I had been told has bitten, I would not have continued with the assessment if I believed that dog to be a danger either to myself or those who were standing in the car park. Lennox gave me a lot of information about his temperament whilst in the crate. In court however, and therefore under oath, Ms Lightfoot the Dog Warden stated that in fact Lennox had not bitten anyone so I have to assume on the evidence placed before the court that the statement made to me at the start of my assessment was untrue. Given the publicity surrounding this case I am also confident that had Lennox actually bitten anyone whilst in the care of his family as has been suggested someone would have come forward by now.
I spent approx 15 minutes with Lennox prior to being taken from the crate, working with a clicker and some treats to see if, even in the environment that was causing him some anxiety, he could still learn and take direction from a stranger. He could. His eyes were soft and he was friendly. At this point I would also like to clarify the meaning of the word friendly. It does not mean confident. Was Lennox anxious? Yes. Hostile? No.
I believe that Lennox would have been totally at ease had I indeed taken him out myself but I also believe I have a duty of care to reduce stress where possible when handling any animal in a situation that is causing them distress. No doubt this statement will also be taken out of context by those who wish to discredit me and to discredit my belief that Lennox is not a danger to the public based on my experience with him and also based on the video assessment carried out by David Ryan which I have also seen.
I use food in an assessment to monitor the dogs stress levels and emotions at all times. It is not a bribe. A habitually aggressive dog will generally seek out conflict in my experience but even these dogs can often be rehabilitated. No amount of food can disguise this behaviour and giving food to a dog with aggression issues can be extremely dangerous. The dog may be lured to a person by the promise of food but once it has taken the food it may panic as the offering of the food has now brought that dog into close proximity with the threat i.e. a stranger. I have worked with dogs with aggression issues and whilst some may well take the food, the person delivering the food may not be able to move once the food has gone as the movement of the person, even the smallest movement of their arm, may trigger the dog to lunge and bite. I would not hand feed a dog that I deem to be aggressive. The delivery of the treat must come from the person that the dog knows and trusts - not the stranger. The dog can learn to approach a threat and then turn back to the person that the dog trusts for the reward if the approach to the person is appropriate. I use food throughout an assessment to monitor what is happening with the dog on an emotional and physical level not to make him my best friend.
Lennox was so gentle with the taking of the food both in the crate and also later in the car park. He was also appropriate in his behaviour with the games we played. He was also gentle when he jumped up at me to see if he was allowed the food that I was withholding in my hand. When he realised it wasn't forthcoming he politely backed off. This would suggest to me that he has been around a family. Not chained up in a yard as has also been claimed by people who do not know the family or the dog.
Lennox showed excellent impulse control at all times and at no point did he grab me or my own clothing which many dogs do when getting excited by a game. I have worked with some truly challenging dogs and some will become increasingly aroused by lead ragging or games with toys and start seriously mouthing or biting the handler’s arms or clothing. This can quickly flip over to more overt aggression and these dogs can be dangerous particularly if they are being handled by just one person. It is imperative that dogs with this behaviour are taught a more appropriate way of interacting with people and responding to the leash and also greater self control. There are many ways to help dogs that have been encouraged, through mishandling and misunderstanding, to behave in such a manner. Kicking and beating them is certainly not the answer.
Lennox does rag on the lead but it is very self controlled. He did not exhibit any of the behaviours that I have mentioned above. Regardless of what some uneducated people may wish to think, it is possible to glean a lot of information about a dog through games and food as many behaviour counsellors and trainers will confirm.
I wrote a fifteen page report on my experience with Lennox and my thoughts about the David Ryan assessment. In this report I state that I have concerns about the appearance of Lennox’s neck. In the video I explain this too. His ears are unlevel and there was a change in the lay of his coat over the Atlas in line with the nuchal ligament that is present between T1 and C2 vertebrae. Coat changes often occur in dogs, cats and horses that have suffered injury or those that are unwell. I have studied this over seventeen years of handling many animals. In all cases where I referred an animal back to a vet, whether it was in the care of a shelter, owned by my private clients or students that I teach changes to the soft tissue or skeleton were noted on further detailed investigation. When I see this around the neck in a dog I know that it is likely to give the dog cause for concern when someone unknown to that dog attempts to handle the collar or put on or take off a lead. Coat changes may well be present where deep bruising has also occurred. Pain and pain memory is a key factor in many behavioural problems.
Lennox was quite rightly put on Amitriptyline. I do not believe that the Council have failed in their duty to care for Lennox when it comes to the stress that he has been under and I understand that this drug is used to treat anxiety and depression. It was with interest, though, that I discovered that this drug is also used to treat chronic pain in dogs. Again this was mentioned in my written report. This may explain in part why my experience with Lennox seems to fly in the face of other evidence presented before the courts. He was not on Amitriptyline when he was assessed by David Ryan.
I would absolutely move on to touch an animal all over its body in any assessment that I do. I may or may not choose to muzzle a dog that is unknown to me to do this if I have concerns about the body language that I have seen prior to this part of my assessment. I elected not to stroke Lennox all over because of my concerns about his neck, the newly forming scabs that were present on his flanks and the blood that was present around the nail beds around his right hind foot. This decision was made based on the physical evidence before me not because I felt I would be in danger. I talked about this in court which was open to the public and at the end of my assessment which is also on film I explained this to a representative from the BCC Dog Warden team and asked if there was anything else that she would like me to do with Lennox. She said no.
I cannot comment on what happened when Lennox was seized or measured by Peter Tallack because I wasn't there. I can explain behaviour though and any frightened animal can be intimidating. I have recently been in Romania working with traumatised horses and two stallions had not been mucked out for months as the staff (men) were too scared to go in with them. They called them 'pitbulls' such is the misguided impression of this type of dog. Hay had been simply thrown over the stable doors and their water buckets were hanging crushed against the stable wall. I went in with them, not because I have any desire to be a hero, but because I can read an animal well and within minutes they were quiet, standing at the end of their stables albeit it pressed up against the walls. I was calm with them and we took out all the filthy bedding and fetched new water buckets for them too. They didn't attack anyone. They were simply terrified and they were not provoked. I spent time with one of them on my own, hand feeding him and was finally able to touch his face. This process probably took less than half an hour. I was totally absorbed in what I was doing and when I turned to walk out I realised that one of the Romanian men had been watching me. He raised his eyebrows, gave me the thumbs up and walked away. Other people could then go in with this magnificent horse too and hand feed him the fresh sweet grass that we had picked from the surrounding fields so it isn’t simply that I am quiet in my handling of animals nor possess some extraordinary skill that can make even the most savage lion behave like a lamb when in my company.
I can perhaps, help an animal that is struggling, gain trust in human beings as many people can. I can perhaps work with a difficult animal and make it look as though that animal is calm but all the time I am reading that animal. Every second of the way. I am looking at the eyes if it is safe to do so, I am watching the respiration, I am studying the movement, the set of the ears and the tail and so on and my opinions about an animal are based on many years of working in this way. One case that will always stand out in my mind was a large member of the Bull Breed family. I believe she was two years old. I won’t go into the details here but I will say that when I worked with her she appeared to be very good to the member of kennel staff that was watching. At the end of my assessment the member of staff asked me what I thought. I sadly had to say that I thought the dog should be put to sleep. The member of staff was horrified and I remember her saying ‘but she’s been so good with you’. But I had noticed some worrying signs. The shelter ignored my advice and rehomed the dog who savaged the new owner so badly the owner ended up in the ICU. Of course the dog was immediately destroyed.
I knew what I was walking into when I agreed to go and assess Lennox for the family. To have to defend Lennox outside of the court has, however, come as a surprise. I have made this statement to shed a little more light on what is a distressing case for all those involved, knowing full well that I will no doubt be subject to further scrutiny and criticism. So be it. I am not afraid. If nothing else this case has highlighted some important issues about the fears and prejudice concerning dogs, their breed types and their behaviour. Certainly it highlights the sad truth as Xenephon said so wisely in 400 BC. ‘Where knowledge ends, violence begins.’
How the Legal System Failed LennoxPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/09/11 at 07:10:23 am - 151 Comments
Today people all over the world will be lighting candles in honor of Lennox, who, if the courts have their way, will be put to death in less than a week by Belfast City Council. I have become personally involved in this case, both as an expert and as an advocate for decency and humanity. Certain individuals and organizations have been engaged in a last desperate attempt to refute the evidence given by experts, who actually met and evaluated Lennox, and myself, who viewed all the footage of these assessments. I have been informed that a tiny part of David Ryan’s assessment where Lennox reacted to feeling threatened has now been taken out of context and released by itself as ’evidence’ that Lennox is a dangerous dog. I will explain Lennox’s behavior at that point in a moment, but what I want to stress is what is NOT shown, which is the rest of David Ryan’s hour long evaluation where Lennox allows a complete male stranger, David Ryan, to handle him, tease him, walk him, sit by him, lead him and touch him without any negative reaction whatsoever. In fact during this time Lennox was giving all kinds of pacification signals, choosing to turn away from David when he felt uncomfortable, rather than bite, maul or attack him. There has been so much misinformation and ignorance surrounding this case from the start, because unless you fully understand dog communication and signals it is easy to miss, as all of these people have, everything that Lennox is trying to communicate.
In my official report I stated: ‘Lennox showed a number of deference behaviours including turning his head away, licking his lips, turning his body and walking away, in response to David Ryan’s attempts to frustrate him. This is an impressive trait in any dog and shows a dog using submissive behaviour rather than offensive behaviour to cope in what is a relatively stressful situation.’
At one point Lennox lunged at David Ryan, the piece of video that has been released in a sad attempt, by those against Lennox and the campaign to free him, to show what a dangerous dog he is. This has in actual fact back-fired, because now it gives me no choice but to comment, as an expert with fifteen years experience of canine behavior and ten years of working with all breeds including pit bull types in the United States, on that particular reaction, that I included in my statement to the courts.
My report continued: ‘If a dog, that would rather practice avoidance and take himself away from threat, is unable to do so and the threat comes closer and does not allow the dog any chance to escape, the dog has no other choice but to respond defensively. Lennox reacted defensively when David Ryan approached him and Lennox was stuck between two chairs and the wall with nowhere to go to. He tried to get away but when this failed he lunged defensively at David Ryan. Even though this was a defensive gesture, Lennox still showed incredible impulse control and bite inhibition. A dog is faster than the fastest Olympic athlete when it comes to response time. If Lennox intended to harm David Ryan he could have easily bitten him while he lunged, before Mr. Ryan had time to react, but Lennox chose to warn him (a complete stranger) out of his space instead, rather than inflict harm, and this was impressive to see…… Lennox showed impressive restraint and lunged at David Ryan with the intent to warn him to go away from him, without harming him. ‘
You see, this is essentially what people do not understand. Behind every growl, snap, lunge etc is a dog signalling its intent. The intent is to warn someone or something out of its space. Aggression serves an important function, to increase distance, to get the threat to move away. Some dogs, especially those that have been dominated, suppressed or abused by a human, learn by that mishandling to not give these warning signals and suppress these signals, going straight to bite. These dogs are made dangerous because of what humans teach them in their attempt to curb unwanted behavior. The dogs that warn instead of going to bite are less dangerous because they are signaling their intent first. If this warning is not heeded, they will lunge or try another way of getting that someone to move away from them, still without intent to harm. This is what Lennox had no choice but to do. Believe me, he could have inflicted a lot of harm on David if he was truly the dangerous dog that some people believe he is and instead Lennox chose not to bite, maul, attack or inflict damage in any way, shape or form. He lunged and barked at David instead. When that was done, Lennox continued to show many appeasement and pacification signals as well as signaling his stress, such as lip licking and turning his head and body away.
I also witnessed Sarah Fisher’s assessment on Lennox and, again, most of her assessment won’t be shown because the world would then see how impressive Lennox was with yet another complete stranger handling him. At one point Lennox started playing with the leash, something that many bored dogs do, regardless of breed. At no point did he threaten Sarah, try to bite her or become aggressively aroused when she pulled the leash away from him and he released the leash when he was asked to. The prosecution’s ‘expert’, Peter Tallack, a police dog handler, was apparently dismissive of the majority of Fisher’s report, saying that she did not ‘challenge’ the dog enough and was more focused on building a rapport with the dog. In his ruling, the judge in this case showed yet another flaw in the execution of BSL, in that he clearly is not aware of the basics of dog behavior and basically decided to believe that Tallack’s confrontational approach rather than Fisher’s experienced and scientificially-based methodology was more influential in his decision-making.
The judge basically had a choice to make: do I believe the police dog handler, or a learned and internationally respected dog behaviorist with extensive experience regarding dog aggression. He apparently fixated on the fact that due to Britain’s BSL laws, she had little experience working with actual pit bull type dogs, finding that to be a major flaw in her credibility and authority. Yet again, this shows an ignorance at the heart of the problems with BSL: to conduct a behavioral assessment of a pit bull type dog does not require any special training or experience other than what would be required for any other breed of dog. Yes, they are a strong breed, but I have no doubt that Fisher has worked with countless larger dogs, including other bully breeds types, capable of inflicting as much or more harm than the strongest pit bull could.
The judge based his decision that Lennox was a threat to society on stereotypes, misleading ‘expert’ reports, and his own apparent distrust of strong dogs. In his ruling, Judge Rodgers repeatedly refers to an episode where Lennox jumped up on and knocked back the dog warden who came to confiscate him. Court records indicate that two other animal control employees witnessed this. Even though the actual behavioral cause and effect of such an action can almost always be successfully and appropriately explained, the main point here is that a person such as Judge Rodgers, who is unqualified to analyze dog behavior, can easily and mistakenly draw incorrect conclusions regarding the severity, motivation for and circumstances surrounding such behavior. If all dogs who jump up on strangers in their house were guilty of being dangerous dogs, there would not be many dogs left in homes. To fixate on this occurrence and point to it as further proof of Lennox’s dangerousness is reckless and misguided.
Every person can form and will form an opinion on a snapshot of behaviour they see, taken out of context and misunderstood by ignorance. Both David Ryan and Sarah Fisher have stated that Lennox is not a dangerous dog and I will stand by their cumulative years of expertise in the field of canine behavior, rather than listen to those who, through no fault of their own, cannot read or misunderstand canine ‘language.’
In the 18 months since Lennox was taken from his family and put in a stressful environment and situation away from those he trusted and loved most, he has been a pawn in a political game that serves to take a flawed piece of legislation, such as BSL, to an all time disgraceful level. BSL makes innocent dogs the criminals because of how they look, regardless of their actual temperament. Your money, taxpayers’ money, is being spent by councils to seek out and confiscate these breed types, taking innocent family members away from their families, rather than tackling the real issue of dangerous dogs. If Belfast City Council and other governments like it really want to keep a community safe, go after the irresponsible owners who either raise their dogs in a violent manner, do not socialize them or integrate them into society in any way, allow their dogs to wander off leash and do not heed any warning signs or make any attempt to curb aggressive behavior. Seek to penalize them to the full extent of the law, and protect your citizens by addressing the issue of dangerous dogs of all breeds, not spending your tax payers’ money on taking innocent dogs away from their families because of the way they look.
There are two sides to any story and there are always things that are said out of sadness, anger, frustration and pain. I do not condone violence or threatening behavior of any sort to any persons involved in this case. But whatever continues in the human battle over this issue, my frustration lies with the fact that regardless what has been said, the true experts’ opinions in Lennox’s case have been thrown over for behavioral opinions that were given by the prosecution’s expert Peter Tallack, even though he stated himself that he was not brought on to do a ‘behavioural test or assessment’ of Lennox, but to assess only whether Lennox was of pit bull type or not. He himself admitted that the ‘circumstances in which Lennox is being examined are not ideal’ and in this he was absolutely right. Even if he was brought onto do a behavioral assessment, you cannot do a proper assessment or get a true picture of behavior of any dog in or around the vicinity of the kennel where that dog is being confined and where it is experiencing fear, stress and confusion. To get a true picture of behavior tests should be done in all different environments and situations including confined spaces, the home environment, and other indoor and outdoor locations, on and off leash and different times of the day. As he stated, his examination was ‘90% physical conformation and only 10% behavioural’ and therefore his findings were, ‘based on how Lennox looks and not how he behaves,’ yet his statements on Lennox’s behavior under thephysical examination he was supposed to be conducting, were upheld and championed as key components of the judge’s decision to euthanize Lennox. I agree with those who say that you cannot predict future behavior in any animal just as you cannot predict it in any human. The judge also fixated on the concept that the dog is unpredictable. What dog isn’t? What animal isn’t unpredictable? If a dog is truly dangerous then I want that dog off the streets as much as the next person, but Lennox has been so unfairly treated in this case because of the situation that he was taken, the stress he has had to endure since his confinement and now the cruelty of those who seek to destroy him and his family with malicious particularly over social media, that someone needs to highlight the fact that from the start, Lennox was never given a fair chance. This case was decided the day Lennox was taken from his family in May 2010.
I myself have been threatened in different ways by supporting Lennox and his family, but that is what fear does. In order to hide the truth and serve a purpose, people will use intimidation tactics to scare others away, in an attempt to stop the truth from coming out. To the few that use threats against me and others, there are millions of people around the world singing with one voice. I am not alone, but am supported by those millions that are sick of seeing these witch hunts take place, when the real issue of dangerous dogs is not being addressed and people are still getting hurt or losing their lives to dog attacks because of irresponsible ownership. BSL tackles the wrong end of the leash and we should be putting our efforts into stopping future attacks by actual dangerous dogs, rather than putting the focus on taking animals away from their families because of the way they look.
Lennox is scheduled to be euthanized in a few days. Chances for overturning the verdict are slim, and having read the judge’s official opinion in the case, I hold very little hope that he will recognize he has let his personal feelings about this issue cloud his decision-making process. He has chosen to rely on people unqualified to correctly assess and describe the true nature of certain events relating to dog behavior. We will campaign for justice throughout Lennox’s life and beyond. We must learn from this and make Lennox and his family’s struggle a rallying cry for change.
Introducing Pets to New BabiesPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/06/11 at 01:10:37 pm - 6 Comments
It seems like every few weeks, a fresh news story about a family pet seriously injuring or killing a baby hits the airwaves. And every time, we all say and hear the same well-meaning and accurate but tired talking points about how devastating it is, how it could have and should have been avoided, who to blame, who not to blame and what to do about the problem. The general theme is that the ultimate responsibility lies with the parents and/or dog owners, not the children. That any breed of dog can bite, and any breed of dog can be a good family pet. That parents should never leave their kids alone with any animals unsupervised. That government should focus on penalizing irresponsible dog owners, not certain breeds of dogs.
And I agree with all of that. I've said much of it myself in interviews on national press many times. And yet still, these tragic incidents keep happening. And that's even not to mention the millions of dog bites that go unreported and don't require professional medical attention. In the US alone, there are over 4.5 million reported dog bites each year, 800,000 of which require a trip to the doctor.
What we're doing is not working.
That's why I've dedicated myself and my company's resources to try and make a difference and reduce the number of dog bites that happen each year. I'm in the process of setting up the first ever Dog Bite Prevention Task Force, which is charged with determining what the root causes of the problem are and how to effectively address them once and for all. Comprised of trainers, behaviorists, legal professionals, legislators, animal control specialists, pediatric surgeons and reconstructive surgeons around the country, we will be bringing together the best and brightest minds to figure out how and why dog bites happen, what precedes them, how they are investigated, who should be held responsible, and most importantly, how to stop them from occurring.
For example, by digging into the data from some of the most high profile cases involving canine homicides (the term used when a dog kills a human), we've found one fascinating common thread in almost all scenarios: one component of the scenario is unnatural. That means that in every case, either the child is being looked after by grandparents, the dog is being house-sat by an uncle, the whole family (including the dog) are visiting relatives in a different house, etc. There's almost always one part of the equation that is not the everyday norm for either the dog, child, caregivers, or environment. This important revelation can help us determine how to most effectively educate dog owners and parents of children about what to look out for in an otherwise seemingly normal situation. If we can stop just one beautiful little child from losing his or her life, it will be worth it.
But my goal is even larger than that.
Last year, I had the opportunity to meet with the lovely Anderson family. Just over a year ago, they lost their beautiful daughter, Ashlynn, in a fatal dog attack. I met the family when I was in Oregon, and I was struck by their determination to do everything they can to help other families avoid a similar tragedy. They have set up a non-profit organization called Dads Against Dangerous Dogs, and though they lost their little treasure to dogs, one of the most remarkable things about them is that they have not jumped to the most obvious target. They do not blame any specific breed for Ashlynn's death, rather they are focused on increasing awareness about the fact that any dog - any breed, any size, etc - can be a danger to little ones if not properly managed.
Obviously, education is the key to stopping this from happening. We all know that. But we've known it for a long time, and yet the message isn't effective enough to make a significant difference. As a society, we must figure out a more successful way to get the message across.
That's why I've decided to support the American Humane Association's safe handling initiative - Pet Meets Baby. This is an easy-to-read, comprehensive free booklet that can help dog owners and parents of children without pets by making them aware of how to safely and effectively introduce pets to new babies and vice versa. By widely distributing this information in maternity wards, pediatricians' offices and beyond, we hope that this will make a difference. It's important to note that even parents of children without pets should read Pet Meets Baby, since all kids end up interacting with animals at some point, whether at grandma's house, on playdates or walking in the park.
I've donated some great prizes (Positively t-shirts, signed books, It's Me or the Dog DVDs, etc) to a free contest anyone can enter by providing some brief feedback about Pet Meets Baby. Plus, one lucky winner will win the grand prize - a 30 minute phone consultation with me where we can talk about your dog and anything else you can think of!
Read my Safety Guide for Children and Dogs.
Update on LennoxPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/06/11 at 01:10:12 pm - 45 Comments
Like the tens of thousands of people around the world who have followed the story of Lennox, I was devastated by the recent ruling condemning him to death in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Lennox was a well-behaved, registered, perfectly assimilated family pet who was taken from his very responsible and devoted family over a year ago simply because he fit certain measurements which had been determined to constitute something called a “pit bull type.”
As in several other countries, states and territories, Northern Ireland has unfortunately continued to adhere to outdated and misguided thinking that assumes that a dog’s behavior can be determined based on the way it looks. Such breed-specific legislation (BSL) has been repeatedly shown to be ineffective in reducing the number of dog bites (its advocates’ usual rationale), primarily because it focuses on the wrong end of the leash. I’ve railed against BSL extensively in the past in previous articles and posts – you can read them here.
The Belfast City Council and the judge in charge of Lennox’s case watched and heard expert testimony by some very accomplished behaviorists such as the wonderful Sarah Fisher, but they ultimately appear to have chosen to put more stock in what they heard from a dog handler named Peter Tallack and some of the dog wardens that took him from the family's home. All three wardens were found to have lied under oath, but even this did not stop the judge from reaching his decision. That decision was a travesty and a tragedy. I watched video footage of two extensive evaluations of Lennox by Sarah Fisher and another accomplished expert, David Ryan. Suffice to say, anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of dog behavior would agree that though poor Lennox was a fearful dog, he showed amazing impulse control and trust in the strangers that were handling him. The overwhelming majority of video evidence I saw supports the family’s claim that despite the incredibly challenging conditions he’s been forced to live in for the past year, Lennox remains an innocent dog. Part of Tallack's testimony apparently highlighted the fact that a dog should not respond defensively even when being mishandled, including being hit, pushed around, poked in the eye and shouted at. If a dog reacts aggressively while being treated in this manner it is a dangerous dog. He obviously sets very high standards for these animals but I'm sure if he was pushed around and feared for his life, he would react accordingly in order to defend himself. Obviously in his mind, dogs should not do that.
Like the family and Lennox’s many supporters, I have been heartened and overwhelmed by the huge response since the verdict came down last Friday. The only good news is that there is a 14-day window before Lennox’s scheduled euthanasia, but this is primarily a procedural technicality and does not offer much hope of the judge reversing his unfortunate decision.
What this may do, however, is provide a glimmer of hope that we may appeal to some heretofore unseen shred of humanity in the legal decision-makers of this case to spare Lennox’s life by allowing him to be relocated to a jurisdiction that does not practice such draconian methods. We are exploring many options and I’ll certainly keep you updated, and you can check out the official Save Lennox page here.
I don’t agree with BSL. But when its failings as a concept and its cruelty in practice are publicly exposed as they have been in the case of Lennox, it truly sickens me. As supposedly civilized societies, we must begin to realize that we have a responsibility to do what’s right not just for us, but also for the animals that we’ve chosen to domesticate over the past several thousand years. As a passionate advocate for responsible dog ownership, I am more than aware of the need to find an answer to the issue of increasingly dangerous and common dog bites, especially on children. (Check out my dog/child safety tips and American Humane’s Pet Meets Baby campaign for more info.) However we must recognize that human education and awareness are the keys to solving this problem, not banning certain types of dogs. Any breed of dog can bite, and any breed of dog can be a great family pet.
Hopefully we’ll be able to save Lennox. Either way, though, his case has helped highlight what’s wrong with BSL and we must make sure that his story has not been told in vain.
Ask Victoria – Annaleigh (AL)Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/06/11 at 01:10:52 pm - 3 Comments
My yorkie-chihuahua won’t let me look at her teeth. She barks when someone comes to the door. I was sitting on the couch watching TV and she cried at the gate we have up. She also licks her bottom nonstop. She wont let me brush her teeth either. What should I do - can you help me?
Victoria’s Interview With Dr. Sophia Yin – Part IPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 10/06/11 at 01:10:16 pm - 1 Comment
I recently connected with my friend, Dr. Sophia Yin, to discuss training young dogs and her new book, Perfect Puppy in 7 Days.
Victoria: There are a lot of puppy books already out there. What made you decide to write this book?
Sophia: I wrote this book because I needed a resource that would provide my dog-owning clients. I wanted to provide them with step-by-step, photo-illustrated solutions to their most common puppy and adult dog problems. You can tell owners and then show them what to do and how to do it but they do best when they also have photo-illustrated instructions where each step is documented visually in pictures so they can see what the steps look like any time they want.
Even more important, I’ve found from the research projects I carried out on training protocols and handling procedures, that people also need to see what it looks like when they are performing the techniques incorrectly otherwise they think they are doing the right thing when in fact they are making mistakes. Overall, three factors:
- seeing photos of the training steps
- having enough training steps so that there are no gaps in the sequences, and
- seeing what can go wrong, greatly improve the rate of success.
VS: In this book, you personalize the book by focusing on the training of your fathers’ Australian Cattle Dog puppy, Lucy. How did you make that choice?
SY: Well, my dad declared one summer that he wanted a new puppy because my parents had recently lost their 13-year old Scottie to cancer. He knew exactly what he wanted—an Australian Cattle dog that looked just like his past cattle dog Rudy, and he wanted it ASAP.
Apart from the obvious concern that no matter how much the puppy looked like his old dog, it would not act like his old dog, I was concerned about how the puppy would eventually turn out. My dad has a history of raising dogs that turn out to be aggressive in some situations. Their 13-year old Scottie never showed signs because I had owned her first. But their first Boxer was an unneutered male who was aggressive to dogs and wandered the neighborhood. The second Boxer was a neutered male who was aggressive to some people. His most recent Australian Cattle dog, Rudy—who was otherwise a great dog—was fear aggressive if unfamiliar dogs got in his face. I already have a wonderful Jack Russell Terrier, Jonesy, with fear and arousal issues who keeps me on my toes, I really didn’t need to inherit an aggressive Australian Cattle dog down the road. And as you probably know, Australian Cattle Dogs can have a tendency towards aggression if not socialized appropriately.
So I decided that I would keep the puppy for a week as soon as I got her and then train her as much as possible before giving her to my dad. I knew that she could form great habits and be well on her way to being a perfect pup in just that one week if I ran her through my Learn to Earn Program and started her socialization, so I decided to document her training in pictures (and video) so that my clients as well as other dog owners could benefit from my task.
The great thing about using this puppy, Lucy as an example within the book is that I can specifically tell people how long it took for her to learn habits such as automatically sitting to go through doors, to get petted and to play fetch. The information is not just vague. It’s very specific and it gives people and idea of what can go write and the little glitches along the way.
VS: It’s called Perfect Puppy in a Week. Can you actually get a perfect puppy in a week?
SY: With the Learn to Earn program where you focus on teaching the puppy to say please by sitting for everything she wants and you are aware of your every interaction with your puppy, yes, you can form good habits in just a week. Each exercise only takes 5-10 minutes for the puppy to learn and we train the puppy that it’s fun. Probably the coolest thing for owners is that they get to see the puppy make the choice to behave in a desired way.
But what really makes the program unique is that owners learn how to make the good behaviors a habit, rather than just a trick performed for treats. It’s not just about training puppies to sit or come. It’s about training them to sit or come every time you want them to do so in all the appropriate instances. The key is to make it fun and use all of the dog’s motivators—food, petting, praise, getting the leash on, going outside—to your advantage and to make sure you don’t accidentally reward them for the unwanted behaviors. That combination is what makes the training so fast.
That being said, because readers will just be learning the exercises, and trying to teach their dog at the same time, it will take longer for them. And once the dog knows the exercises, it’s about being consistent enough to make the polite behaviors a habit. For Lucy, I didn’t expect that she’d be good for my parents until they also learned how to reward the good behaviors and make sure she didn’t get rewarded for unwanted ones. But she was pretty perfect for me, my assistants, and the visitors who visited.
VS: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions people have about training puppies?
SY: People think you should wait until the puppy is older to start training and as a result, they spend the first weeks inadvertently rewarding unwanted behaviors or instead of controlling the environment and immediately setting up the situation for success.
For instance, puppies are really energetic and love to nip and jump. People think that because it’s a puppy these behaviors are ok, but once they start getting scratches and wounds from the nipping that they have accidentally rewarded, or when the puppy is larger and knocking people down, it can be much harder to break these habits and form new desired ones. So a behavior that could be fixed in just a few days with a puppy might take weeks or months once the puppy is older.
VS: Will starting young ruin your puppy?
SY: Back when most people were training using force-based methods, yes starting puppies young could ruin them. The puppies just learned that whatever they did, they’d get a correction that might scare them or that might hurt. So, you can imagine that dogs that were bred as working dogs would not have a high drive to hunt or do protection work if they learned as a puppy that the world was a place where humans give lots of scary or painful corrections. So these trainers would say you had to wait until the dogs was mature enough. What they meant was mature enough to handle the force-based corrections without crumbling.
This whole situation is akin to taking young children and putting him into a school program where he is mostly corrected for doing things wrong rather than being shown in a step-by-step manner how to do things right, being rewarded for good behaviors frequently. I think everyone has had some type of incident when they were young and someone told them “you’re no good at that—you’re a bad drawer, or singer, or bad at math” and those negative words at that young age have stuck with the kids for a long time. Similarly for puppies, training based on punishing unwanted behaviors rather than setting them up for success can ruin them or at minimum produce a very different dog that what you would get otherwise.
VS: How does your training differ from the correction-based training?
SY: Similar to your approach on Its Me or the Dog, science-based training is about rewarding the behaviors we want and removing the rewards for unwanted behaviors. And it really focuses on making good behavior fun so that the puppy will want to be good. Many people don’t realize this, but in order to reward only the desired behaviors the humans have to be aware of all of their interactions with the dog. For instance, if they would like their puppy to greet them politely by sitting instead of jumping on them to get them to interact or give attention, they must clearly remove their attention, when the puppy starts to jump. Generally that means, standing still and looking away. Then as soon as the puppy sits they can reward with a sequence of treats—the first for sitting and the rest for remaining seated— and later with praise and petting, once the puppy can sit for food.
It also means that during other times during the day when the dog solicits attention but may not be as excited, they also must remove their attention until the dog sits. That is, in the most exciting situations, the dog will jump, but in less exciting situations the dog may just push against the owner, or climb into the owners lap. If the humans reward the pushy attention behavior in the low excitement situations, then they dog will definitely continue to perform the pushy behavior in the high excitement situations too. Hence it may take forever for the puppy to learn to greet politely.
VS: This book really focuses on breaking the exercises down into steps and on the postures and movement of the owner.
SY: Yes. The most difficult thing for owners is to realize that dogs care what you do now what you say. They don’t understand English or other language, but they do naturally understand and read your body language. So in order to communicate clearly with dogs, we have to be aware of how we’re standing, how we deliver rewards, and how we move around the dog. For instance if you lean over the puppy to give him a treat, he’ll have a tendency to jump because it looks like you are soliciting attention. That’s why for treat delivery I focus on standing up straight and bending your knees while delivery the treat with an outstretched arm. Similarly if you hold the food reward too high, you’ll train the dog to jump to get it. It doesn’t matter if you’re telling him “no,” he’s going to pay attention more to what your body language says, “Jump up to get the treat I’m extending out to you.” So it’s important foe people to know what their body language is telling the dog so that they can up a communicate clearly.
Part II of this interview will be posted shortly... Stay tuned!
9/11 Ten Years LaterPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 09/07/11 at 08:09:43 am - 7 Comments
We all have our stories to tell.
On that bright September morning ten years ago when the world changed before our eyes, our collective experience was etched into our personal histories in the way that only those truly transformative historical occasions can imprint us: Pearl Harbor, JFK, 9/11.
Having moved to Manhattan the year before the attacks, I had been going through a not entirely smooth transition from the leafy suburbs of London. I had been used to driving where I needed to go, having family nearby, and regularly escaping into the vast swaths of greenspace that are scattered throughout the city where I had lived all my life. Moving to New York City with my husband at the beginning of the millennium had been rewarding in many ways, but I still harbored deep longing for my hometown while somehow slightly resenting New York for not being London.
We were living in a one-bedroom apartment on the 4th floor of an old building in Hell’s Kitchen in September, 2001. I was working as a dog trainer in and around Manhattan, cutting my teeth in one of the world’s most unique environments for dogs with some of the most colorful clients you could imagine. The events of 9/11 changed all of us in ways large and small, and for me, one of those small changes was that I truly became a New Yorker. In the spirit of JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” moment, I believe that peaceful, loving, selfless citizens all over the world became New Yorkers that day. Just as we all also became Londoners on 7/7 after the train attacks, Indonesians and Japanese after the tsunamis, and Haitians after the earthquake.
Certain events pull us all together and lead us in new and more fruitful directions, sometimes even out of the smoke and rubble of tragedies like those endured at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. For me, in addition to my newfound sense of ownership and pride in my adopted city, those tragic events also provided me a backdrop from which I would build an even greater appreciation of the power and grace of man’s best friend.
In the days and weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the West Side Highway along the Hudson River near where we lived became a sort of pipeline for those working through the carnage downtown. Countless times each hour, a fire truck or bus filled with search and rescue teams hurtled back and forth from Ground Zero down a road lined on both sides with well wishers and those of us who felt compelled to do something – anything. Many of us who lived nearby felt a constant sense of helplessness – we wanted to be a part of the effort somehow. Part of our city, country and way of life had been threatened and disrupted, and we needed to help support those who were literally doing the heavy lifting both emotionally and physically.
I was working as a volunteer adoption counselor at New York’s ASPCA during this time, and after investigating what options were available to those of looking to help during those dark days, I ended up at Pier 94 on the Hudson River. FEMA, the Red Cross, and other organizations set up areas within the massive pier to organize the search for missing persons, and the ASPCA began the task of rehoming animals whose owners had died in the tragedy, as well as coordinating the large number of therapy dogs that came to provide comfort for the victims’ families. My job was to organize which dogs would accompany the families on the boats making daily trips from the pier down the Hudson River to Ground Zero. It was a chance for the families to remember their loved ones and to throw flowers and wreaths into the river in their memory.
I had been aware of and even worked with a few therapy dogs before 9/11, but the days I spent witnessing the immense power of these dogs as they poured themselves out for the bereaved was truly amazing, and served as the inspiration for what eventually became my charitable foundation.
Therapy dogs bring comfort and companionship to people in all kinds of situations, helping the elderly, the sick and the disabled, relieving their pain and anxiety. A therapy dog must be calm, confident, patient and enjoy meeting and being touched by strangers. It is well documented that dogs improve a person’s health by lowering blood pressure, relieving anxiety and boosting immunity. Playing with a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, nerve transmitters that promote pleasure and calm. According to several studies, heart attack patients that have pets survive longer than those without and male pet owners in particular have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels, two key components of heart disease. But even beyond the physiological chemistry of how it all works, to watch a therapy dog bring the first smile to the face of a boy who had lost his father in the towers was witness to a heartwarming mini-miracle.
The dogs who served during and after 9/11 were shining examples of what has become known as hero dogs. Along with Whoopi Goldberg, I am co-hosting a tribute evening on behalf of American Humane Association in honor of the search and rescue, therapy, and support dogs who gave of themselves so bravely 10 years ago. The event in New York on September 8th will help kick off American Humane Association’s Hero Dog month as we lead up to the official Hero Dog Awards in L.A. on October 1st. Click here to find out more about this special event.
There are many of us around the world who are dedicated to helping dogs who can’t help themselves, but I wanted to find a way to help support the extraordinary work being done by organizations that helped dogs who help people, too. That’s why I created the Victoria Stilwell Foundation, whose mission is to provide behavior advice and financial assistance to canine assistance organizations around the world. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Foundation and helping us make the world a better place not just for dogs, but also for the people who rely on them for help.
As we reflect on the loss we suffered ten years ago and how it changed the world we live in, I think it’s also important to look forward and try to identify whatever positives we can glean from the wreckage. I’m currently filming the 8th season of It’s Me or the Dog in New York City, and I feel honored to be back in my adopted city as this important anniversary draws near. We will never forget what happened that day, nor those who gave their lives then and in the years that have followed so that we can live in freedom.
An Interview With Nicole WildePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 09/07/11 at 08:09:51 am - 1 Comment
I love Nicole Wilde. She is such a lovely woman and a true powerhouse in our collective quest to promote positive training at the expense of dominance and fear-based methods. I first met her several years ago when she stopped by our house in Atlanta for some dinner while she was in town for one of her popular dog training seminars, and we instantly hit it off.
I recently caught up with Nicole to discuss her latest book, ‘Don’t Leave Me!’ – a fantastic resource for those who have dogs struggling with separation anxiety. I love this book, and recommend you buy it today if you don’t already have it!
Victoria Stilwell: What made you decide to write “Don’t Leave Me!”?
Nicole Wilde: Well, actually, I wasn’t intending to write a book about separation anxiety! But a year after our dogs had crossed over, I found myself searching the shelters for a new family member. I eventually found a wonderful female husky-keeshond mix. When I went to sign the adoption papers, I learned that she’d been impounded four times previously. I now believe that was probably due to a combination of separation anxiety and being a consummate escape artist. After the first year living with Sierra and her separation issues, I realized that a comprehensive book on the subject was warranted. That’s our girl Sierra on the cover!
NW: Living with Sierra has given me a much deeper understanding of what owners of dogs with this issue go through. Although I had helped many clients to address separation anxiety over the years, I hadn’t really understood the extent of the emotional turmoil it caused to both dog and owner and the upheaval to one’s lifestyle.
It became important for me to come up with creative management solutions even beyond those I had previously used in my professional practice. Overall, my experiences with Sierra caused me to search beyond the traditional recommendations for addressing the issue, to get creative with solutions, and to become very organized in my approach.
VS: The book appears to be partly a workbook. Can you talk about that?
NW: Because the problem of separation anxiety can seem so overwhelming, and because so much of the available information is very general, I wanted to give owners a way to formulate a plan for their own individual dog. The book begins by guiding the reader through a few simple exercises to determine whether their dog has true separation anxiety, is simply acting out of boredom, or has “isolation distress,” meaning they are fine as long as there is another warm body present. In subsequent chapters, owners are assisted in brainstorming management solutions and in creating an appropriate “Alone Zone” for their dog, and are given step-by-step assistance to formulate a customized treatment plan. Getting it all down on paper helps owners to feel less helpless and overwhelmed, and empowers them by creating a solid plan of action.
VS: Along with useful exercises such as desensitizing the dog to departure cues, you offer a few different behavior modification protocols. Why not just one?
NW: Because every dog is starting at a different point along the anxiety continuum. Some dogs become distressed when separated from their owner physically or visually—these are often the “Velcro dogs” who don’t want to let the owner out of their sight, even for a minute! Then there are those who are fine so long as the owner is at home, but become anxious as soon as the owner prepares to leave. Other dogs don’t become upset until the owner is actually gone. So there are different protocols to follow, depending on the particular dog.
VS: You also discuss complementary tools and therapies that may help. Can you discuss one or two?
NW: Leaving calming music playing when you are gone is one of the easiest ways to help your dog to relax. This goes beyond the old advice to leave a radio or television playing. Studies have shown that classical music, played with sparse instrumentation at a specific tempo, can have a calming effect on dogs. I recommend the Through a Dog’s Ear CDs, which are psycho-acoustically designed specifically for this purpose—but the chapter also discusses how you can use classical music you have on hand.
Another helpful modality is DAP, or Dog Appeasing Pheromone. This product chemically mimics the pheromones that are given off by a lactating female dog. In addition to being calming to puppies, it is also calming to adult dogs. The product looks like a plug-in air freshener, and you place it in your dog’s main resting area. I’ve had good success with DAP with some of my clients’ dogs. All of the things mentioned in this section, including the natural alternatives to pharmacological drugs, may help and won’t cause harm. They are definitely worth trying, and should be done in conjunction with behavior modification.
NW: Absolutely! It’s an unfortunate fact that some dogs who are rehomed will have separation issues. I offer deep discounts to shelters and rescue groups. Some organizations hand the books out to adopters of dogs with known separation issues, while others sell them, for example, in on-site humane society gift shops. This is an issue that is very close to my heart, and I want to do whatever I can to help. My hope is that the book will help dogs and their owners, and by doing so, keep dogs in their forever homes.
VS: Fantastic stuff – thanks so much, Nicole, and I’ll see you in a couple of months!
Purchase “Don’t Leave Me!” and “Help For Your Fearful Dog" in the Positively store.
Ask Victoria – Jamie PPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 09/06/11 at 08:09:37 am - 2 Comments
Our 2 yr old golden doodle has been diagnosed w/ OCD because she chases shadows constantly. She did not start this behavior until she was about a year old. We’ve tried medications that have not worked, but what we really want is to know if this is something that training would help. She is very intelligent, but I don’t know how to train her. We just do not have trainers available in Mississippi. We are desperate. When she is in ”shadow zone” she’s like a zombie. Please help.
Jamie P., Madison, MS
Victoria’s Interview with Italian VSPDT GiorgioPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 09/04/11 at 11:09:56 am - No Comments
Il Cane Norma’s Giorgio Guglielminotti Garmot is one of the first international members of Victoria’s exclusive global network of world-class positive reinforcement trainers – Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT). We recently caught up with Giorgio to ask him about the movement towards positive reinforcement training in Italy, his training center outside of Rome, and his upcoming seminar featuring world-renowned ethologist Roger Abrantes in September.
Victoria: How long have you been training dogs, and have you always used positive reinforcement
Giorgio: Are almost ten years now that I train dogs and I always used positive reinforcement methods; this is because my first formation was with the first dog trainer that used this method here in Italy: Carlo Marzoli. Of course I was already sure that we could approach dogs with different methods from those used so far.
VS: How prevalent are dominance-based, aversive training techniques and philosophies in Italy? Can you tell a difference in how progressive certain European countries are in their attitudes towards dogs compared to one another?
GG: In these recent years things are changing in Italy. There are many dog trainers class formation that reject dominance-based and aversive training techniques using positive reinforcement methods so the new trainer have a canine culture based on respect and on relationship with dogs. Unfortunately, there is still a culture based on old conception and on traditional knowledge that produce bad works with dog and no respect of the dog. In Europe I think we have great differences between certain countries: UK, France, and Nordic country (Sweden, Finland and Denmark) are maybe the best country about dog training with positive methods. I don’t know a lot about Germany but the news I have are not so clear. Italy, Spain and Greece are growing up and maybe the majority problems we have are about the facilities for dogs like hospitality in Hotel, bar, restaurants, shops and public transport even if, during a my recent holidays in Spain, I had not problem to find many hotels that accept dogs.
VS: What made you decide to become a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer, and how do you feel it sets you apart from other dog trainers in your area?
GG: The decision to become a VSPDT member was a sort of challenge with myself. After many years working I wanted to understand if my working methods could be at the same level of other international dog trainers. Of course have a better chance to disclose a good canine culture and be a member of an important association like this convinced me to try this experience. Many dog trainers in Italy know Victoria Stilwell and the “It’s Me or the Dog” TV show and they are often surprised when I tell them about the VSPDT and my membership. They believe that it’s too much difficult to reach, but I think that if we work in the right way we can reach great results.
VS: Tell us about your facility outside Rome, Il Cane a Norma. It’s named after your own dog, right? What types of services do you offer and what message are you trying to convey to the local dog-owning public?
GG: Yes, Il cane a Norma is sort of pun for my dog training center. My dog (Norma) changed my life and gave to me a job and a future many years ago so she deserved to give the name for my business. We offer base education and advanced training as obedience, rally-o, agility dog, nose works and discdog. More we help our customers to solve behavior problem of their dogs. We try to inform our public that there new methods to educate and train the dogs and that is better to begin immediately, with puppies, without waiting to have problems. Life with our dogs is long and it’s should be a good life for both. Moreover we have class formation for new dog trainer and during the year we plan seminars and courses about specific dog activities.
VS: What is The Dog Trainers Company?
GG: The Dog Trainers Company is a new company I have founded with the aim to provide professional service for the dog trainers in Italy. Seminars, events, technical equipments, workshops are the first goals for the DTC.
VS: You’re hosting renowned ethologist Roger Abrantes at your facility this September. Tell us a bit about him, why you decided to invite him to your first seminar, and what ethology is all about.
GG: Yes, our first guest will be Roger Abrantes, one of the most important person that studies animal behavior. PhD in Evolutionary Biology and Ethology, and BA in Philosophy, DHC, DF, MAPBC, born in Portugal in 1951, has lived most of his life in Denmark.He is the author to 17 books in English, German, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, and Czech, and innumerous articles on behavior. He is probably one of the most versatile ethologists in the world. He has written popular books with sound advice to pet owners as well as theoretical scientific dissertations. He teaches ethology, anthropology, and epistemology (theory of knowledge), besides his practical work with dogs and horses.
He is a popular guest in TV and radio programs in his home countries and in the US. His English books Dog Language–An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior and The Evolution Of Canine Social Behavior became hits the moment they reached the US bookshelves. He lectures often in the US.
Dr. Abrantes is especially known for his views on social behavior and its applications to the daily understanding of pet behavior; and for his no-nonsense working methods, a practical and thorough application of Ethology and Learning Theory, teaching the animal the new patterns patiently and efficiently step by step. In our seminar in Rome he will speak about SMAF (signal, meaning and form) his traning method and the second day he will present his last work about the dog behavior problems. Why Roger Abrantes? Because we think that Italy is ready to hear international experts and it’s ready to learn from them. Download a PDF about Roger’s Seminar at Il Cane Norma here.
VS: Giorgio, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today. I look forward to getting over to Italy very soon and joining forces with you in person to help spread the word that there’s a better way to train… Positively – and that the concept of treating animals with the love, respect and trust that they deserve is a common language that we all share, regardless of nationality.
For more information about Giorgio, Il Cane Norma, dog training in Italy or the Dog Training Company and its upcoming seminars, please visit:
Intervista di Vittoria con il Cane di Norma Giorgio GarmotPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 09/04/11 at 08:09:52 am - 2 Comments
Giorgio Guglielminotti Garmot, responsabile del centro cinofilo il cane a Norma, è uno dei primi membri internazionali della VSPDT, l’associazione mondiale degli istruttori cinofili che utilizzano metodi non coercitivi nell’ educazione e nell’ addestramento del cane fondata da Victoria Stilwell. Abbiamo incontrato recentemente Giorgio e abbiamo parlato con lui su come sta cambiando in Italia il modo di relazionarsi col cane, sul suo centro cinofilo nelle vicinanze di Roma, e sull’evento organizzato dalla nuova società, The Dog Trainers Company, che si terrà a Settembre sempre a Roma: il seminario del Prof. Roger Abrantes, etologo di fama mondiale.
Victoria: Da quanto tempo ti occupi di educazione e addestramento del cane, e hai sempre usato il rinforzo positivo come metodo di apprendimento?
Giorgio: Sono ormai quasi dieci anni che lavoro con i cani e ho sempre usato metodi positivi con loro; questo perché la mia formazione fu con una persona che molto probabilmente per prima in Italia aveva iniziato a proporsi al cane in modo positivo: Carlo Marzoli. Naturalmente decisi di seguire questa metodologia perché fin dall’epoca ero sicuro che potevamo insegnare al cane ciò che ci interessava con metodi diversi da quelli utilizzati in Italia sino a quel momento.
VS: Quanto sono presenti in Italia metodi di addestramento basati sulla dominanza e su tecniche di coercizione? Puoi dirci qualcosa sulle differenze che si riscontrano nei diversi paesi in Europa e sui loro modi di proporsi al cane?
GG: In questi ultimi anni le cose in Italia stanno sicuramente cambiando. Ci sono molte scuole di formazione per istruttori cinofili che rifiutano categoricamente metodi coercitivi e l’utilizzo della dominanza, questo fa si che tutti i nuovi professionisti divulghino una corretta cultura cinofila basata sul rispetto e sulla costruzione di una buona relazione col cane. Purtroppo esistono ancora realtà dove l’utilizzo della violenza e della costrizione sul cane sono la normalità. Credo che molto dipenda da vecchie conoscenze legate in qualche modo ad una tradizione e concezione antica del cane e ad una poca volontà di aggiornarsi e cambiare il proprio modo di lavoro. In Europa ritengo che esistono grandi differenze tra vari paesi su come viene inteso il cane e il suo rapporto con l’uomo. Gran Bretagna, Francia, e Paesi Nordici (Svezia, Finlandia e Danimarca) sono forse tra i migliori paesi in Europa riguardo l’utilizzo del metodo positivo per l’addestramento del cane. Non so molto per quello che riguarda la Germania ma le poche esperienze avute in quel paese e le notizie che arrivano sono spesso contrastanti. Italia, Spagna e Grecia stanno crescendo e stanno migliorando la loro posizione e forse il maggiore problema che si riscontra è nei servizi offerti ai cani. Risulta molto difficile trovare Hotel, bar, ristoranti, negozi e mezzi di trasporto che accettano cani, anche se, durante una mia recente vacanza in Spagna con i miei cani, non ho avuto grossi problemi nel trovare strutture che li accettassero.
VS: Cosa ti ha fatto decidere di diventare un membro della VSPDT e cosa pensano i tuoi colleghi di lavoro in Italia?
GG: E’ stata una specie di sfida con me stesso. Dopo molti anni di lavoro volevo capire se la mia preparazione poteva essere messa in confronto con istruttori internazionali di alto livello. Naturalmente avere la possibilità di divulgare nel miglior modo una corretta cultura cinofila ed essere membro di una associazione così importante mi hanno spinto a provare questa esperienza. Molti istruttori cinofili in Italia conoscono Victoria Stilwell e il suo programma televisivo “Basta, o io o il cane” e spesso sono rimangono molto stupiti quando racconto la mia esperienza con la VSPDT. Questo perché pensano che sia troppo difficile da intraprendere ma io sono convinto che quando si lavora bene qualsiasi risultato è raggiungibile.
VS: Raccontaci qualcosa sul tuo centro cinofilo, prende il nome dal tuo cane vero? Che tipo di servizi offri e qual’ è il messaggio che vuoi portare ai tuoi clienti?
GG: Si, esatto. Il cane a Norma è un gioco di parole creato col nome del mio cane. Norma ha cambiato la mia vita, mi ha dato un lavoro e un futuro e il minimo che potessi fare era dedicargli il centro cinofilo. Come prima cosa ci occupiamo di educazione di base e di addestramento avanzato come obedience, rally-o, agility dog, lavori olfattivi e discdog. Aiutiamo inoltre i nostri clienti a risolvere i problemi comportamentali dei loro cani. Ciò che proviamo a fare è specialmente far capire ai proprietari che esistono nuovi metodi per educare i cani e per insegnare loro i diversi esercizi e che naturalmente è meglio iniziare il prima possibile….. con il cucciolo, senza aspettare di avere problemi. La vita insieme al nostro cane è lunga e dovrebbe essere vissuta nel miglior modo per tutti.
Infine presso il nostro centro ci occupiamo di formazione con corsi per chi vuole intraprendere questa professione e durante l’anno organizziamo seminari e stages su attività specifiche con i cani.
Che cos’è la Dog Trainers Company? La Dog Trainers Company è una nuova società che ho fondato insieme ad alcuni amici e colleghi che ha lo scopo di proporre servizi professionali agli istruttori cinofili. Eventi, stages, seminari, materiale tecnico e altre iniziative sono i primi obiettivi che la DTC si propone.
VS: Ospiterete l’etologo di fama mondiale mondiale nel seminario di Settembre: raccontaci qualcosa su di lui e perché avete deciso di invitarlo al vostro primo evento.
GG: Si, il nostro primo ospite sarà Roger Abrantes, uno dei maggiori studiosi del comportamento animale. Etologo e laureato biologia dell’evoluzione è nato in Portogallo e ha vissuto gran parte della sua vita in Danimarca. E’ autore di 17 libri in diverse lingue quali inglese, tedesco, spagnolo, danese, svedese, norvegese, italiano e ceco e ha pubblicato diversi articoli sul comportamento animale. Insegna etologia, antropologia e teoria dell’apprendimento, il tutto correlato dal lavoro pratico con cani e cavalli. E’ un ospite popolare in programmi televisivi e radiofonici. Il suo libro più importante, “il linguaggio del cane”, è sicuramente un testo che non può mancare nella formazione di un istruttore cinofilo. E’ particolarmente conosciuto per il suo pensiero sul comportamento sociale e per il suo metodo di apprendimento sviluppato negli anni conosciuto come SMAF (signal, meaning and form). Nel nostro seminario parlerà proprio dello SMAF e nel secondo giorno presenterà il suo ultimo lavoro sui problemi comportamentali del cane. Perché abbiamo invitato proprio lui? Perché pensiamo che l’Italia adesso è pronta per ascoltare esperti internazionali ed è pronta ad imparare da loro. E’ solo il primo, ne seguiranno altri e tutti molto importanti.
VS: Giorgio, grazie per aver parlato con noi oggi. Mi sto preparando per venire in Italia molto presto e unire le mie forze con le tue per dire al mondo che c’è un modo migliore per addestrare……. Il metodo Positivo - e che l’idea di trattare gli animali con amore, rispetto e fiducia è un linguaggio comune che tutti dovrebbero condividere indipendentemente dalla nazionalità.
Per maggiori informazioni:
Win a free copy of the new Marley and Me movie on DVDPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/19/11 at 03:08:45 pm - 58 Comments
I loved Marley and Me. The book and the movie. Made me laugh, cry, commiserate and celebrate. How about you?
Well guess what: there's a new prequel out in stores now: Marley & Me: The Puppy Years went on sale this week, and I have a few copies to give away to fans who share their stories about life with their puppies.
The adorable sequel to the original hit movie follows the adventures of Marley as a puppy, and features some wonderful scenes of agility training. Agility is a great way for dogs (especially puppies) to socialize, build confidence and develop while having fun with their people!
What's great about this movie is that it reinforces the belief that exposing your young puppy to a wide range of novel cues -- new people, places, sounds and smells -- in a safe, happy, positive environment is the secret to a wonderfully well-adjusted dog.
Did you take your puppy to agility classes? This is your chance to tell the world about all the craziness that ensued when you brought home your first puppy.
To enter for a chance to win a free DVD of the movie, just comment to this post telling us about your experience and 'Like' this page by clicking the Facebook button below.
Ask Victoria – LaurenPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/04/11 at 10:08:09 pm - 28 Comments
I love your show! I have two mini Australian shepherds. My female Alice was rescued from a puppy mill. She is very territorial when it comes to men. The second a man comes near her she begins barking non-stop. I’ve tried my command leave it, ignoring her, giving men treats to entice her, but nothing has worked! How do I get her to be more comfortable around men? Any advice would be much appreciated! Thank you!
Lauren from Norman, OK
Victoria Chats With Patricia McConnellPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 08/04/11 at 08:08:12 pm - 3 Comments
LOVE HAS NO AGE LIMIT
I recently had the chance to catch up with my friend and dog training guru Dr. Patricia McConnell to chat about her latest book, Love Has No Age Limit. Love this woman and what she does!
Victoria Stilwell: Hi Patricia! So glad you could find a few minutes to talk to me about your new book (which I love, by the way.) As you know, you have been a huge influence on me as a dog trainer and I’m honored to be able to talk dog with you!
Patricia McConnell: The honor is all mine, Victoria, it’s a joy to talk to someone who has done so much to promote humane (and effective!) dog training.
VS: Why did you and your co-author, Karen London, decide to write Love Has No Age Limit?
PM: We wrote the book to both encourage adoptions and, as importantly, to increase the percentage of successful ones. We’ve both had many clients over the years who adopted dogs from shelters and rescues who needed some guidance about how to transition their adopted dog from “new dog” to “best dog ever.”
VS: Have you found that dogs from shelters or rescue groups have a special set of problems that need to be addressed?
PM: In some ways, no. We’ve met (and adopted!) so many adolescent and adult dogs who were great dogs, really fantastic ones. However, it IS a bit different bringing home a dog who is not a puppy anymore, and it helps to have one’s expectations aligned with reality.
VS: What have you found are the primary differences between bringing home a young puppy versus adopting a dog who is a bit older?
PM: One important thing to keep in mind is that a dog who is “house trained” in one home doesn’t necessarily transfer that behavior to your home. Even well-trained, older dogs need to be watched carefully for the first few days so that they understand where to find the restroom. Take them out often and give them treats for relieving themselves outside so that they catch on before they establish a bad habit.
Another important tip is to remember that once a dog is no longer a puppy he or she doesn’t have an automatic “following” response. Too often adopters bring home a dog and expect it to jump out of the car and follow them into the house. We advise being
extremely cautious at first when you bring home a new dog: be sure the leash is on and in your hand before the dog leaves the car, and don’t assume that, if you have one, your backyard fence is “dog-proof” without doing a careful check before you let the dog loose in it.
And overwhelmingly, the most important attribute to making an adoption work is to be patient! Just as puppies need months or years to learn the rules of the house, remember that your new dog needs time to get to know you and to settle in and feel at home. He or she also needs the humane and effective kind of training that you role model Victoria, to be a polite member of the family. Just because a dog isn’t a puppy doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to learn what you expect of it.
VS: Some people have told me that they are resistant to adopting a dog from a shelter or humane society because the dog must have something wrong with it. Do dogs from shelters have more behavioral problems than other dogs?
PM: Absolutely not. That doesn’t mean that every dog who needs a home is perfect, but there are so many wonderful dogs out there looking for homes. It’s true that they’ll need training and guidance to learn to fit into your household, but one of my best dogs ever came from a shelter, the one I renamed Lassie because she was the dog everyone wants but doesn’t deserve!
PM: We worked very hard to create a book that is priced far, far below the usual retail cost for a book its size, so that shelters and rescue groups could afford to give it out with every dog they adopt. That’s been super successful --- a Golden Retriever rescue group (GRIN) in Ohio bought 500, and we’ve heard from lots of people who are buying multiple copies and donating them to their shelter. We want to do all that we can to help find homeless dogs their forever homes!
VS: Fantastic. Thanks so much, Patricia, and best of luck with the new book – it certainly is a valuable addition to your terrific catalog. See you soon!
For more information about Dr. McConnell, go to www.patriciamcconnell.com
CLICK HERE to visit the Positively Store where you can buy Love Has No Age Limit and Dr. McConnell's other bestseller (and one of my favorite dog books - The Other End of the Leash.
Hero Dog Awards Voting Ends Soon!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/30/11 at 10:07:03 am - 1 Comment
The voting for the first annual Hero Dog Awards is closes this weekend. Have you voted yet?
I'll be c0-judging the awards along with Whoopi Goldberg, Betty White and others at the Hero Dog Awards ceremony in Los Angeles on October 1st, and I can tell you from looking through the nominated entries that it is not easy to choose. We all know about the wonderful work being done by people to help animals, but this is a chance to celebrate the amazing things our animals do for us as well.
They are all such wonderful, heartwarming and heroic stories.
Have you voted for your Hero Dog yet? Do it here:
Hero Dog Treasure – Cochranville, PAPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/24/11 at 06:07:27 am - 2 Comments
Treasure has overcome adversity in her own life ... She was born both blind and deaf. She has known the sting of loneliness while waiting in a shelter for someone to notice her. She has known what it is like to be rejected and unwanted. Perhaps this is what makes her so good at her job. People can relate to her in some way. They hear her story and it touches a place in their hearts. They can recognize on some level a part of what she's been through.
You see, Treasure is a therapy dog. She is now loved and cherished for the role she has both in her own family, and in the hearts of others. Treasure visits people who are hoping for a friend. She shows no judgment. She loves to be touched and is just the right size to snuggle into a lap. Treasure visits people who can relate to her. When one woman living at an assisted living facility found out that Treasure couldn't see or hear her, she stated cheerfully, "Well, that's ok. I can't always see or hear that well myself." Her focus was not on what Treasure couldn't do, but on what they had in common and how that made them each special.
Treasure has a way of inspiring all those who meet her, but what she does best is to provide a welcome friend in a sometimes lonely world. To many, she is a hero every day.
Voting is now open for the Hero Dog Awards!
Victoria Chats With Italian VSPDT Daniela CardilloPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/23/11 at 12:07:14 pm - 4 Comments
Greendogs’ Daniela Cardillo is among the first international members of Victoria’s exclusive global network of world-class positive reinforcement trainers – Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training (VSPDT). I recently caught up with Daniela to ask her about the movement towards positive reinforcement training in Italy, and her training business near Milan.
Victoria: How long have you been training dogs, and have you always used positive reinforcement methods?
Daniela: I was a teenager when I had my first own dog and I immediately felt the need to buy my first training book in 1983 “complete guide for German Sheppard training“ . But I learned and used for the first time the positive reinforcement method in San Francisco CA in 1991, training a rescued greyhound. I was teaching the dog to “come when called” and I used food as the positive reinforcer. After only a few days, I decided not to use food anymore because the dog had learned how to come back to me… and I lost the dog for one hour. In Golden Gate Park! This is a common mistake that almost every person makes when first using positive reinforcement method. My clients also make this mistake within the 5th lesson. Then I tell them that positive reinforcement is used for two goals: teaching the behavior and MOTIVATING the behavior! My Greyhound knew how to come back when called…but simply didn’t want to do it for nothing (no motivation). She had something nicer to do, somewhere else in the Park, that better called for her attention!!
VS: How prevalent are dominance-based, aversive training techniques and philosophies in Italy?
DC: In Italy is prohibited to use electric/shock collars but I still see and hear about aversive training and dominance-based techniques. For example many “dog trainers” still use choke chains to teach the dog not to pull on leash and tie the dog till he can’t even breath. The first thing I do with my customers that use choke chains is to remove it and take a harness from my bag. Just to start. I work to promote more science-based dog-learning, dog-language, positive reinforcement training. For this reason I am also organizing a FIDO FESTIVAL called “QUA LA ZAMPA” in Barzio (Lecco – Italy) the 14th of August. It’s a full-day DOG festival with many scheduled events of culture and education throughout the day. We will talk about conscious adoption of dogs, slaughter in the “perreras" (Spain’s kennels), how to recognize heatstroke and how to handle it, the best dog-equipment to use when training and for everyday life, we will have a group training of exercises using positive reinforcement methods and lastly we will have a dog parade! (More details on www.daniela.cardillo.positively.com )
DC: Looking at Europe from the Italian point of view, it seems that England is the guideline for dog training in real life and dogs are really welcome everywhere also in the tourist reception. In some countries like Spain, the law allows terrifying things: dogs that are in shelters are killed after 10 days if not requested from old owners or from a new family. When they are put in the dead-list, no food, no water, no care a all is given to them and then they are killed with NO regulations… i.e. in the incinerator still alive! And many many other terrifying things like this. I’m personally involved to help those dogs in the “perreras” and the FIDO FESTIVAL “QUA LA ZAMPA” is to economically support these dogs.
VS: What made you decide to become a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer, and how do you feel it sets you apart from other dog trainers in your area?
DC: I decided to become a Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer because I share the philosophy of positive reinforcement method and I want to share with you, Victoria, and your worldwide team, the goal of offering the best (ethically and technically) for family dogs, rescued dogs, shelter dogs… and their lives. I’m proud to be part of your Team and I’m ready to help dogs and their families with positive reinforcement training… for a better (dog)world.
VS: Tell us about your facility outside Milan, Greendogs. How did you come up with that name, what types of services do you offer and what message are you trying to convey to the local dog-owning public?
DC: The name “Greendogs” comes from the traffic light! Red you stop, Green you go!
My goal is to let dogs be: be free to be dogs, good dogs with no problem, safe dogs, friendly dogs, happy dogs, so…GREENDOGS are dogs that can go everywhere with no problem at all! I work in the Lecco, Brianza and Milano area exactly as you do in your TV program: I work in the house of the families, understand the problem from the human point of view and then from the dogs’ point of view. Then I make a schedule of number and type of sessions to do, write the goals end start with new rules and training exercises.
The families I work with, are mostly “distressed” for the problems directly and indirectly caused by their dogs… and too many times I’m the last chance for these dogs… So, an important job in my opinion! I also work for puppy training, as a prevention to dog’s behavior problems… and a good education of the owners! if I don’t see my puppy-customers anymore…it means that I have done a great job with them!! The message I want to give to the local dog-owning public is knowledge about the dogs, organizing the Fido Festival, training, seminars for learning dogs’ language, for a growing dog-culture.
Important appointment scheduled with Giorgio Guglielminotti (VSPDT) is a scientific seminar that will be held in Rome the 17th – 18th September 2011 with Roger Abrantes. This seminar is designed for dog trainers (www.greendogs.it for details).
VS: Daniela, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today. I look forward to getting over to Italy very soon and joining forces with you and Giorgio in person to help spread the word that there’s a better way to train… Positively – and that the concept of treating animals with the love, respect and trust that they deserve is a common language that we all share, regardless of nationality.
My Work With Rin Tin Tin!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/22/11 at 07:07:34 am - 11 Comments
Just before I went to New York to start filming the new season of It's Me or the Dog, I had the great pleasure of being invited to Little Rock, Arkansas to meet the legendary Rin Tin Tin. What an honor! Rin and I have both recently come on board as National Ambassadors for the American Humane Association, so I'll be seeing more of him at various upcoming events, including a special tribute gala to the amazing service dogs who helped so many in the days after 9/11 (search and rescue, therapy dogs, etc). Read more about this special event here.
Like most people, I knew that Rin Tin Tin rose to fame thanks to his prolific work in Hollywood during the first half of the 20th century, but I wasn't fully aware of the amazing story about how he came to the US as a rescued, shellshocked pup from France during World War I. I also didn't know that the current and previous Rin Tin Tins (there have been 12 so far) have a history as service dogs tending to children in need.
But the main reason for my trip to Little Rock was not to meet this Rin Tin Tin, but rather the future heir to the famous name. The current Rin (pictured here) is a beautiful dog and a great ambassador for the German Shepherd breed. The quality and integrity of this line of dogs is a testament to what reputable breeding should be. As most of you know, I'm a passionate advocate for rescuing animals from shelters, and am firmly against puppy mills, backyard breeders and anyone who breeds dogs with no regard for health, temperament and the animals' well-being. But the family who is responsible for the Rin Tin Tin line are great examples of how to do it right, and they've produced very happy, healthy, well-adjusted dogs that all end up in loving forever homes. You can see archived video of the most recent litter here.
So I've been asked to work with and be responsible for the training of the future Rin Tin Tin, who is now a 9-week old puppy destined for further fame. I spent some quality time reconnecting with the lovely puppy and his owner, setting up overall training protocols so that he can be as successful as possible. I'll post more about that process, my time working with this lovely little chap and the line's fascinating personal history later.
For now, though, congratulations to Chivon Winter, the winner of the recent contest who correctly guessed the identity of my new little friend and was chosen at random from the many correct entries!
Stay tuned for more info about my work with Rin Tin Tin!
Guess the Identity of Victoria’s New Friend ContestPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/14/11 at 10:07:49 am - 7 Comments
Victoria has recently been spending time with a new special friend. Can you guess who it is?
Every day from July 12 through July 19 Victoria will be posting new clues as to the identity of her new mystery friend on this page as well as her Facebook and Twitter feeds. Once you think you know the correct answer, enter your guess and be automatically entered into a worldwide contest to win up to $100 worth of personalized Victoria Stilwell merchandise!
But wait until you're sure to enter - you can only enter once and the clues will get more specific as the contest progresses.
Daily Clues from Victoria's Mystery Friend:
- I'm very brave.
- I work in the entertainment industry.
- I have big, pointy ears.
- I love helping kids with special needs.
- People often think I'm something that I'm not.
- I'm the 14th in my line of ancestors.
- I have a tail.
- I was named after a puppet.
How to Enter the free Contest:
- Click on the "Sweepstakes" link on the left side of Victoria's Official Facebook page.
- Enter on the Official Contest Page by clicking the button below.
*Note* This contest is worldwide and entries will be accepted from all countries.
The winner will be selected randomly from all correctly completed contest entries and notified by July 20th, 2011.
Hero Dog Phoenix – Hopewell Junction, NYPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/11/11 at 12:07:29 pm - 2 Comments
This is Phoenix. At a young age (7 months), Phoenix was involved in a terrible accident that severely injured his right hind leg.
Read his heartwarming story as told by his lucky owner:
Shortly after his accident, and during the period the veterinarians tried to save his leg, Phoenix came into my life. Ironically, he appeared at a time when I too was dealing with some rough, heart-ache issues. Although our pains were different, we went through them together. I have never seen a dog face such adversity, discomfort and complications with the grace, gentleness, trust and strength he did. His veterinarians and vet techs can attest to his endurance. After many surgeries and painful procedures, Phoenix suffered one final complication which caused his leg to re-fracture. He handled his amputation with courage and perseverance.
I learned many things while watching Phoenix face and meet his challenges including a special kind of love that is pure and true. Anyone that has met Phoenix along the way has also experienced the kindness and love that he exudes. Strangers, even from a distance, feel the need to meet and pet him. I knew I would never be able to keep all of this sweetness and love to myself and therefore we joined a wonderful organization called Good Dog Foundation. Through Good Dog Foundation, Phoenix and I have been able to go into our local VA Hospital to share happiness, love and thank these wonderful men and women who have served our country. Phoenix has also recently started work in a local library reading program, where children read aloud to him, show pictures, or just talk and pet him. He LOVES it!! Phoenix is a special pup that has taught and shared his love, trust and strength. He will always be a hero in my eyes.
Voting is now open for the Hero Dog Awards!
Dealing With Fireworks AnxietyPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/01/11 at 08:07:52 pm - 33 Comments
Here comes the big one!
As the 4th of July approaches in the US, I’ve been getting tons of emails from people asking how to deal with dogs (and cats) that are terrified of fireworks. Like early November in the UK (Guy Fawkes Night) and New Year’s Eve everywhere, Independence Day can be a fantastic time for us humans, but while we gather with friends and family to celebrate and kick back, these times of year can be miserable for our pets.
A lot of your dog’s misery can be avoided (or at least reduced) if you think ahead and begin the desensitization process with her well ahead of the big day. There are several steps you should take if you think your dog will have a bad reaction to the booms, whistles and pops that are the soundtrack to what the rest of us all consider a fun night.
Working with dogs that have a fear or phobia can be complex because even though some common fears can be successfully worked with, others are deeply ingrained and are therefore highly resistant to change. Recent reports have shown that 93% of dogs with noise phobias involved fear of thunder and other loud noises, including fireworks.Whether fear of fireworks is elicited by a singular traumatic experience or prolonged exposure, the result is often highly distressing for dogs and owners. Without extensive behavioural therapy and management strategies, phobias become deeply ingrained and even harder to change.
Unfortunately even one noisy celebration can turn a dog into a quivering wreck. Some dogs are so badly affected that they have an inability to function during and after a fireworks show. Many fireworks-phobic dogs adopt self-management strategies in order to cope. These strategies include attempting to escape the home, digging into carpets, seeking out dark den-like spaces to hide in, or crawling behind a bathroom sink or toilet. Others will pace back and forth during the episode, unable to focus on owners who are desperately attempting to calm them down. Stress is also manifested through excessive panting, pupil dilation, sweating paws, raised heartbeat, loss of appetite, whimpering, trembling and an inability to settle.
One thing that can sometimes make behavioral modification in fireworks cases a bit easier than with thunderstorms is that thunderstorms are not easy to predict or control. A dog usually knows that a storm is coming long before an owner and becomes increasingly panicked as the storm approaches. Regardless, as with all training techniques, I have learned that treating every dog as an individual is of utmost importance and that modification and management is more likely to succeed if time is spent tailoring the training to each specific dog.
Conditioning a dog to feel differently about the sound of fireworks can be achieved by gradually exposing the dog to audio recordings of fireworks at low volume levels and, if the dog appears relaxed, playing his favorite game or feeding him his favorite food. Allowing the dog to play and relax in the presence of the soft noise for a period of ten minutes, taking a break of five minutes and repeating the exercise ensures that the dog doesn’t become bored with the training. Introducing the audio at a low level again and slowly turning up the volume if the dog continues to be relaxed and able to concentrate on playing the game or eating the food allows the dog to habituate to the noise without a fear response. If the dog shows signs of stress, going back to the previous level and building up the noise level again will take pressure off the dog. The object of noise desensitization is to gradually expose the dog to louder and louder sounds over a period of time, progress being determined by the dog’s reactions. Going too fast might make the dog even more frightened, so taking things slowly will ensure maximum benefit from the process.
Gradually exposing the dog to flashes of light that grow in intensity can be another part of therapy, but one that can be harder to implement. I have found that these therapies are often not as effective as noise desensitization. Some dogs will respond well to all of the above therapies, but will become panicked when the real fireworks start. It is therefore important to tackle this phobia in other ways by using effective management strategies and by masking any audio and visual stimuli that elicit a fear response during an episode.
The most important thing an owner can do for their fireworks-phobic dog is to provide them with a bolt hole – a place where the dog can escape to when the festivities begin. Providing the dog access to this safe place is essential at all times, particularly during an owner’s absence. This might be a closet, bathroom or a basement, the best places usually being the ones that have no windows, but with plenty of artificial light (to mask flashes of fireworks). Music can be played close to the safe haven so that sounds can be masked. It is also essential that if an owner is present, time be spent with the dog in the safe haven or attention given to the dog if it comes to seek comfort from its owner. Far from reinforcing fearful behavior, an owner’s comforting arm and presence can help a phobic dog to cope as long as the owner remains calm at all times.
Some phobic dogs benefit from calming therapies such as t-touch, Thundershirts, DAP collars, and Bach Flower Essences, while others do much better on anti-anxiety medication that can be given just before the fireworks start. It is vital, however, that behavioral therapy and management are always given along with any medications in order to give the dog the best possible chance of rehabilitation.
I’m very excited about some pretty groundbreaking work that I’ve been doing lately on a project to help dogs with phobias like these, and I hope to be able to announce something about that soon. In the meantime, fireworks phobia can be a tough condition to treat, but trying a variety of therapies and techniques can improve a dog’s ability to cope when the big ones come.
EDIT: Since the publication of this post, Victoria and Through A Dog's Ear have released the groundbreaking new Canine Noise Phobia Series, which includes a product specifically designed to combat fireworks and thunderstorm phobias.
No JumpingPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/01/11 at 08:07:52 pm - 13 Comments
Dogs jump for many reasons. Don’t we like to see people’s faces when we say hello? Jumping while greeting is a great way for a dog to get your attention. Some dogs will jump from sheer excitement. Ever feel so excited that you just want to leap around? Excitement produces physical energy and this energy has to go somewhere. On the other side of the coin – some dogs will jump because they feel uneasy when someone comes into the house. Jumping becomes a controlling/coping mechanism that allows the dog to deal with the new intrusion.
There are a number of ways you can control your dog’s jumping.
- If your dog is jumping from pure excitement then it is wise to manage your environment by not allowing the dog to greet people when they first come through the door. Keep your dog behind a baby gate and don’t allow him to greet until he is calm.
- Be consistent. Don’t allow the dog to jump up on you when greeting and expect him not to jump up on guests when they come into the house. Mixed messages are confusing and unfair.
- An effective way to stop some dogs from jumping up is to ignore them while they are jumping. Each time the dog jumps up at you – turn your back. Don’t look, talk or touch the dog at any time it is trying to jump. Fold your arms in front and be boring. When he stops jumping wait for four seconds of four paws on the floor then reward this with your attention in a calm manner. If your dog jumps again, repeat. Sometimes the dog jumps harder and higher to get your attention. This is known as an extinction burst. What has worked before is no longer getting attention so the dog tries harder. Be persistent because eventually he will give up! Remember ignore the crazy and reward the calm.
- One of the best ways you can teach a dog or dogs not to jump, especially when people come through the front door, is to teach them to do something else instead of the jumping behavior. The energy has to go somewhere, so if it can be redirected into another behavior such as teaching the dogs to go to a mat or area and stay there until guests have entered and everyone has calmed down, then allow them to greet in a calm manner, this still allows the dogs to expend energy, but in a controlled way.
- If your dog is unconfident around guests and jumps to be controlling, do not allow your dog to greet your guests. Put him in a place where he can be calm and confident. When guests are seated allow your dog to come in and say hello. If your dog is aggressive in any way to strangers it is your primary responsibility to keep your guests safe. If this means your dog is away while guests are in your home, so be it. You will have a happier dog and happier guests.
Hero Dog Toby – Sherman Oaks, CAPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 07/01/11 at 05:07:28 pm - 1 Comment
Toby is a 6-year old Yorkshire Terrier, a 7-pound bundle of joy with a wonderful temperament, who truly loves giving to others. He exemplifies the true meaning unconditional love.
For two years Toby has been a registered therapy dog, regularly visiting children at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. As we reach the hospital, Toby is so eager to begin that he literally drags me up the stairs. Whenever Toby enters the room, the faces of the children and their families light up. Parents often say this was the first time their child smiled since entering the hospital.
Toby snuggles carefully in cribs and beds. He seems to know intuitively where a child hurts and finds an appropriate place to cuddle. Children who are in and out of the hospital bond with Toby during their repeated visits. One little boy was too sick to lift his head, but when he saw us enter the room, he said, “Toby, you made my Christmas!”
Voting is now open for the Hero Dog Awards!