BLOG POSTS BY Victoria Stilwell
One-Woman Army Rallies Against DogfightingPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 03/06/14 at 12:03:25 pm - No Comments
Janet Frisco may just be one person, but she's taking on a major issue in her community with the determination of an army. Calling herself the "pit bull grandma," she has set out to eliminate dogfighting in her area.
Frisco lives in Charleston, South Carolina, an area where she feels dogfighting is prevalent, but goes mostly undetected and not prosecuted. She puts up Humane Society of the United States posters that offer a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in dogfighting.
She has seen many telltale signs of dogfighting, including finding a dead dog with its mouth taped shut. She has found other dead dogs in the area, many that appear to be disposed of.
There hasn't been a major dogfighting arrest in Frisco's area since 2004, when nearly 50 dogs were seized in a major bust in the Charleston area. Frisco is working with law enforcement officials to re-ignite the community's concern for the issue and to help provide the concrete proof that the police need in order to make an arrest.
As a pit bull owner, Frisco is determined to increase the community's awareness and help bring justice for the dogs that suffer at the hands of dogfighters. She is an extraordinary woman doing extraordinary things for the silent victims of this horrific underground practice.
Aggressive Training Breeds Aggressive DogsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 03/06/14 at 12:03:08 pm - No Comments
A new study out of the UK sought to find the key factors that contribute to dog aggression. While breed-specific legislation and other discriminatory practices focus on the belief that a dog's breed is the primary factor that causes a dog to be aggressive, the results of this study point otherwise. Check out the top 5 common factors found by the researchers, listed below.
The most important thing we can take away from this study is that with responsible ownership and humane training, we can reduce what seems to be a dog aggression epidemic.
Factor #1: Training Methods Used
This study is a huge victory for proponents of science-based, force-free positive training methods. The researchers found that dogs trained using punishment and aversive training methods were twice as likely to be aggressive towards strangers and three times as likely to be aggressive towards family members.
Aggressive training methods create fearful, insecure dogs who often cease to use warning signs before biting, and cope with their fear and insecurity with aggression. A confident dog trained using positive methods does not feel the need to react aggressively. This study exemplifies why it is critical that dog owners, regardless of their dog's breed, behavioral problems, or past history, choose positive methods over punitive methods.
Factor #2: Age of the Owner
The study showed that dogs owned by people under the age of 25 were almost twice as likely to be aggressive than those owned by people over 40.
Factor #3: Dog Gender
According to this study, neutered males were twice as likely to be aggressive as spayed females. Interestingly, the researchers found no significant difference in the risk of aggression between neutered and non-neutered males.
Factor #4: Early Training
Dogs who attended puppy classes when they were young were about one and a half times less likely to show aggression towards strangers. This factor may be twofold: first, that owners who took their puppies to puppy classes are more likely to be overall responsible dog owners, and second, that these dogs received socialization from a young age.
Factor #5: Origin of the Dog
Dogs that were bought from a breeder were much less likely to be aggressive than dogs obtained from shelters or rescues, pet stores, or Internet sites. Although this is a sad statistic for those of us who love our rescue dogs, it's important to be aware that when you adopt a shelter dog, you're taking on a dog with a potentially unknown history, so you have to be prepared to use positive training methods to reverse the damage that may have been done by a previous owner.
Purchasing a puppy from a pet store or an Internet site is never a good idea. Most of these sources obtain their puppies from puppy mills or backyard breeders, where puppies are bred for profit rather than for ideal health and temperament.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman – Not Just a Dog MoviePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 03/04/14 at 10:03:57 pm - No Comments
I'm a big Modern Family fan. And I've built a career and a life around dogs. So when I heard that Ty Burrell - one of my favorite cast members from Modern Family - and at least one other were the voices behind several of the main characters in the soon-to-be-released movie, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," I was in.
I recently had the good fortune to attend a pre-screening of the movie in Atlanta with my daughter and a few of her friends, and we had a fabulous time.
Even though this is a story whose main character is a dog, it's not anywhere near just a dog movie. Sure, it touches on a bunch of familiar and welcome warm notes - animal adoption, the bond between man and dog, etc - but it also provides a refreshingly cliche-free take on relationships in general and provides a lot of fun (and funny) along the way. As one of my daughter's friends said after the screening, "That was a good mix of stuff for us and grown-up humor, too." I assume she only knew it was grownup humor due to the lower pitch of the laughter at some of the more intricate jokes.
To start right off with a bit of a twist, the story centers around a dog who adopts a boy. Among those of us involved in animal rescue, we all know that this is most often the case - the dog chooses us, not vice versa. But this takes that concept to a new, literal level and never apologizes for it or panders to the audience by over-explaining it. It is what it is, and it works. The dog - Mr. Peabody (Burrell) - is a seasoned and enlightened world traveler with close personal friendships with some of history's most exceptional figures (George Washington, DaVinci, etc) thanks to his WABAC ('way back') time travel machine. Just go with it.
His 'son' is a wide-eyed and ready-to-roll schoolboy named Sherman who has a grudging thing for one of his bossy classmates, Penny.
And the heart of the story lies in these relationships. First we have the friendship that develops between Penny and Sherman. Second, we see the challenges of the father and son relationship and the added complexities of a dog being a parent to a boy. As humanized as Mr. Peabody is, at the end of the day, he still is a dog. Clearly the message is about acceptance, and not just canine love. However, for those of us out there who love our dogs like part of the family, “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is sure to hit a special chord in our hearts for the film’s depiction of the love, loyalty and companionship we share with our four-legged best friends.
We enjoyed it, and as long as you don't walk in thinking you're going to a dogs-only movie, I think you might, too.
A Boy and His DogPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/24/14 at 10:02:38 am - 6 Comments
This is one incredible story of a boy and his dog. Owen has a rare disease called Schwartz-Jampel Syndrome which keeps his muscles in a constant state of tension. Owen's family adopted a three-legged Anatolian Shepherd who survived being hit by a train, and the bond between Owen and his dog truly changed both of their lives. He is in hospital at the moment for sleep tests and to try a new machine to help him with his breathing. All he wants is for his video to reach 2 million views, which it has already done, but please help the support continue to grow more by sharing this with everyone you know and taking it far beyond the 2 million mark.
Study Shows Lower Stress Levels in Dogs Trained PositivelyPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/20/14 at 12:02:42 pm - 2 Comments
A new study released in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior reveals what many of us in the dog behavior field have long known to be true: that positive reinforcement training is beneficial for a dog's overall well-being and the canine-human bond, and that aversive training has detrimental effects on both.
For the first time, trained scientists observed dogs in training classes for leash walking and the "sit" cue. The dogs in both the positive and the aversive classes were already familiar with the behaviors.
The R+ (positive reinforcement) group were taught to sit using food to lure the dogs into position, and then the dogs were rewarded after sitting. During training for loose leash walking, the dogs were praised for walking near their handlers.
The aversive group learned the same cues but in an entirely different manner. The owners put their dogs in a "sit" by pushing down on the dogs' rear and pulling up on the leash, and taught loose leash walking by tugging on the leash if the dogs were pulling.
The results were fascinating, although not surprising to those of us who only use positive methods. In the leash walking comparison, the dogs that were taught using punishment-based methods rarely made eye contact with their owners, while most of the dogs that were trained positively did.
And for the sit cue, significantly more dogs in the aversive group showed behaviors signaling stress, including licking and yawning. Two dogs in the R+ group licked their lips--they were about to receive a treat. Again, dogs in the positively trained group were much more likely to make eye contact with their owners.
This is the first time that these results have been confirmed by a trainer researcher observing dog training classes, and it upholds several other studies that assert the the scientific hypothesis that positive training leads to a stronger bond between man and dog as well as significantly lowering stress in the dog.
Although this research is still in its early stages, it is yet another example of how powerful the science behind positive training is and that it provides solid validation that the force free methods we positive trainers are using are not just effective, but are incredibly important in enhancing the human/animal bond.
Shelter Dog Spotlight: MayaPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/18/14 at 10:02:47 am - 1 Comment
Last week, I highlighted a shelter dog named Marley who I met at the SPCA of Central Florida. This week, I want to tell you about another adoptable dog I met at the same shelter. Maya is a beautiful pit bull mix who has waited for her forever home for quite some time. Being a pit mix, she is often overlooked by adopters, but is a sweet girl. She was the first one to greet me at the reception desk when we first entered the shelter--since she's a staff favorite, she gets to hang out in the front office for most of the day.
Maya is about 8 years old and is already spayed and up-to-date on vaccinations. She would prefer to be the only pet in the home, although she could potentially live with another dog on a case-by-case basis. Maya already knows many basic cues, and I was incredibly impressed with the work the shelter staff has put into training her.
If you're interested in meeting or adopting Maya, visit the SPCA of Central Florida.
Attending a Dogfight Now a Federal CrimePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/12/14 at 08:02:08 am - 10 Comments
It may seem like a small step, but the implications of the newly passed Farm Bill will be far-reaching in the world of animal rights. Hosting any form of an animal fight has long been a federal crime, but it is now illegal to attend or bring a child to such a fight.
Before the passage of the bill, spectators of dog and cock fights were often able to avoid prosecution by claiming they were not involved in the fight. Now, they will be held responsible alongside those who are participating in the fight directly.
The fact that it is now a federal crime to bring a minor to such an event is especially important. When children grow up watching animal fights, it can encourage illegal activity and violence in the future, and can create an insensitivity to animal abuse and suffering. I have spoken at length in schools where children are regularly taken to fights by their parents as a "fun" Saturday night activity and have become desensitized to the cruelty they witness. Violence breeds violence, and the vicious cycle continues.
The high admission fees charged for spectators to watch an animal fight provide much of the funding that allows these cruel practices to continue. As law enforcement officials are now able to crack down on these spectators, the hope is that the funding for these fights will slowly trickle away.
Although this important legislation won't stop these barbaric practices outright, it is certainly a step in the right direction for animals and those who fight for them.
Shelter Dog Spotlight: MarleyPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/12/14 at 08:02:06 am - No Comments
When I visited the SPCA of Central Florida in Orlando last weekend, I had the opportunity to spend several hours there looking for adoptable dogs to join me during my presentation at their yearly fund raising event, Paws in the Park. The criteria I was looking for was simple, but not always easy to find in the chaotic environment of a shelter: a confident, eager-to-please, friendly dog. This particular shelter is privately run and does not euthanize dogs for time or space, and their presence fills a huge need in the community. The shelter is always full of dogs looking for homes, and the adoption of one dog means that room is made for another life to be saved.
The trainer at the shelter recommended I meet Marley, and it was clear almost immediately that he fit the bill. Marley is an 8-year-old Retriever mix who was surrendered by his owner, and who has been waiting for a home at the shelter for a long time.
Marley is good with people, other dogs and is very eager to please. The shelter staff has taught him all kinds of basic cues, and he loves to work for food. I was so impressed by his calm, confident demeanor despite having lived in a shelter environment for such a long time.
Marley is available for adoption and is waiting to meet you at the SPCA of Central Florida in Orlando. He is getting wonderful love and care by the staff at the shelter, but it's time for him to find his forever home.
If you're interested in meeting or adopting Marley, visit the SPCA of Central Florida.
Funding From Sochi Billionaire Helps Save StraysPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/11/14 at 10:02:58 am - 6 Comments
It may not look like much, but Sochi's new makeshift animal shelter is a beacon of hope for the city's stray dogs. When word got out that a pest removal company had been hired to eliminate Sochi's extensive stray dog population, animal lovers and activists around the world were outraged. A Russian billionaire was so moved by the animals' plight that he agreed to fund a shelter to house the dogs.
Oleg V. Deripaska decided to finance the charity called Volnoe Delo (which translates to "Good Will"), who created the makeshift PovoDog shelter. The shelter is already teeming with close to 100 animals, a number that's steadily growing. Volunteers are using a golf cart to pick up stray dogs around the city and deliver them to the PovoDog shelter. The shelter lacks electricity or running water, but it's a safe haven for dogs that would otherwise be killed and discarded like trash.
Many attribute Russia's dog overpopulation issue to a lack of responsible animal control policies, including a disregard for spaying and neutering. In addition, many of the strays were former family pets that were abandoned after citizens lost their homes due to Olympic construction.
Thanks to the valiant efforts of Deripaska and the volunteers at PovoDog, the stray dogs of Sochi may have a second chance after all. I just hope this isn't being done just for the Olympics while the eyes of the world are watching!
Breeder Regrets Creating the Designer DogPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/10/14 at 09:02:57 am - 28 Comments
In an interview that sounded eerily like the story of Victor Frankenstein, the creator of the Labradoodle expressed deep regret in creating the breed, the original "designer dog" that started the modern day trend.
Wally Conron developed the Labradoodle when he was working for the Royal Guide Dog Association of Australia. He needed to develop a service dog with the appropriate temperament as well as one that would not trigger a reaction in people who were allergic to dogs. And there, the Labradoodle was carefully created.
Now, Conron sees the damaging effects of the craze for the breed he created. Today's mixed breed designer dogs are not always created with the same careful breeding in mind, as many backyard breeders and puppy mills take advantage of people's desire for the breed, cutting corners and focusing more on profit and less on improving the health and temperament of the dogs they create.
Conron blames himself for opening "Pandora's Box" and creating a "Frankenstein." He urges families looking into a designer breed to choose their breeder carefully, and never purchase a puppy from a pet store, a backyard breeder or any breeder that is not concerned with the dog's well-being.
Better yet, check your local shelter or rescue group. Even designer dog breeds end up homeless, neglected, and abused. Furthermore, spay or neuter your pets (or if you choose not to spay/neuter, be a responsible pet owner and keep your dog properly contained) and don't add to the existing pet overpopulation problem.
Since the start of the designer dog craze, breeds have started to include such mixes as the "Aussiedoodle," "Maltipoo," and the latest joke from the Super Bowl--the "Doberhuahua."
When bred properly and carefully, designer dogs like the Labradoodle can make fantastic family pets, and will live up to the high standards that Conron originally intended. But do your research beforehand and you'll end up with a dog with a better temperament who will not suffer the damaging effects that dogs from puppy mills and backyard breeders so often do.
U.S. Military Dog Captured in AfghanistanPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/06/14 at 07:02:46 am - 16 Comments
We’ve all become so used to seeing pictures of the Taliban and war torn Afghanistan that many people have become desensitized to the fact that young men and women have died there and continue to put their lives at risk to keep us safe in all parts of the world. To see this video though brings it right back to reality.
Colonel, a military K-9, is the first K-9 prisoner of war in Afghanistan. The Taliban claim to have captured him during fighting in Eastern Afghanistan last December. He is scared and confused and who knows what the future holds for him. Let us never forget the sacrifices people make for us as well as the military dogs who save lives every day.
War Veteran Finds Hope in Abandoned DogPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/04/14 at 10:02:21 am - 2 Comments
The healing and helping potential of dogs never ceases to amaze. Joseph is a veteran of the Korean War, and is still active in veteran's organizations 60 years after his service. Another steadfast part of Joseph's life has been his dogs.
Joseph adopted his first dog shortly after getting married, and his home had not been without once since. He had many dogs over the years, including a Rhodesian Ridgeback he adopted on a mission trip to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.
That dog's name was Naegle, and she was his constant companion for eight years before passing away unexpectedly in her sleep.
The trauma of war never left Joseph, and he has long suffered from PTSD and depression. Naegle's sudden death was devastating for him, and he was unsure if he would ever be able to bring home another dog. But thanks to the support of his family and help from the Pets for Patriots program, which makes pet adoption affordable for military families, Joseph took a trip to his local animal shelter, where he met Mollie.
Mollie was a 4 year old Australian Shepherd who was in dire need of a home. She was overweight and had possibly suffered abuse in her previous home. Joseph slowly gained her trust, and now the pair are inseparable, spending much of the day walking together on his two-acre property.
Perhaps the most incredible part of this story is that Mollie's presence rescued Joseph from his depression. He says that having her company and dependence on him is "the greatest cure" for this debilitating condition.
Who rescued who? It's hard to tell.
Reports of Dog Genocide in SochiPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/04/14 at 10:02:25 am - 8 Comments
I absolutely love the Winter Olympics. Maybe even more than the more traditional Summer Olympics. I'm not totally sure why, but to me, things like downhill skiing, bobsled and figure skating are so exciting to watch. Maybe it's also because it's only every 4 years that these winter sports get our full attention, while track & field (and other sports like volleyball, basketball and wrestling) get pretty regular billing.
With the opening ceremonies in Sochi just a couple days away, I'd normally be getting geared up for all things snow and ice, but sadly there have been so many disquieting reports recently about the upcoming Games ranging from eyebrow-raising to downright appalling that I'm really conflicted about these Olympics.
We've all heard about the strange choice to stage the Games in an area known more for its sunny beach holidays than snow sports, and there have been reports of massive corruption and waste in terms of the building of the Olympic venues (not that surprising or particularly unique to these Games). Of course Putin's controversial stance on gay rights is rightfully a major storyline, too. But the issue with these Olympics that is really causing me problem is... (surprise) dogs.
Reports are surfacing that just days before the Olympic torch is to be lit signifying the hope of a peaceful world community and enlightened relationships among people of all races, nationalities, colors and sizes, authorities in Sochi have hired a 'pest control' firm to exterminate the apparently huge numbers of stray dogs in the area. This is sickening.
Most people know I rail against many animal-related issues that could be avoided with the addition of common sense and a little bit of effort, and pet overpopulation is chief among these campaigns. It's not surprising that Russia in general and Sochi in particular have stray dog problems, and I'd like to think that their response to simply kill these dogs like insects and sweep them away is shocking. But it's not. It is absolutely horrifying, but did you expect anything less from these guys?
Without getting too political, it's situations like this that reiterate the importance of a vital and engaged private sector who feels entitled and allowed to tackle a problem such as massive pet overpopulation on their own. Living in Atlanta, I'm well aware of the many critics of the 1996 Olympics held here, but as someone involved in the animal rescue scene here, I can guarantee you that if we had been presented with a stray dog problem on the scale of what's going on in Sochi, the legion of rescue groups that surround this city would have stepped in, demanded that the authorities back off, succeeded, and handled the problem humanely and effectively.
It's devastating to admit, but I fear the hour is too late and the Russian setting too impenetrable to even hope for a better outcome for these poor dogs. Sadly, I also don't know what might be done in the future to avoid this situation other than to hope that Olympic Games are only awarded to cities and countries that are more progressive in their thinking regarding animal welfare and pet health. But that's a long shot - just look at recent Olympic history.
So it's just very, very sad. What should be an escapists dream of two weeks now has yet another reason to keep people like me at arm's length.
America’s Most Popular Breeds–Are They Right For You?Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/03/14 at 12:02:42 pm - 14 Comments
The American Kennel Club released its annual ranking of America's most popular dog breeds. Incredibly, the country's most popular breed hasn't changed in the last 23 years. If you're thinking about getting a new dog, check out my thoughts on America's 5 most popular breeds, and see if they might be right for your family.
Most importantly, consider adoption! Many shelters and private rescue groups are filled with beautiful purebred dogs. And if having a purebred isn't important to you, mixed breeds make absolutely wonderful companions.
#1: Labrador Retriever
Did you guess it? For the 23rd year in a row, Labrador Retrievers hit the top spot on the list. Labs are known for being goofy and fun family dogs, which may be why they continue to top the list.
- Most well-socialized labs can make great family pets, but it's important to note that there are always exceptions to every breed's standard temperament.
- Labs need plenty of exercise and mental stimulation to prevent boredom and nuisance behaviors like chewing, digging, and barking.
- A lab is not a good idea if you work a full 8-hour day. Labs thrive on having a "job" to do and suffer when they don't get the outlets they need.
- Always do your homework before bringing home a new dog. Shelters are overflowing with labs and lab mixes so please consider adoption!
#2: German Shepherd
The second dog on the list is the German Shepherd. Intelligent, athletic, and fiercely bonded to its owner, the German Shepherd can make a wonderful, loyal companion. But if placed in an ill-suited home, the results can be disastrous. Before you decide to bring home a Shepherd, make sure you're ready for the responsibility of owning a high-drive breed.
- German Shepherds need extensive exercise and mental stimulation to be well-balanced and happy. A unstimulated Shepherd can develop troublesome behaviors.
- Shepherds can be protective of their family and home. It's extremely important to socialize them well as puppies to prevent any aggressive or fearful behavior from developing in adulthood.
- Know that you're bringing home a high-drive working dog. Be prepared to give your dog the mental and physical stimulation he needs. This is not a dog for a couch potato!
#3: Golden Retriever
Rounding up the top 3 most popular dogs is the Golden Retriever. Known for its happy-go-lucky temperament and gentle nature, it's no wonder they continue to be a popular breed in America. Although they are known for being excellent family dogs, socialization and training are still extremely important.
- Keep in mind, Golden Retrievers shed--a LOT! Be prepared for a little extra vacuuming.
- Although they are known for being great with kids, you should still never leave any dog and young child together unattended, even for a moment.
- As with any breed, Goldens will need consistent positive reinforcement training in order to live happily in your home.
- Young Goldens especially need plenty of exercise, toys, and games to keep them from becoming bored and destructive.
- Golden Retrievers are prone to several anxiety-based behaviors including separation anxiety and thunderstorm phobia, so be prepared to work with your dog to prevent or improve these potential issues.
- Make sure to find a responsible breeder or rescue group. Goldens can be susceptible to several types of chronic health problems and cancers, especially if they come from poor breeding.
Fourth on the list is the Beagle. Originally used to track small animals during a hunt, they are now popular family dogs. These adorable hounds can be cute, cuddly companions if placed in the right environment.
- Beagles are known to be gentle with both children and other dogs, although they may not always be suitable for a home with cats or other small animals. Again every dog is different within a breed type so what applies to one might not apply to another.
- A Beagle lives by his nose! They need to be on-leash or have a very reliable recall if unleashed and need to be contained in a fenced area at all times (no electric fences), or they may wander off to follow a scent.
- Beagles may not make a great dog for you if you live in an apartment, especially if they are left alone for long hours. Your neighbors may not appreciate the howling and barking that might ensue.
Bulldogs round out the top 5 list of America's most popular breeds and are a personal favorite of mine. Although the breed has been popularized throughout the country, you may want to think twice before making the decision to bring one home.
- Bulldogs are a brachycephalic breed, meaning they have a compressed, shortened skull and a "smushed nose" appearance. This can result in breathing problems as well as other extensive medical issues leading to high costs for veterinary care and potential need for surgery.
- Although many Bulldogs are perfectly content without too much exercise, it's still important they receive exercise in short increments and plenty of mental stimulation.
- If you live in an extremely hot climate, it may be difficult for a Bulldog to acclimate to the hot temperatures. They should never live outdoors.
- It's important that Bulldogs receive training and socialization from a young age to deter undesired behaviors in adulthood.
Do Dogs Remember? Oh Yes They Do!Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 02/02/14 at 03:02:59 pm - 8 Comments
There is no question that dogs remember several aspects of their daily lives including the places they go, routes they take, activities they engage in, objects they use for those activities as well as the people they live with. Without memory not only would those activities be vastly impaired, but even some more basic things like recognizing familiar smells and people or learning new things would be impossible for them to do.
But do they easily forget people they used to know or live with – the kid that goes off to college or the family member that spends months or even years away from home because of work abroad? Do they remember how kind and loving you were or the harsh way you spoke to them and the punishment you gave them when they did something wrong. Do these positive and negative memories stick?
Watch this video, and if you answered yes, you will find the confirmation right here. (Video not loading? Click here.)
Does Your Dog Point North When Pooping?Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/30/14 at 08:01:39 am - 1 Comment
If you find yourself in need of a compass, you may not need to look further than your dog. Years of research by German and Czech scientists has shown that when dogs defecate, they tend to align themselves along a north-south axis, and they prefer to face north.
Although this might seem like a unique phenomenon, it's actually quite common among other species, including birds, bees, and certain types of mammals.
The researchers aren't sure whether or not dogs do this consciously, or whether it's a more primal, instinctual reaction to Earth's magnetic field. When the magnetic field is unstable, which happens during events like a solar storm, the dog's pattern becomes much more unpredictable.
So why do our four-legged friends practice this strange behavior with such routine? One of the co-authors of the study believes that this may be related to scent-marking and a dog's desire to "store" various locations in order to create a mental map of his usual territory, and to help him learn his way around unfamiliar areas.
The research is continuing with an analysis of behavior based on breed, age, sex, and other characteristics to see if they have any effect.
As for now, we may now all look at our pooping dogs with a bit more curiosity.
“Nanny Dog” Cares for Baby AnimalsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/29/14 at 08:01:19 am - 2 Comments
There's a new kind of nanny in town, and he walks on four legs.
An Australian Shepherd named Blakely is a special part of the Cincinnati Zoo's nursery. When baby animals at the zoo need extra attention or can't be properly cared for by their mother, they come to the nursery to grow, play, and socialize. Blakely is a key part of the process.
Blakely was adopted from an animal shelter when he was about 8 months old, and now spends his days cuddling, playing with, and helping socialize baby animals of all species.
Although it may just seem like fun and games, Blakely's presence in the nursery is a crucial part of the nursery's work. His interactions with the infant animals set them up to be more successful as adults.
One example is the baby ocelot named Santos (pictured above) that Blakely bonded with closely. Santos' mother didn't produce enough milk to be able to feed him, so he was brought to the nursery. Blakely's presence helps animals like Santos learn crucial behaviors, social skills, and even how to hunt for food. Partially thanks to Blakely's work, Santos is now going to be part of the zoo's Cat Ambassador program, where he'll help raise animal awareness.
Blakely isn't all about work though--he gets plenty of walks on the zoo grounds, as well as limitless love and attention from both two-legged and four-legged friends at the zoo.
Preventing Winter Boredom in DogsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/28/14 at 04:01:36 pm - 7 Comments
With the Polar Vortex crippling most of the United States, it is sometimes hard for people to find ways to keep their dogs from getting bored. Dangerously cold weather keeps most pets and their people indoors and lack of physical exercise and mental stimulation can causes all kinds of destructive behavioral issues including excessive chewing, barking and hyperactivity.
The good news is that you can still find ways to entertain dogs inside the home with toys, games, puzzles and DogTV.
Most domestic dogs live in home environments where there is little chance for them to make full use of their remarkable senses, but enrichment activities and experiences like DogTV can give them the outlet they need. DogTV stimulates their visual and auditory senses, providing dogs with hours of canine appropriate entertainment that prevents boredom, loneliness and behavioral anxieties such as separation distress. It can be a fantastic training tool and a great way to keep your dog entertained on cold winter days, especially when you have to be away from home.
You can also keep your dog entertained by playing games inside your home such as hide and seek, fetch or tug-of-war. Hide treats around the home and send your dog on a treasure hunt or get members of your family to hide and test his search and rescue skills. Vary your dog’s toys by rotating them each day so they remain unique and exciting and get toys that stimulate your dog’s vision and sense of smell such as treat balls and pet puzzles.
Put away your dog’s feeding bowl and use meal time to challenge her problem solving or hunting skills. Fill a rubber toy with her food if you feed wet and dry food, or a treat ball if you just feed dry kibble and let your dog work out how to get the food out of the toy. This turns on your dog’s seeker system and allows her to be positively reinforced while eating. It will take her a lot longer to eat her food in this way and allows her to use up valuable mental and physical energy.
Dog Sports and Classes
There are many indoor classes and dog centric activities that you can do to keep your dog active. Find a training or agility class in your area and get together with other people and their dogs. Cater to your dog’s energy requirements and allow his breed or mix of breeds to dictate what he needs. Is he more predisposed to tracking, hunting, luring or herding? There are many organizations all over the country that allow you and your dog to practice different canine sports and activities in controlled circumstances which encourage team work and bonding. Agility, flyball, treiball and K9 Nosework are all sports that can be done indoors and provide a great outlet.
Dogs are social animals and isolation from humans or animals for long periods can have devastating behavioral consequences such as severe distress on separation or aggression. Organizing private play dates for your dog at home or taking her to socialize with other dogs in indoor play areas will help her develop important canine social skills and become more confident with positive experiences. Training classes are a good way to help you communicate with your dog and force free training is the most effective training philosophy to encourage your dog to learn and be successful. To find a Victoria Stilwell licensed trainer in your area go to: www.positively.com/trainers.
New Study Suggests Re-Thinking How You Train Your DogPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/21/14 at 10:01:43 am - 7 Comments
Those of us who know and love dogs don't need scientific proof that dogs love us. But the results of a recent study may provide hard evidence that dogs are capable of feeling complex emotions, particularly love and attachment.
Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Burns and his colleagues analyzed the results of brain scans on dozens of dogs. This was the first time that scans were able to be completed on dogs that were not under any type of anesthesia. The scientists wanted to study how the dog's brain functions when presented with different stimuli, which would be impossible with an anesthetized dog.
The study's findings may not be surprising to many of us, but they certainly affirm the fact that dogs do feel love and attachment towards humans. The study showed that the caudate, the area of the brain in humans that is activated when humans feel love, also activates in dogs when their owner returns after a brief separation.
Burns concludes that these findings suggest that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child, which calls for a rethinking of how we treat dogs. For me, the study validates the importance of using positive training methods and further fuels the battle against shock collars and other aversive devices. Since dogs have an incredible ability to think and learn, we should harness those abilities through force-free training, rather than subject them to unnecessary and ineffective aversive training methods that only serve to shut down their desire to think and learn.
Paralyzed Rescue Dog Pays It ForwardPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/17/14 at 08:01:17 am - 1 Comment
Everything about this story is sure to leave you feeling just a little bit better about the world. 7-year-old dachshund Willie was found paralyzed and abandoned at a dumpster in Tampa. An employee at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay discovered Willie in a box by the trash bin, and took him back to the shelter.
It wasn't long before Sandy Lewers paid a visit to the Tampa shelter and immediately melted when she heard Willie's bark. A lifelong Dachshund owner, it was love at first bark--literally! When the shelter workers told her that Willie would need a "special home", she knew it was meant to be. As a mother of two autistic children, and the owner of another dog that uses a special wheelchair to get around, Sandy knew she could provide Willie with the perfect environment to live a happy, healthy life.
Willie is paying it forward by helping Sandy's children overcome sensory issues and thrive in their home. He gets along incredibly well in his wheelchair and is a true testament to dog's ability to overcome even the most terrible and trying adversities.
Mixed Breeds Join the Westminster Dog ShowPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/16/14 at 11:01:23 am - 10 Comments
The Westminster Dog Show isn't just for purebred dogs anymore. For the first time since the famous dog show began almost 140 years ago, the Westminster Dog Show will opening its doors to mixed breed dogs. The First Masters Agility Championship will include purebred and mixed breed participants. This agility trial will be a skills-based competition that is all about a dog's intellect and speed--the dog's appearance is not a factor.
The mixed breed dogs will not be a part of the show's Best in Show competition, but will be allowed in the agility trial. Westminster leaders say that the dog show is meant to be a celebration of dogs and their incredible abilities, regardless of whether or not they are purebred.
The Westminster Dog Show will also be adding three new breeds to the show: the chinook, the Portugese podengo pequeno, and the rat terrier.
The debate will surely rage on between mixed breeds and purebreds, but it is certainly a step in the right direction that this prestigious dog show has stepped up to recognize the importance of celebrating mixed breed dogs along with purebreds.
There are both purebred and mixed breed dogs suffering in shelters and puppy mills all over the world. Regardless of one's opinion on purebred dogs or allowing mixed breeds into dog shows, The Westminster Dog Show is a beautiful reminder of the respect with which we should treat dogs of all pedigrees.
Shelter Dogs Shine with Celebrity NamesPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/15/14 at 01:01:53 pm - 6 Comments
What's in a name? Potentially a life! Animal shelters all over the country are using a clever new tactic to help facilitate adoptions and increase the bond between animals and potential adopters--they're naming the animals after celebrities.
This new marketing strategy helps potential adopters empathize with the homeless animals and hopefully see them in a different light. Dogs that may otherwise be overlooked can now be seen in a more anthropomorphized form, and that can make all the difference for potential adopters.
In an interview with the New York Times, adopter Heather Allard said she adopted her dog, James Earl Jones, almost solely because of his name. Her first dog's name was Simba, and James Earl Jones played the voice of Simba's father in Disney's The Lion King. She took it as a sign that James Earl Jones was meant to be her next dog, and he went from homeless to a beloved pet that day.
I think this is a fantastic strategy for shining a new light on otherwise overlooked homeless pets.When choosing a new four-legged friend, it can be difficult to decide on a dog, especially when you're at an animal shelter. While what's most important is determining that the dog's temperament, energy level, and size are appropriate for your lifestyle and living situation, a quirky name might just be the cherry on top that helps you choose your next dog.
Have you adopted a dog based on its name? Is your dog named after a celebrity? Leave your comment below.
New York Governor Signs Puppy Mill Regulation BillPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/14/14 at 08:01:08 am - 2 Comments
In a huge animal rights victory, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that gives local municipalities the ability to enforce their own laws regarding puppy mills, and the power to crack down on commercial dog breeding facilities harder than they have ever been able to in the past. Previously, the state had sole regulatory power to pass laws related to the pet industry.
The new law will make it easier to detect unlicensed dog breeders and those who avoid regulation by quickly selling dogs online or by selling the dogs privately. Beyond that, the bill increases the control the government has over the health and safety of puppies being sold in New York. Municipalities will now have the option of requiring that pet stores only sell puppies that do not come from puppy mills.
This is an excellent first step for New York, and will hopefully lead the way for legislation in more states and eventually throughout the country. Let's hope that local municipalities will take the power granted to them in this bill and will pass laws that protect our animals and shut down puppy mills across the state.
Can Your Dog Recognize a Picture of Your Face?Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 01/09/14 at 09:01:45 am - 1 Comment
We know that dogs are incredibly attuned to us and that they study our face and body language constantly. But new research shows that a dog's connection to its owner may be more powerful and complex than originally thought.
A new study out of Finland tested dogs to see if they could recognize an image of their owner's face. Researchers tracked the dogs' eye movements while pictures of both humans and other dogs were displayed on a screen. Some of the images were people or dogs familiar to the subject; others were unfamiliar.
The researchers were able to deduce that dogs are in fact able to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar faces. They also found that dogs were more likely to hold their gaze longer on a familiar face, but held their gaze longest when looking at an image of another dog, regardless of whether or not the dog was familiar to them.
So what can we as dog professionals or dog lovers take away from this revealing, although not particularly surprising, research? We have an incredible opportunity to take advantage of our dogs' keen perception of the world around them and channel it into positive learning and training experiences. The days of pain and intimidation in training are out. Dogs are highly sensitive, intelligent, and focused on us. There is simply no need to bully or instill fear in any vulnerable being, especially a species that is so attuned to us that they are able to recognize an image of our face.
Therapy Dogs Help Ease College StressPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/20/13 at 11:12:51 am - 1 Comment
When you think of a therapy dog, you may picture a dog that visits hospitals or nursing homes. But these incredible dogs are taking on a whole new job--relieving the stress of college students during their final exams.
Exam week at any university is a tense and stressful time. Students can be found in just about every nook and cranny, some asleep after a sleepless night of studying, others frantically scanning the pages of a textbook. But when the therapy dogs from Canine Assistants come to visit, the atmosphere changes in an instant.
Kevin Ballance is a Positively Expert Blogger and dog trainer at Canine Assistants, a fabulous assistance dog training organization I'm proud to support. Kevin's dog, Henry, is the organization's spokesdog, and he is a seasoned therapy dog in addition to his training as a service dog. Henry and Kevin are joined by other assistance dogs in-training, who do therapy work as part of their training.
The dogs gather in an open space and students can approach them and pet and play with them as they pass by. It's a fun session for the dogs and a much-needed stress relief for the students.
"Henry seems to be particularly sensitive to the needs and feelings of people and other animals," Kevin says about his beloved dog, "I think that speaks to the positive training methods that he's been under his entire life at Canine Assistants. He's never experienced force or intimidation; throughout his whole life he has been brought to understand the joy of loving people. He touches people so profoundly."
The work that therapy dogs do has a scientifically-proven effect. Studies have shown that interacting with dogs increases a person's level of oxytocin, a stress-relieving hormone. Lowering students' stress, even by a small amount, can help them better focus and improve their performance on exams.
Dogs have a beautiful ability to light up a room and bring joy to otherwise stressful situations. These therapy dogs are brightening the lives of stressed out college students, and possibly even improving their grades in the process.
Blind Man and Heroic Guide Dog Survive Subway NightmarePosted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/19/13 at 10:12:04 am - 5 Comments
I have always had a special fondness and appreciate for service dogs, and this story is a beautiful reminder of the difference they make in our community.
61-year-old Cecil Williams was headed to a routine visit to the dentist with his guide dog, Orlando, when the unthinkable happened. As the pair stood on the platform waiting for the train, Williams lost consciousness and collapsed onto the subway tracks. Despite Orlando's attempts at stopping the fall, they both tumbled onto the tracks. Orlando chose to stay by Williams' side, even as an express train approached. He licked his face and tried to wake the still-unconscious Williams.
Authorities say that the man and dog were in a trough in the middle of the tracks, and were struck by one of the train cars. Incredibly, neither were seriously injured.
Perhaps the biggest miracle of all happened after the story of the subway accident broke. Since Orlando will be retiring from his guide dog duties soon, he will no longer be covered by Williams' insurance. Williams was going to have to give up his canine partner and loyal companion of 8 years, but thanks to an outpouring of support from anonymous donors, all his expenses are paid and Williams will be able to keep Orlando as a pet when he receives his next guide dog.
Williams credits Orlando with saving his life, although I'm sure that if he could talk, Orlando would tell you he was just doing his job. Service dogs truly are everyday heroes, saving lives without asking for anything in return. This story is testament to the important work that they do, and of a dog's steadfast loyalty to his human companion.
Read more, or watch the video below:
Head Tilting: Why Does My Dog Do That?Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/18/13 at 08:12:12 am - 50 Comments
We've all seen the adorable head tilt that dogs do when we talk to them. The way they cock their head to the side makes it seem almost as though they are trying to understand the meaning of the words we're speaking to them. It's cute and endearing, but is it even more than that? Prior speculation has suggested that dogs tilt their head to the side so that they can hear us more clearly, or perhaps as a social signal. My friend and colleague, author and professor of psychology Stanley Coren, came with an interesting hypothesis for this curious dog behavior, and put it to the test.
Coren's hypothesis was that the head tilt had nothing to do with a dog's hearing or social cues, but rather it was about vision. We know that dogs are incredibly adept at reading our visual cues and body language, and that they are constantly scanning our face for information. Could it be that a dog's muzzle gets in the way of this interpretation, and that they simply cock their head to the side to get a better view of our face?
He then proceeded to conduct a survey among several hundred dog owners and asked them what breed or breed mix they owned, the shape of their dog's face, and how often their dog tilted its head when spoken to. 71% of owners of dogs with longer noses (greyhounds, retrievers, etc) reported that their dog tilted its head often, while only 52% of brachycephalic heads (flatter noses like pugs, bulldogs, etc) reported frequent head tilting. While this is a significant difference in percentage, Coren believes that since even the brachycephalic dogs have a relatively high percentage of head tilting, even flatter muzzles may still obstruct vision to some extent.
Coren's research points to the possibility that a dog's muzzle might actually get in the way of reading our facial expressions, particularly the lower part of our face. He suggests that this might be one of several factors that causing the head tilt, and that hearing and social cues may play a role, too.
This is only the early stages of research on this topic, but it's fascinating to see just how much we're learning about our dogs and the ways they find to cope with living in our domestic world.
“Unemployed Dogs” Are a Growing TrendPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/17/13 at 11:12:54 am - 4 Comments
I often use the term "unemployed dogs" to describe four-legged friends who live their lives with little exercise or mental stimulation. While most dogs don't need to be actual "working" dogs, it's a real tragedy when dogs are left alone most of their lives and are rarely given the chance to exercise--mentally or physically. A new study out of the UK shows just how out of hand the "dog unemployment" problem has become.
The study was conducted by PDSA and surveyed pet owners in the UK. The study showed that one third of pet dogs were never allowed off leash, and spent their entire lives either inside the home or on a leash. More than a quarter of the dogs were left alone for more than five hours a day, and 35 percent of owners admitted to not giving their dog proper exercise.
With statistics like these, it's no wonder that we're seeing an alarming spike in cases of aggression, leash reactivity, separation anxiety, and other behavioral issues in the modern pet dog. Dogs that lead a sensory-deprived existence are much more prone to physical and mental stress than those who receive proper exercise and mental stimulation. There's no question that owners love and care for their dogs; it's just that many owners have lost sight of just how important it is for a dog's exercise needs to be met on a regular basis.
There are all kinds of ways to provide entertainment and exercise for your dog. Here are a few quick tips:
- If you work long hours and can't get home during the day, hire a responsible person to check on your dogs and provide them with some exercise and playtime.
- When you leave the house, give your dog an interactive toy to play with, or stuff a Kong toy with his favorite treat.
- Exercise your dog in the morning before a long day away from home. He'll be more tired and less likely to get into trouble while you're away.
- Check out this video for tips about how to exercise with your dog.
We all lead busy lives, and the pace of our world moves faster than ever. Regardless of my schedule for the day or how tired or stressed I am, I always make time to provide my dogs with a walk, time to play off leash, and plenty of mental stimulation. It's a small chunk out of my day that makes a huge difference for my dogs. Find a routine that works for you and your schedule. Your dogs will thank you for it!
An Awesome Holiday Video (plus a little IMOTD trivia!)Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/16/13 at 01:12:42 pm - No Comments
You may have seen this video, which has gone viral and has been featured on Good Morning America and other TV outlets, but for those of you who haven't crossed paths with it yet, enjoy.
As a little extra trivia tidbit, the family that made the video are friends of ours, and I was at their beautiful wedding in Florida just under 10 years ago on the very day I got the call that It's Me or the Dog was getting picked up for production by Channel 4 in the UK. I still remember sitting on the beach the day of the wedding, chatting on the phone with my producer in England about starting this new show, just hours before Penn & Kim's wedding kicked off! Just thought I'd share....
“We Ride to Provide” Honors a Special Type of HeroPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/16/13 at 07:12:02 am - 2 Comments
They're the silent heroes, keeping us safe day in and day out without complaint, protest, or even a paycheck. They often die just as quietly, with no one but their handler to remember their service and their sacrifice. These special heroes are Police K-9s, and one Georgia-based organization is determined to give them the recognition they deserve.
"We Ride to Provide" was started by Holly Cripps and her husband Jason in 2010 to help their local K-9 unit with much-needed supplies. Most of these units receive no government funding for their dog's vital supplies, including harnesses, collars, and other training equipment. Holly was horrified when she found out that many handlers were paying out of pocket for this basic equipment, and We Ride to Provide was born.
The organization recognizes every Police K-9 in the area that passes away, whether the dog passes in the line of duty, or if they pass away from sickness or old age. Holly believes that regardless of the manner of death, the dogs deserve to be honored in the same way. Each handler receives a flag in honor of their lost partner, which Sgt. Paul Corso says is an incredibly special way for them to honor and remember their canine partners. Corso has said goodbye to three dogs in the course of his career, all due to old age, and the sting of their loss fades little over time. Holly's passion for helping and honoring these K-9s and their handlers is palpable, and she tears up as she tells me stories about some of the dogs who have passed away in the last few years.
The group's biggest fundraiser is a motorcycle ride just outside Atlanta, GA, where people ride to raise money to provide supplies for local K-9 units. This year's event is taking place on May 31st, 2014, and is free to the public. Always featured at the ride is the organization's trailer that carries the names of all the K-9s that have passed away over the years. The names cover almost the entire wall of the trailer. It's a sad, beautiful, and important reminder of the scope of police K-9's dedication to keeping us safe.
I'm incredibly humbled to have had the honor of meeting the wonderful Holly and Jason. Their passion and support of our K-9 units is extraordinary, and I know there are many people and dogs who are grateful for the work they do.
Can Wolves Learn From People?Posted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/13/13 at 08:12:03 am - 2 Comments
Is a dog's incredible ability to watch and learn from our verbal and visual cues unique to its species? One group of researchers has found evidence suggesting otherwise. Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna conducted a study to find out whether wolves are able to learn from humans the way that dogs do.
During the study, (which was made up of both wolves and mixed-breed dogs) the animals watched as either a human or a specially-trained dog hid a reward in a meadow. The researchers tried various versions of the experiment, sometimes only pretending to hide the reward, and other times hiding it prior to bringing the test subject to the meadow.
The researchers found that both the wolves and the dogs were more likely to find the reward after watching a human or dog hide it. Although some of the test subjects certainly did rely on their sense of smell to find the reward, the researchers noted that they seemed to rely most heavily on the visual cues given off by the demonstrator. They were rarely tricked when the demonstrators pretended to hide the reward, suggesting that they were most closely monitoring the demonstrator visually.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the study showed that the wolves were much more attentive to human demonstrators than to dog demonstrators. The researchers surmised that this could be due to the fact that the wolves anticipated getting food and other rewards from people, but not typically from dogs.
In conclusion a dog's ability to watch and learn from our cues may not be unique after all, and is maybe a trait already present to some degree in its wolf ancestor. This incredible ability may very well have laid the foundation for domestication and evolution alongside humans in the very beginning of man and dog's history together.
In Defense of HarnessesPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/11/13 at 12:12:44 pm - 16 Comments
As dog owners, we are constantly bombarded with product after product recommended for walking our dogs. I cringe when I see dogs choking, coughing, and essentially strangling themselves on walks as a result of their collars. While prong and choke collars are the most obvious offenders, even a flat collar can be damaging to a dog's neck if the dog hasn't been properly taught to walk on a loose leash.
There are some very important reasons why you should consider using a no-pull harness for your dog. Here are just a few:
#1: To prevent injuries
Just one incident of pulling or being jerked back on a collar can cause extensive injuries to a dog's neck, including a crushed trachea or a fractured vertebrae. Even in more minor cases, the dog can still experience bruising and headaches. One study showed that over 90 percent of dogs in the study that presented with neck injuries were subjected to an owner that pulled or jerked on the lead. Other potential health issues include:
- Hypothyroidism that can be caused from trauma to the thyroid gland at the base of the neck
- Ear and eyes issues can be a result of extensive pressure on the neck
- Behavior problems caused by pain or other physical injuries from the use of a collar. Because dogs cannot tell us about their pain and it is sometimes hard to tell if a dog is suffering, people often punish a negative reaction without realizing that the reaction has been caused because the dog is in pain.
#2: To teach your dog not to pull
Dogs are highly intelligent and responsive to our cues, but they don't think and perceive the world in exactly the same way that people do. You can yank and jerk your dog around time after time, and yet he will still continue to pull on the leash. Why? Because you haven't taught him the right behavior. Leash corrections only serve to suppress behavior in the moment, but they don't actually teach a dog how you do want him to walk. Those types of corrections can also lead to anxiety and reactivity on leash. There's simply no place for fear, pain, or intimidation when teaching a dog how to walk on a loose leash. A no-pull harness can be a great addition to a positive reinforcement-based training protocol for teaching your dog loose leash walking.
- Learn how to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash indoors
- Learn how to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash outdoors
#3: For your dog's safety
Even if your dog walks beautifully on leash and you don't have an issue with pulling, you never know what could happen in the environment around you. If you need to get your dog immediately close to you, whether it's because a fast-moving car is approaching or perhaps a stray dog is wandering towards you, a collar isn't going to give you the same safe control and ability to manage your dog that a harness will.
Photographer’s Work Saves Shelter DogsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/09/13 at 11:12:34 am - 3 Comments
A picture may speak a thousand words, but can it save a life? North Carolina-based photographer Shannon Johnstone is doing just that with her "Landfill Dogs" photography project. Johnstone is a photography professor who is using her gift to capture the essence of unwanted and abandoned dogs at her local animal shelter.
Johnstone takes dogs that are running out of time at the shelter to a local landfill, where she takes photos of the dogs running, playing, and just being dogs. The concept of photographing unwanted dogs at a landfill is both ironic and incredibly tragic. Her photos are breathtakingly beautiful, capturing the essence of each dog. Her photos allow potential adopters to see the true potential within these otherwise overlooked dogs, rather than seeing them as just another face peering out from behind the bars of a cage.
I have personally witnessed the "freezer" at my local shelter in Georgia where euthanized dogs are kept before they are sent off to the landfill. As a large county shelter serving a huge area, the euthanasia numbers are staggering despite their best efforts to place as many dogs as possible. Bully breeds are especially hard to place, and many of them don't make it out of the shelter alive.
Johnstone's shelter of choice is Wake County Animal Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The overpopulation problem in the United States is very real, especially in the South, and Johnstone's efforts are making a real difference for the dogs at this shelter and beyond. Huge kudos to Shannon and to the many other photographers around the world who take time out of their day to photograph shelter animals. Your work truly saves lives.
Fatal Dog Bites Share Common FactorsPosted by Victoria Stilwell - 12/05/13 at 03:12:13 pm - 64 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, or properly manage your dog if you prefer not to have them altered. In the United States especially, spaying and neutering is often attributed to responsible ownership, and therefore some of the unaltered dogs that fatally attacked people were likely subjected to irresponsible ownership. In some cases, a dog being unaltered may have actually caused the aggressive behavior, and in others it was simply correlated with an owner's irresponsibility.
#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 - 6 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 - 7 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 - 5 Comments
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 - 39 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 - 2 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 - 6 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 - 4 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 - 2 Comments
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 - 4 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 - 35 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 - 14 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 - 7 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 - 17 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.