Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

There are many hot button issues in the dog world that cause spirited conversations and disagreements, including what training methods you should use and when you should or shouldn’t use words such as ‘dominance’ and ‘pack.’  But nothing compares to the lively discussions and emotional arguments over whether you should have your dog spayed and neutered and at what age. Opinions differ wildly depending on personal experience and where you live.

On the first episode of It’s Me or the Dog, I worked with a wonderful family and their rambunctious Labradors, Jimi and Duke. It wasn’t the first episode we filmed, but Channel 4 loved it so much, they decided to launch the series with it. Apart from the director adding a few of her own misguided ideas regarding pack theory in the narration without checking with me first, I was pretty happy with the outcome. Of course, since then, many of my ideas and techniques have changed as I have evolved and grown as a trainer, but my philosophy of training without pain, force or fear is something I have practiced from the beginning.

Before I created It’s Me or the Dog, I had training businesses in Manhattan and New Jersey. I was a boots on the ground dog trainer doing private consultations as well as volunteering for rescue groups in the city. The pet overpopulation problem was horrific and hundreds of thousands of animals were dying in my area as well as across the country. It’s Me or the Dog was conceived in part because I was so distressed that these precious lives were being needlessly cut short.  I believed that if people had easy access to information regarding training as well as spay and neuter, fewer dogs would be euthanised and/or relinquished to shelters because of problem behavior.  

During the first episode I advised the family to neuter their two lusty labs. This was standard practice where I had been living and working. Spaying and neutering was the responsible thing to do, and all the vets I worked with in Manhattan and the surrounding areas advised that surgery should happen at approximately six months of age. The more dogs that were spayed and neutered, the less dogs would die…..at least in the United States.

The day after the first episode aired in the UK in 2005, the reviews came out in the press and I was happy that it was generally positive. Of course there was a lot of talk about the way I dressed - very different from Barbara Woodhouse - but there was also a lot of discussion about Jimi and Duke losing their testicles. I couldn’t understand why this was such a feature. Jimi and Duke were healthy, confident, adult dogs and there was little chance that neutering might negatively impact their behavior or their physical health.  In fact Jimi only recently passed away and Duke was still alive the last time I heard so both dogs were long lived, but it quickly became clear to me back then that responsible ownership meant different things in different countries, and it still does thirteen years later. If you have an entire dog in the USA and your dog is not a show or working dog, you are likely to experience a degree of discrimination.  Your dog will not be allowed into day care, you could be banned from dog parks or unable to board your entire dog in kennels. This might be true for some establishments in the UK, but they are few and far between.

A few years ago I appeared on the Graham Norton radio show on BBC Radio 2. Very few things surprise me anymore. As a result of the exposure I received due to the success of It’s Me or the Dog, my other various TV shows and the vast Positively platforms that we’ve built over the years, I’ve had overwhelming positive feedback, which I am very thankful for, but on the flip side I’ve also been called all kinds of names and accused of some pretty extraordinary things. The digital curtain of the internet is a very safe place from which pretty much anyone can lob pretty much any far-flung conspiracy theory. I’ve heard some crazy stuff: That I was the subject of a lawsuit from a TV network (which never happened). That I had not been a professional dog trainer before It’s Me or the Dog (I was) and plenty more that aren’t family-friendly enough to post.

I’m a big girl. I realize that putting myself in the public eye on television and beyond comes hand-in-hand with rampant criticism of everything from my wardrobe to my voice, my expertise, (or lack thereof, in some people’s opinion) and even the fact that like most trainers, dog training was my 2nd career. I’m good with that. I’ve been blessed with the opportunities that I’ve worked most of my adult life to achieve, and I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything.

But the interesting thing I noticed as my visibility in the public eye grew is that critics would only pounce on me if something I said didn’t line up with their beliefs, ignoring everything else I was doing for the betterment of dogs and people. During my radio chat with Graham Norton, he asked me my opinion regarding neutering and what age was best. Straddling two countries as I do and being keenly aware of the sensitivity of the debate about spaying and neutering in the UK especially as it relates to age, I knew that there would be a backlash against whatever I said, but decided to be honest anyway.

The good thing about being ‘bi-coastal’ is that I’m friends with experts in the field in both countries and have the privilege of being able to learn from some of the most well-respected, highly educated and experienced animal behavior scientists and experts in the world. With all of that in mind, and knowing the far-flung and diverse audience of the Graham Norton show, I purposely framed my answer to Graham’s question very openly: I said that it was a decision that each pet owner should make only after consulting with their vet, and that personally at that time I started to think about neutering my dogs from about 6 months of age, which is standard practice in the USA. The pet overpopulation issue in the United States trumps any discussion about the potential harmful or beneficial side effects of neutering to the extent that entire cities, such as Los Angeles County and Dallas, Texas, have introduced mandatory spay and neuter laws. States such as Georgia, Florida, New York, and Utah have also introduced strict spay and neuter laws stating that any animal from a shelter or rescue organization requires sterilization before release or at least the promise of sterilization. Shelters and welfare organizations are so worried about releasing intact animals that they will spay and neuter puppies at 6 weeks and when kittens have reached 2 pounds in weight or above.  

People are perfectly within their rights to have an opinion for and against neutering, but I believe that every dog is different and needs to be seen as a unique case. There is no one size fits all and most dogs can live very healthy, happy lives with or without their parts intact. However, there is increasing evidence that delaying spaying and neutering is healthier both for physical and behavioral growth. There is also increasing evidence that spaying and neutering too early can cause problems later on in life, including cranial cruciate ligament tears, hip dysplasia, patella luxation, adrenal problems and cancer. The behavioral effects of sterilization can also be problematic in some cases, including an increase in anxiety based behaviors such as fears, phobias and aggression. However it seems that every study that is done on this subject can be refuted by another study that shows a different result.

What is clear is that more research needs to be done on both sides, and until the results are more conclusive and become common knowledge, the difference of your opinion will still depend on where you live.  If you don’t spay and neuter your dog in the USA you are called irresponsible. If you advise that dogs should be spayed around 6 months of age in the UK, you are also called irresponsible. As I said I’m fortunate to work in both countries, but it is sometimes necessary to check myself and be really careful about what I say in which country, or suffer the wrath from folks that don’t see or understand the bigger picture and are therefore too quick to judge. I, like others, continue to rely on the information I get from the scientists and medical professionals that study this subject every day. In the rescue world here in the US, every dog and cat is spayed and neutered before they leave the shelter, sometimes too early in my opinion, but most go on to live full and happy lives with no prospects of adding to the pet overpopulation problem. If I raised a puppy now I probably would wait until the pup is fully grown - about 18 months to 2 years of age depending on the breed. As a responsible dog owner that never lets my dog out of my sight when outside, I might not spay or neuter at all and prepare for estrus cycles and my male dog's desire to roam especially if he smells that my neighbor's dog in in heat. Regardless of my decision, it will always be made while consulting with my veterinarian and veterinary behaviorist as well as reading up on the latest research.

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.

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