The Most Important Job

When I first started training dogs I was thrown into the deep end. I had run a successful dog walking business in Wimbledon, but didn’t handle many dogs who had a bite history. Some of the dogs I walked on a daily basis were challenging, but none were what I would call ‘aggressive’. As soon as I started my training business, however, I was immediately hired to work with dogs that were displaying aggressive behavior, and through some very quick exposure I became the go-to trainer in Manhattan for challenging cases. It was never my intention to take these dogs on, but they became my every day normal.  By the time I created It’s Me or the Dog I was very comfortable working with these dogs and other complex behavioral cases. I spent so much time solving difficult problems that it was a welcome relief whenever I was hired to train a puppy or called in to teach basic life skills to an older dog.

At the Victoria Stilwell Academy (VSA), we give students on both the in-person and on-line courses, the skills and knowledge they need to start their training careers. We focus on teaching students basic training skills as well as helping them understand how dogs think, feel and learn. We teach them effective solution-based methods to modify ‘nuisance’ behaviors such as jumping up, pulling on the lead, excessive barking and chewing etc. Every student leaves with a vast amount of knowledge, including how to help dogs suffering from fears and phobias, how to effectively manage canine stress, and how to give nervous dogs the coping skills they need to be successful. This is just a small part of what our students learn at VSA, and even though our courses are foundational courses that launch careers and help build new businesses in the animal-care world, we also delve deep into my wheelhouse, working with dogs that are ‘over reactive’ and displaying aggressive behavior. This is a world that needs a very experienced hand, but because I’ve never forgotten my experience of being thrown into the deep end so quickly, it is vital that all our students at VSA understand how to work safely with dogs that have challenging behavior. We also stress the importance of when to refer cases and make it clear that graduates should never move beyond their capabilities until they are ready.  There is no shame in referring to a more experienced trainer, vet or vet behaviorist if specialist intervention is required.  

Our first class of European-based Victoria Stilwell Academy graduates.

We encourage VSA graduates to continue their education after they leave us by attending advanced courses and seminars from which they can choose a path to specialize if they want. Some of our students have become proficient agility trainers while others have focused their careers towards working dogs. Whatever path they choose, we make sure they understand that every path has value.

I’m writing this post in response to some recent conversations I have had with trainers, as well as some comments I have seen directed towards other trainers on social media. It seems that people who choose not to work with aggression cases are somehow made to feel less skilled than those that do. Even though I have worked with thousands of aggressive dogs of all breeds in my training career, some people still criticize me for only working with little dogs and easy cases.  I don’t know where that comes from, because all they have to do is watch some of the 110 episodes I filmed to see the wide variety of dogs and complex situations I have worked on.  But devaluing trainers for the choices they make highlights a bigger question. Are you any less of a dog trainer if you choose not to work with aggressive dogs?

There are and have been many dog training shows on TV, giving viewers all kinds of conflicting information.  It’s Me or the Dog and The Dog Whisperer are still the highest profile. Dog training on television became popular thanks to Barbara Woodhouse and Ian Dunbar, who also had very different teaching styles, but brought dog training to a wider audience and laid the foundation for other shows like mine. Cesar Millan and I started our TV training careers at the same time, albeit in different countries. We were trainers with two very different approaches, who both received praise and criticism for the way we trained. I’m sure Cesar wishes he had done some things differently – I certainly know I do – but even if some of my teaching methods have evolved, my foundation of humane training has always been the same. Positive training will always be my philosophy whether I’m working with companion or working dogs.

The difference between approaches created two very different television experiences. We both worked with dogs that displayed aggressive behavior, but traditional training techniques tend to be much more active and suppressive. While restraining and overpowering a snarling canine makes for more compelling viewing than keeping a dog under threshold and working systematically to modify the dog’s behavior without harsh techniques, it is not the safest and most effective way to work with an aggressive dog.  As soon as I step over the threshold of any house, I work slowly and carefully with clients, showing them how to change their dog’s behavior without fighting, restraining, poking or kicking, so that the dog gains confidence and never feels the need to bite again. I work hard to give clients the best information and the safest and most effective methods to support and guide them through the teaching process, which takes time, patience, commitment and compliance.   

So I think my reputation for just working with ‘easy’ dogs, is because I don’t fight with any dog, let alone a dog that is behaving aggressively. I have had many challenging dogs on my show, but my gentle training style doesn’t necessarily make for sexy TV, and even if I chose never to work with aggressive dogs, that shouldn’t make me any less of a trainer.

I tell all my students at VSA that they can specialize in aggressive behavior as they continue their training journey, but they should never forget that the most important job for any trainer or anyone in the animal care profession, is to prevent aggressive behavior from happening in the first place. This starts with giving puppies the right kind of learning foundation and life skills. This is the most important job a trainer can do because prevention is much better than cure. If a trainer chooses not to work with aggressive dogs, what they do is still vital because their work prevents aggressive behavior from happening.  Many of our graduates do go on to tackle complex cases, but no one is ever told they are ‘less than’ if they choose not to.

Dog trainers can be general practitioners like family doctors or choose to specialize in other areas. Doctors that work with children, for example, are just as important as those who become brain surgeons and their choice to specialize in different fields doesn’t make their work any less important. Why should it be any different for the dog training profession? There are many different kinds of positive trainers that specialize in all kinds of fields, leaving dog lovers with many wonderful options to teach, change and enrich their dogs’ lives.

I love my career and look forward to many more years working with all kind of dogs in and out of the public eye, but I’m also excited and proud to have built an industry-leading learning platform to educate dog trainers of the future. If you are interested in becoming a dog trainer or are a dog lover that wants to learn more about their dog, there is a course for you at VSA. We look forward to welcoming you into this wonderful world, whatever path you choose to take. For more information about courses you can take at the Victoria Stilwell Academy go to: www.vsdogtrainingacademy.com/courses.

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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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