For many of us, our dogs are like our kids. We love them, we care for them, and they can torture us with the same kind of behavior issues: barking, chewing, aggression. It's like the canine version of crying, drawing on the walls and temper tantrums.
Luckily, you can teach an old dog, young dog, or in-between dog new tricks, as proven by Animal Planet's Victoria Stilwell, host of It's Me or the Dog.
Stilwell is known for her positive, reward-based pooch training, and she recently released a new book, Train Your Dog Positively. She'll also be passing through Sunny Isles on Friday, April 26, hosting a Dog Bite Prevention & Awareness Conference. We caught up with Stilwell and chatted about breed-specific legislation (BSL), how relationships are affected by pets, and dogs as eternal optimists.
What's the deal with your your new book, Train Your Dog Positively?
Victoria Stilwell: It's my third book and it's the one I think I'm the most excited about because it really is a sort of amazing sort of exploration into the dog's mind. I wanted people to have sort of an easy access or easy read into really understanding their dogs and to really understand what made their dogs tick. I think that's kind of a major issue, that dog owners don't know how to really understand their dogs and there's so much confusion and so much inconsistency that it causes issues and miscommunication and that causes behavior issues. This kind of offers a great insight in the dog's mind, it helps people understand the dog's perception of the world and gives really great solutions to behavior issues, but also helps people teach their dogs and helps foster the relationship. So that's why I wrote the book and also obviously concludes on the fact that you don't have to use force and punish to get your dog to learn.
You talk so much about positivity. Do you think dogs are optimists or pessimists?
I think they're optimists, absolutely, I really do. Dogs just want to please, they want to do well, they want to have fun, they want to play, they want to be with you. The other style dog training is based so much on punishing the dog and so much on forcing the dog to do things which totally destroys the relationship and breaks the bond. The modern day dog training methods of positive reinforcement are so beautiful. In Britain and the U.S. we really need to change the way that people are teaching their dogs and it's happening. Change is happening.
Can you teach an old dog new tricks?
Yes you can. The first part of the book is talking about the huge debate. There's a battle raging between people who teach using positive reinforcement and those who teach using force methods, hitting, jerking, kicking and all of those physical punishments which are so counterproductive. So there is a big battle going on between the two camps and the book talks about why positive training is better and why it's more effective and why it's safer and it's backed up with scientific research so it really is the future of dog training.
Miami still has breed-specific legislation (BSL), like the pit bull ban. What do you say to that?
Well, part of the reason why we do our bite prevention conferences is that we want to give out the real information to people. I want to tell people, don't think that you are safe because there's a breed ban. It lulls people into a false sense of security. Just because one dog is a golden retriever and another is a pit bull doesn't mean one is dangerous. I work with all kinds of breeds and there are great dogs of all breeds and there are some compromised dogs too.
BSL does not address the reason behind it and it does not lessen the number of dog bites out there. I'm in Britain right now and they've had BSL for 23 years. The last statistics show an incidence of people going to the ER for dog bites have increased by 50%. BSL does not work. What we have to do is concentrate on the other end of the leash. I do agree there are reckless, irresponsible people who shouldn't be owning dogs at all. Unfortunately these are the kind of people that get a big, powerful, large dog and don't socialize it, they use it for protection and the dog hurts someone and every pit bull now is a bad dog and that's so sad, it's a tragedy.
I do bite investigations with Jim Crosby who will be speaking at bite prevention conference. I deal with behavior and I deal with all kinds of breeds of dogs involved in fatalities and they're all across the board. Because a Weimeraner killed a child in a tragic accident, that means we're all going to ban Weineramers? Now it gets crazy, I don't agree with it. I do agree with responsible ownership though. There has to be some kind of law that protects people from people that own dangerous [animals]. It can happen with dogs of all kinds of breeds, we need to have rights for victims and protect our children and that needs to be done. That's a lot of what the bite conference is about, as well as teaching people about how to be safe around dogs, how to prevent bites, what to do if a dog does bite, how to recognize aggression, why dogs are aggressive. I really think knowledge is real empowerment. When you know it, you empower yourself.
What do you say to people who claim shelter dogs are damaged or not as good as purebred or store-bought dogs?
All shelter dogs are going to have a history unless it's a puppy born in the shelter, they're going to have a history and that is going to involve abandonment. For whatever reason that dog has ended up in a shelter, it's been abandoned by [its] former family. There can be issues but lots of dogs end up in shelters, not because they've had behavioral issues but because people's situations have changed. So you get in shelters a lot of incredible family dogs but they now have no home. Don't buy from a pet store, you're buying into the puppy mill industry. Go to a shelter and give that dog a chance. I think it's important that shelters recognize matching the right dog to the right kind of family. They have to think with their heads as well as their hearts in matching dogs with families. Go to a shelter, try and find a dog at the shelter but if you do want to have a specific breed and you can't find it at a breed specific rescue, then find a breeder that is doing it for respect for and the love of the breed and not for money.
What about when a spouse or significant other is part of the problem?
The problems in the home are often in relationships between people. The prevention of that is to make sure everybody's on board before you get a dog, to recognize you don't get a dog because your kids want it. Get a dog because you want it. You will be the person looking after it and your kids will get tired of it and then they'll go off to college. Don't get a dog because your child wants it. You can prevent so many issues if you did it like that. I think it's recognizing how important it is to talk. Everyone needs to talk and communicate to each other also understand where they're coming from. If somebody gets a dog and the other person didn't want a dog or the dog's been aggressive with one of the family members or the kids but the parents don't to get rid of the dog -- it's getting the family to communicate with each other and realize that this is an issue and you've got to work at it. This is a living breathing being in your home.
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What can people learn from their dogs?
I think they can learn about love. I think they can learn about loyalty, about being non-judgmental. That's what dogs are, they don't judge, they love, they're loyal, they want to play, they want to be with you, they want to trust you. We can learn patience as well. Most of all I think we can learn that a dog would much rather go through life being treated with kindness rather than punitive handling and that's why I want people to read my book. It doesn't matter what breed of dog you have, high drive or low drive, it doesn't matter. Any dog with any behavior issue, if you've got a little puppy with house training issues or a dog with severe aggression you can use positive reinforcement methods. That's the biggest thing people can give to their dogs.
Stilwell's Miami Dog Bite Conference is coming to Sunny Isles on April 26. You can score tickets online here. Standard tix run $85 apiece.