This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series DOGthusiast in Manhattan
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We were incredibly lucky to hear Victoria Stilwell speak at the Better With Pets summit in New York, where she spoke about positive dog training. Specifically she went over many of the myths and facts about positive dog training, and where we’re headed if we don’t improve our relationship with dogs. Victoria Stilwell is a well known for her TV program on positive dog training, and is also the CEO of Positively that is all about modern-day force-free dog training (although probably needs no introduction on a dog blog related to training and behavior!). We are all about force-free positive methods here at DOGthusiast, so I was really excited to hear Victoria speak at this event.

This post will detail her presentation at the summit, and I will include both my notes and some videos from the presentation. Upcoming on DOGthusiast is also an exclusive interview I had with Victoria, where I ask her what are the questions to ask a dog trainer before you choose to work with them and your dog (much like the Worldwide Dog Trainers Transparency Challenge addressed). Make sure you subscribe to the newsletter so you don’t miss it!

What is the state of dogs today?

Victoria asks: Why is the state of the union with our dogs doing so badly? Why so many dogs out there are in dire need? What’s happening out there is that she and other trainers see that human animal bond is breaking down.

They see fear, anxiety, reactivity – more than ever before.

More people getting bitten by dogs.

Shelters overflowing by dogs.

If we don’t change things, things are set to be worse.

How did things get to this point, go so wrong?

Dog training that is forceful, punitive

Victoria Stilwell's slide showing a timeline of study about dog training and behavior.

Victoria Stilwell’s slide showing the timeline of study about dog training and behavior.

Used to be forced and punitive. Then people started to come round and say we shouldn’t do it.

And she notes that now we have all these different TV shows in which the advice is very different between them. So who do you follow?

“You must never say no to your dog” – this is not true of positive training. In positive training you can say “no” to your dog.

Victoria says that we can argue as much as we want – but science has spoken. Sometimes we can argue with science, but so much research has been done and we can look to modern cognitive science for answers on how to work with dogs.

Using cognitive science is much more effective, longer lasting, humane, and much safer to teach your dog how to cope in this domestic world in a positive, humane, force-free way. Dog of any size, and any amount of problem, can be worked with using scientific methods.

If so much evidence, why is it so hard to change public opinion?

Trainers are trying to do this every day. And she notes that if you are a positive, force-free trainer you are climbing up a very steep mountain.

The Myths and Facts about Positive Dog Training

The state of the world today: Myths now have turned into facts. And it is incredibly hard to change public opinions because myths have turned into facts about positive dog training. So lets look at some of the MYTHS and FACTS out in the world today. The following myths and facts Victoria presents, with her remarks about each one follows:

Victoria Stilwell in front of a slide outlining many of the myths about positive dog training.

Victoria Stilwell in front of a slide outlining many of the myths about positive dog training.

You must dominate your dog: Fiction.

Positive trainers never say no: Fiction. We can establish boundaries, and this can be done in a way to guide the dog into making the right choices. This can involve saying “no”. Same thing with kids – when you guide a child, this will give them lots of confidence, and it will motivate that kid to learn. The child or the dog will fail, and that’s great. It lets the parent say, “alright that wasn’t good but I will redirect you now to show you something better”.

Positive methods work on “red zone dogs”: Fact. The root of aggression is fear and insecurity. Dogs that are aggressive can be very insecure.

Using food in training is briberyL Fiction. Food is powerful in training – food has the power to change brain chemistry. Changes the way the dog thinks. It’s the anticipation of the food – and when the dog is anticipating food, the brain is flooded with dopamine. This brings pleasure, and the dog is ready to learn. Food is a motivational learning tool… to say it’s bribery is criminal. Food is incompatible with fear. Praise, play – food is the anticipation of something wonderful.

Aggressive dogs are always trying to be dominant Fiction. Most aggressive dogs are insecure. Have to get to the root of the cause. WHY is the dog being aggressive?

Electric and shock collars cause pain and fear: Fact. Choose to follow modern behavioral science. Evidence from greatest universities is clearly stating that shock collars cause stress and anxiety in dogs even when they are used properly.

Dogs don’t want to be pack leader over you: Fact. I want to be my dogs teacher, their educator. But there isn’t a hierarchy in the household. Amongst dogs the hierarchy is always changing. Is it food, location, a corner, a toy – etc – it changes all the time. The whole idea of “pack leader”, rank and hierarchy has been really misunderstood. For example, pulling on the leash – dogs pull on the leash because their pace is faster. They have four legs! A leash is stopping a dog’s ability to act naturally. What does heeling mean to a dog: it means they can’t walk at their natural pace. So we have to understand the dogs experience so we can make their lives better.

Punitive training is faster. Fiction. If I hit, prod, shock – then that dog is very likely to listen to me (she is a threat). However, it doesn’t change the way the dog feels inside. Suppressed behavior like that is not changed behavior: it is a band-aid over a wound. I want to change behavior, I need to get into the brain “I get it, I understand how you feel as much as I can, I will change the way you feel and hence why you react.” You can’t use a band aid for a negative behavior. At some point, the band-aid will come off and the wound is still there. I would much rather put in more work on the front end of a problem, and have a lifetime of changed behavior. I would rather teach the dog to make better choices.

There more than one way to train a dog. The future is positive. Force free.

Victoria says: We are entering a golden age, thanks to technology, thought leaders, and innovation. It hasn’t been better in regards to that. Dogs ten years ago haven’t been studied that much – we didn’t study how they think and feel. Now we can see into a dogs brain while he is awake. Now people are teaching dogs to positively go into an MRI machine and respond to cues while they are being analyzed.

We can actually see the results in the brain when we show the dog a food reward or a cue linked to it – there is a light in the brain that lights up when you feel joy and pleasure and anticipating a positive reward. The owner comes back into the room and the dogs brain lights up. That is where science is showing us more about our pets and allowing us into that pets internal world. We will see how music is being used to make dogs less anxious. And seeing a surge in behaviorism and cognitive science where we can truly understand our pets.

Wrap up with John Hockenberry:

Victoria Stilwell is interviewed by the media after her presentation.

Victoria Stilwell is interviewed by the media after her presentation.

Return for an exclusive interview

Remember to check back on DOGthusiast for an exclusive interview I had with Victoria, where I ask her what are the questions to ask a dog trainer before you choose to work with them and your dog (much like the Worldwide Dog Trainers Transparency Challenge addressed). Make sure you subscribe to the newsletter so you don’t miss it!

DOGthusiast in Manhattan

Disclosure: My travel and partial accommodations are sponsored by Nestle|Purina. My thoughts about the #BetterWithPets Summit and presentations will be my own.
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Series Navigation<< How to deal with separation anxiety in dogs: Brooke Martin and the icPoochHow to find a good dog trainer or dog training classes: Victoria Stilwell exclusive video >>

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.

  • I’m looking forward to reading your interview with Victoria. I have recently decided to hire a dog trainer to make all of our lives a little better. I’m pretty sure I have found the right one, but once i know what questions to ask, I’ll have even more confidence in my decisions.

    • Great!! I’ll be posting the interview in the next few days (I have to do some audio editing – it was so loud where we were) :)

  • What an awesome post! It must have been so exciting to talk to her!

  • HuskyCrazed

    wow!!! That is pawsome that you got to see her!!! Wonderful post!
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!

  • I was fortunate enough to attend a two day seminar of Nicole Wilde’s last year. I would love to see Victoria Stilwell.

  • Knowing what questions to ask is so important when choosing a trainer; we’ve been through a few and I must say they vary greatly.

  • MelF

    How cool! I wish I could have been there!

  • Lindsay Stordahl

    So glad you got to attend! I’m jealous. Looking forward to your interview with Victoria. To me, it seems like most people want to use positive reinforcement when training their dogs, but maybe my point of view is skewed based on the type of dog owners I tend to know and spend time with.