I feel like I need to preface this post with a confession: I don’t much care for Miss Victoria Stilwell. To be more precise, I don’t feel that her fame is warranted given the training skill, or lack thereof, that she shows on a fairly consistent basis. I would much prefer to live in a world where people earned the privilege of broadcasting their techniques through evidenced outcomes, rather than an overload of “tv personality”… but then again, that is why I don’t have cable. I prefer to remain as ignorant as possible about a lot of the drivel that people pump into their brains every day.
That said, I work with dog owners who DO watch this stuff on a regular basis. Inasmuch as they were influenced by the underdog Cesar Milan with his “SSSST” and finger poking of endlessly “dominant” dogs, they are equally influenced by the treat slinging actress turned dog trainer Stilwell. It’s inevitable, simply due to the fact that the average pet owner knows very little about dogs and is always ripe for teaching, (whether that information is sound or not) and the fact that due to the nature of modern media, once a “dog tv personality” becomes somewhat popular, their advice is flogged and franchised the world over. Want to buy a collar? Get a Milan collar! Want a harness? Buy one by Stilwell! A leash? A book? A shirt? No problem – they’ve got them. If you think that this is all about altruism, think again. Dog training is big business for the handful of people who have managed to maneuver themselves to the top. As Cesar Milan’s star has been waning, Victoria Stilwell’s has been waxing, spawning many celebrity wannabes and certified franchisees.
Both Stilwell and Milan are two sides of the same coin – both capitalizing on the inclination of many homes to keep at least one dog. Their approaches are like night and day – Milan’s confrontational to the point of bordering on abuse, and Stilwell’s “force free” to the point of appearing afraid of actually interacting physically with the dogs in her videos. Milan promotes instinctual rehabilitation of dogs, eschewing any form of higher learning, while Stilwell claims to use scientific methods as her benchmark. She’s partly right, in that using reward and removal of the same as a way to motivate an animal to learn is quantified as a scientific principle, but as with the many people who are enamored with the idea of only treating animals with sweetness and light, she drops the rest of what we know about animal behavior and learning. Further to her moniker, “Positively”, she spends a great deal of time talking about why it’s so important to train “force free” and to take a stand against the myth of dominance in general or “pack theory” in particular. She extrapolates what works to continue her bias from studies and ethic statements – conveniently forgetting that popularity drives the formulation of both. She and her public relations machine tell people that the only things they need to fix dogs these days and enable the human/dog cohabitation to be smooth and stress-free is to make certain they work hard to understand that their dogs are mainly scared beings in a strange and uncomfortable world. Her message is clear: treat dogs with love, kindness and understanding, and they will reward you in kind. Once we understand dogs, she claims, we will make them feel secure and safe, and problem behaviors will disappear.
Unfortunately for Stilwell, that affection doesn’t come through on screen as sincere (perhaps not that surprising for a trainer who claimed that her schedule impeded her ability to own a dog for a long time) and even more unfortunately for her and her kind, it seems not to be working well at all. Recently she posted regarding her conclusion that canine aggression is on the rise, which was apparently brought to her attention by one of her franchised trainers and substantiated by others. This is really not that surprising, given that they have been indoctrinated to train mainly using one quadrant of the four popularized by B.F. Skinner.
In Victoria’s blog post, she outlines the 5 assumptions she’s made as to why this new wave of aggression has occurred: 1) A misunderstanding of dog behavior (the “force free” mantra), 2) Lack of exercise (something her nemesis, Cesar Milan, also claims – and very likely a reasonable point on both counts), 3) Poor socialization (she then goes on to outline questionable information and tactics for what said socialization should be), 4) Backyard breeding and poor genetics (her point about pain and aggression is well taken, but the rest is explained badly – if at all), and 5) A perfect storm of environment and circumstance (apart from her complete lack of understanding that all dogs SHOULD display aggression as a matter of course in life, there is little explanation here of any substance). She goes on to offer a list of 8 reductionist solutions – of which 5 link to other blog posts of hers and/or otherwise tell the reader to focus on “positive” preventatives or solutions. The post ignores one of the most glaringly obvious considerations that many unaffiliated readers came to – the one that Stilwell et al cannot contemplate without risking the end of her lucrative career as the self proclaimed “god” of dog training.
The overemphasis on “positive” methods and subsequent religious following by many trainers is contributing to the rise in aggression cases. Further, it is causing families to live either in jeopardy or at the very least, untenably. It is causing dogs to die at the same rate or higher than Milan’s approach, in which case the whole foundation of positive at all costs training is in question. The idea that all dogs behave from the same set of motivations and that all dogs respond to training methods in the same way is a fundamental pillar of this form of training and leads directly to misinterpretation of dog behavior – the very thing it claims to address.
I personally feel that we need, for the sake of our clients and their dogs, to address this trend more confidently and pro-actively. As with the dogs people like Stilwell train, ignoring the behavior and isolating it away from our world is not enough to cause it to disappear.
To that end, I have something to say to actress Victoria Stilwell:
If we are to call ourselves effective trainers, we must continually use self reflection and evaluation of our role in the process and outcome of our chosen methods. This is in keeping with the scientific method. We cannot ever downplay our role in both successful outcomes and in failures. We cannot ignore and hide these failures. We cannot cherry pick what we want to employ based on a set of arbitrary filters, and we cannot interpret findings how we would like, especially as a means to gain popularity and make more money. We MUST be as objective as possible and do what is right for the dogs and for their people. We MUST take seriously our responsibility to the wider community and especially to the more vulnerable members of it.
Your incomplete methods are one of the reasons that there is a rise in aggression cases. This is quite clear to many of us who work with pet owners. Everyone has a right to live in harmony with their dogs, and more importantly everyone has the right to walk down the street and be safe from dogs who are not under control. There is a larger picture here that you are missing in your obsession with the limelight. It’s something that even Cesar Milan understood, and in that respect, while I don’t advocate for his methods, I would say that he knows what you struggle to even acknowledge.
Dogs DO need to be understood, and we DO need to incorporate much more in the way of reward based methods with them – you are spot on in that respect. What you fail to realize that is that while “ignoring” difficult behavior and sending dogs to “time out” may or may not work sometimes, it certainly is not all the discipline feedback dogs need by far. As it filters down to well meaning but ill informed trainers the world over, your stubborn refusal to see that is costing families a great deal of heartache and costing dogs a good quality of life – if they are allowed to live at all after your methods don’t work.
Choose. Choose to be an actress with a thirst for fame, or choose to be a trainer who gives a dog and their owners what they need. Truly choose the moral road, don’t just pay lip service to it. The rest of us who have to fix your mistakes will thank you for it.