An Interview with Victoria Stilwell
Recently, I was very pleased to photograph Victoria Stilwell, star of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog.” The shoot took place at our new studio, and was an all day affair requiring six assistants, dog handlers and makeup artists. Afterwards, Kristin connected with Victoria for an exclusive interview about her life and career:
Fantastic. I met with a lot of photographers when we were setting up this shoot, and one of the main reasons we decided to go with Parker was because of his understanding of dogs. Sometimes it’s not easy for a photographer who is used to ‘calling the shots’ to come to terms with the fact that some of the four-legged subjects in dog shoots don’t always understand English and have a timetable of their own. Parker is a dog person, so he gets it, and he’s able to work around the idiosyncrasies of working with dogs during a photo shoot. Plus, he’s obviously a great photographer in general!
What do you think of his dog portraiture?
It’s lovely work. From the moment you enter his studio, you become aware that photographing dogs is a passion for him. And what’s great is that he’s so versatile, even within the dog photography world. There are fun shots, beautiful shots, character shots – he’s able to capture what the dogs (and any humans who share their stage) are all about.
I originally trained as an actress and started my own dog walking business in London to help pay my way through drama school. I became very interested in dog behavior and found that I had a gift for walking multiple dogs at once off-leash. After many years of learning from some of the best minds in dog training while pursuing my acting career, my ‘survival job’ of training dogs began to give me more fulfillment than going to auditions, and I gradually turned my focus to dog training fulltime. It’s the kind of job you have to love doing, because most people come to it as a second career.
How would you describe your method of dog training?
I use science-based positive reinforcement. There is a debate raging within the dog world between old school traditional trainers who still believe that most behavior problems stem from a dog’s desire to ‘dominate’ and use physical corrections as punishment, and those of us who choose to follow what modern behavioral science tells us is a more effective, safer, more humane and longer-lasting method of positive reinforcement. It’s very similar conceptually to the way (most of us) raise kids these days. We believe that many behavior problems actually stem from insecurity and a lack of confidence, so we focus on building trust using mutual respect, consistency, gentle leadership and love. Ultimately, I ask people if they’d rather have their dogs follow them because they want to, or because they’re scared of what will happen if they don’t? I choose the latter (and so do my dogs!)
I have two – a 9(ish) year old rescued Chocolate Lab named Sadie and a rescued 10-month old Chihuahua/terrier/minpin mix named Jasmine (or Jazzy J for short). We got Sadie a couple of years ago when my filming schedule allowed us to settle in Atlanta full-time, and she’s an absolute love. A wonderful, gentle soul. She came to us from a situation where she’d never been walked or socialized, so she was severely obese and very unconfident around other dogs when on leash. Now she’s trim, healthy, and much better around other dogs. Jasmine is a firecracker – a 6-pound bundle of love and energy. Before we introduced them, we weren’t sure how Sadie would respond to having another four-legged friend in her world, but she loves the company. Jasmine’s favorite place to rest is between Sadie’s broad shoulders.
Why do you love dogs so much?
I feel we have a responsibility to make the world a better place for dogs – we domesticated these animals, asked them to live in our strange, human world with our restrictive rules (no chewing shoes, no peeing inside, etc), and they want to please us at every turn. I’m always amazed that no matter what’s going on in their world, no matter how many times it happens, but every time we come through the door, my dogs act as if they’ve just won the lottery. How wonderful to be able to access that level of joy so regularly! Dogs are my passion – understanding how they think, what they feel, how they learn. They’re amazing, loving, loyal animals.
Our girls mostly stay in the living room, where most of the action is. But they’ll follow us wherever we are and make that their new favorite hangout spot. Whether it’s in my office when I’m working, upstairs in my husband’s office, or outside in the yard where we’re playing.
What are some easy tips to ensure that our dogs are a positive part of the family?
Treat them with the respect they deserve while balancing effective, non-forceful leadership. Dogs do need us to be leaders, but they don’t deserve to be treated like they’re trying to take over the world. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to make your dog ‘submit’ to you. Use common sense to create boundaries and set them up for success in all things. Reward the good, ignore the bad, or practice removal or timeouts when they behave inappropriately.
What are the most common behavior problems for dogs?
It really depends on the family. But I probably get the most emails asking about how two things: How to get them to behave when the doorbell rings and how to get them not to react negatively around other dogs.
This is a tricky question. Does dominance exist in the dog world? Yes. But not in the sense that many in the media today would have you believe, and certainly not between species (dogs being dominant over humans). A lot of the ‘pack theory’ and ‘alpha dog’ concepts that are so popular today were actually based on some flawed research done on wolf packs – not domesticated dogs. Dogs and wolves are related, but they are clearly different species. Plus, the researchers who popularized those dominance theories based on wolf studies have now reversed their position and recognized that they got it wrong. It’s pretty complicated stuff, but some of the most important takeaways are that 1) submission is usually freely given in the wild, and 2) dominance in a dog pack is a floating concept. That means when it comes to walking, dog A might take charge. When it’s feeding time, dog B might take charge. And when it’s time to find a comfy place to rest, dog C might be the deciding factor. So the short answer for your Gracie: maybe. The complicated nature of this stuff is what keeps us dog trainers so busy!
What is your favorite indulgence?
I love chocolate. I’m trying to cut back, but I could eat mountains of it.
Where do you like to shop?
I love finding bargains and the thrill of finding diamonds in the rough. So I’m an estate sale and garage sale junkie.
Favorite vacation spot?
Wow, I have so many. I just got back from Aspen, which I loved and will be returning to. I also love the north Georgia mountains, and always love going back to England to visit family and friends.
Favorite thing about being a dog expert?
I’m very honored to be able to be a part of the movement away from outdated and dangerous dominance/punishment-based methods. It is a true passion of mine, and it’s exciting to see awareness growing about how we can have more balanced, loving, respectful and ultimately more enriching relationships with our pets using positive reinforcement.