Advice for Pet Owners

Victoria Stilwell and her dog Sadie
Victoria Stilwell and her dog Sadie (Much and House Public Relations)
Victoria Stilwell
Dog Trainer and Television Host
Wednesday, November 26, 2008; 1:00 PM

World famous dog trainer Victoria Stilwell is a pro at getting out of control pets to sit, stay and play nice with other pooches. She is the host of Animal Planet's "It's Me or the Dog" and the author of "Fat Dog Slim: How to Have a Healthy, Happy Pet" and "It's Me or the Dog: How to Have the Perfect Pet". Stilwell was also a judge on the CBS reality show "Greatest American Dog."

She was online Wednesday, November 26 at 1 p.m. ET to take questions about training dogs.

Please join us again next Wednesday for another discussion on pet care with pet food specialist Liz Palika. And check out's pets section any time!


Victoria Stilwell: Hello everyone!

I'm very happy to answer any questions you may have for me. One thing that I think is very important to keep in mind, however, is that it's crucial to get a positive reinforcement trainer in your area to address most issues. While I'll do my best to answer your questions, a very important part of diagnosing and treating behavior problems is to witness the behavior firsthand in the environement in which it occurs.

Let's get started!


Sarasota, Fla.: I absolutely love your shows on Animal Planet. Two questions: Are you permanently living in the U.S. now? And, do you ever find dog owners so clueless and uncooperative you just throw up your hands and walk out? All the TV shows end with positive outcomes...

Victoria Stilwell: Yes, I live in Atlanta now.

95 percent of the owners I work with on the show are wonderful, dedicated people that just need to be guided back onto the right track with their dogs. I do think, however, that the new US season airing now is showing more of the training process I work very hard to make sure I leave dogs and owners in a better place.


New York, N.Y.: I guess since dogs don't talk, we may never know for sure the answer to this, but perhaps you may have a good feeling about this: dogs are trained with reward, or in order to get a favorable vocal response. Do you think dogs understand why they are being trained or perhaps think that may be part of natural upbringing, or do you think they just assume this is something humans want and I'll get a food reward if I play along?

Victoria Stilwell: Great question!

Dogs are very sensitive creatures who gravitate towards animals and experiences which give them comfort while avoiding those which do not. This is basic instinct which is important for their survival.

I don't believe that dogs perceive the experience of training the same way we humans do. What they do go through is a process known as operant conditioning, where if a certain action or behavior is rewarded, there is a greater chance of them offering that behavior again in the hope of getting a reward. At the same time, behavioral science has shown that dogs do feel emotions (happiness, sadness, frustration, fear, etc), and that the emotional part of a dog's brain is very similar to that of humans. So while dogs may respond to training because they've learned they'll be rewarded, a lot of their behavior is very emotionally-driven.


Columbia, Mo.: Hi there. I've watch your show, and it appears that you don't support crating when the dog is alone at home. Why? I thought the dog learns to treat the crate as his den and is comfy there. In fact, my dog loves it and goes there voluntarily. Besides, when he's in the crate when I'm gone, I know he's not getting into the garbage or rooting out stuff that might be dangerous for him.

Victoria Stilwell: I have no problem leaving dogs in crates for a certain amount of time, which is different for every dog. Some dogs don't do as well in confined spaces for long periods of time. I think the crate is a great housetraining tool.

It's great that you've obviously desensitized your dog successfully to the crate, but many owners leave their dogs in crates for too long while they go to work. The dogs I've worked with on the show have all developed issues directly related to improper use of the crate. I do caution owners to use the crate wisely and to understand that long periods in the crate can be damaging to physical and emotional health.


75762: Thank you for taking my question! My dog is aggressive towards dogs he doesn't know. I was thinking of using a basket muzzle to protect other dogs when he meets them, and to help him have some positive experiences with new dogs. Can you explain how to best use a muzzle and if this plan even makes sense? Right now when we see a new dog we have him sit quietly, but if the new dog comes too close, our dog loses it.

Victoria Stilwell: I like the way you're dealing with this issue so far by having your dog sit calmly beside you while other dogs pass. In order to deal with this behavior effectively, you have to first determine why your dog is being reactive to other dogs. Is it because of fear, frustration or an attempt to dominate? Can your dog greet other dogs without aggression when he's off-leash, or is it just an on-leash problem? Some dogs experience frustration at not being able to behave normally and feel unnaturally restrained when they're on leash. When a dog is on the leash, if it is particularly fearful of other dogs, it cannot put adequate distance between itself and the other dog.

You need to address the root cause of the problem before you go to the next step of using a muzzle when greeting other dogs. First, desensitize your dog to the presence of other dogs while gradually increasing exposure to other non-reactive dogs.

When used appropriately and in the right situaions, muzzles can be effective positive training tools, but they can sometimes make a dog feel more insecure because he's lost his last line of defense.

You should definitely work with a qualified positive-reinforcement trainer on this issue.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Victoria,

Love your show! Do you think it is a bad idea to let dogs sleep on the "family" bed? My husband and I have two small dogs and often let them sleep on the bed. One can get "growly" though when we try to move her. Thanks!

Victoria Stilwell: Thanks -- glad you like the show!

I'm completely fine with dogs sleeping on beds as long as all the humans who are supposed to sleep there are ok with it and, more importantly, the dog doesn't display any unwanted behaviors or resistance when you try to remove him. Almost every time you see me dealing with a bed-related issue on the show, the owners have allowed the behavior continue so long that problems have developed which need to be sorted out.

Sounds like your dog is starting to get a little protective of the bed, so in your case, I'd suggest addressing the issue before it becomes a bigger problem. Be sure to get a positive-reinforcement trainer in your area to come help you, as aggression issues can be very complex and need to be dealt with appropriately.


Laurel, Md.: Submitting early so I don't miss you! Love the show and you always seems to make impossible dogs turn into lovable pets. We have a year-old Jack Russell Terrier who is well behaved and usually a great dog. One problem: he licks us, and everyone, a lot. Sometimes making a loud noise will make him stop, but it takes a few tries to get him to stop completely. He will be staying in the hotel room while we visit family tomorrow because while it is annoying to us, it is super-annoying to others. I've read that this is one of the hardest behaviors to break, as dogs lick you to show you they love you, and when you get mad at them for doing it they assume you just need to be kissed more. What can we do to break this habit?

Victoria Stilwell: Dogs lick for many reasons, including attention-getting, affection, submission, habit, boredom, or because they like the taste. If your dog is licking for attention, try this: whenever the dog licks, get up and walk away, which will show him that he gets no attention when he licks. The only time he gets bags of attention is when he doesn't lick.

I don't believe that dogs think you're mad at them and therefore need more licking -- it's just a way of communicating. However, if your dog licks as a submissive gesture, it is possible that he would lick more when you tell him off as an appeasement gesture towards you. Another reason why it's important to find out the root cause of the behavior.


I LOVE YOUR SHOW!: Have you ever considered working with cats? I love my kitty very much, but find it really hard to train her to behave. She was a street cat and is quite skittish around most people. I keep trying to train her not to bite and scratch me, but I think she sees me as prey. She especially likes to attack in the middle of the night. Any ideas for books or techniques that may work?

Victoria Stilwell: No, I don't work with cats (although I have a beautiful Maine Coon called Angelica).

I'd suggest you go to the Association of Companion Animal Behavior Counselors ( for help.


Thank you!!!: Hi Victoria! I love watching your show even though I have no pets of my own. I'm pregnant with my first child and, while children are obviously different from dogs, I feel like I'm gaining useful tips on discipline (all animals, humans alike, thrive on boundaries)! Thank you for your great advice and for presenting the information in such an entertaining manner. Good luck!

Victoria Stilwell: You're very welcome. Best of luck!


Hartford, Conn.: I have a (usually) well-behaved Golden Retriever, whose manners completely fall by the wayside when someone comes to visit. He is naughty, demanding, even tries to jump up on the couch -- a definite no no. I have tried the "ignore him until he calms down and then give him attention" route, but he is so intrusive that isn't possible. I want a gentle, congenial member of the family. Any thoughts?

Victoria Stilwell: First of all, when people come in, he should be behind a baby gate so that he can see them, but cannot greet them. Then allow your visitors to come in for awhile and wait until he's calmed down before introducing him. In order to introduce him appropriately, put a leash on him when bringing him in the room, and if he misbehaves, immediately take him out of the room for a time out, as you've been doing. If he comes out and greets the visitors in a calm way, he can stay.

Be aware that this can take many tries, but be consistent. Try to find an hour with a willing participant to address this behavior as opposed to doing it 'on the fly' over Thanksgiving or something, where it'll be much more difficult for both you and your dog.


Columbia, Md.: Hi, Victoria. I love your show and have learned a lot from it. I recently adopted a 2-year-old pug from a rescue. He was a breeder pug and was not socialized. As a result, he is very shy and afraid around people and other dogs. Do you have any tips on getting him comfortable with other people and dogs?

Victoria Stilwell: First of all, this is why I hate unscrupulous breeders and puppy mills. Evil, evil people and places with no regard for animals. Well done to you for helping this poor guy out after his rough start to life.

Regarding your issue: as you know, dogs need good social experiences as puppies in order to cope with every day life. If they don't receive it it can set them up for a lifetime of mistrust, anxiety and other issues.

It's important to limit the pressure on him as much as possible when introducing him to people and other dogs. With people, get the human to ignore the dog and wait for him to make the decision to come to the person. With dogs, sometimes I find it's better to avoid the whole idea of orchestrating a 'greeting' between dogs, and instead allow him to just 'be' around dogs. Go for a walk with a friend and his/her unreactive dog. Sit on a bench for awhile near another nonreactive dog you know (and their owner).

You obviously are on the right track and are asking the right questions, so as you know, this socialization is important and can take quite a long time. Best of luck!


Washington, DC: Every once in awhile my dog will get "stuck" in the bedroom. Stuck is in quotes because there's no physical barrier -- she is just afraid of going through to door. She will stand inside the door and whine and pace but won't come when called. When we finally coax her out she'll scramble past the door and run away like the door is after her. Oddly enough she is not scared of going IN the bedroom -- just coming out. She's about 4 and otherwise healthy and well adjusted. Just terrified of the door for some reason. Any ideas on what's going on or how we can get her less scared of the door?

Victoria Stilwell: Wow -- how interesting. Something must have happened to her at some point when she exited that room in the past. What I'd suggest is you sit in the doorway in question and play her favorite game or feed her her favorite food. Keep repeating this exercise, making no big deal about it. If she's reticent about coming up to you while you're sitting in the doorway, don't put pressure on her by forcing or asking her to come to you. Allow it to be her decision. If you can build up positive experiences around the doorway, she should eventually get over it. Good luck!


Bethesda, Md.: Hi Victoria. I have a wonderful, very smart dog whom I adore. Kaya is a Rottweiler/Akita mix, and is a quick learner and for the most part, an obedient dog. I have a serious issue though -- she chases deer and runs away. She will come back, but only when she wants to (sometimes hours later). I do not let her off-leash in unenclosed areas, but she has managed to escape by digging under the fence, darting out the door, and jerking the leash out of my hand. I live near a busy road and am hysterical every time she runs away. A trainer suggested an electric collar but I am reluctant to shock her. Please help. I am losing sleep over my dog and am so afraid she will get hit by a car one of these days!

Victoria Stilwell: Whatever you do, don't use a shock collar or electric fence, as they could make the problem worse.

Sounds like we need to break this down into separate issues:

1. train her to wait for you when going throught the door.

2. outside, I'd put a 30-foot long line on her and practice the recall ('come command').

It also sounds like your dog has a high prey drive, and what I've found very useful for these cases is a 'fox on a stick.' For this I use a lunging whip with a toy animal tied to the end of it. At various moments throughout the walk, I will bring out this toy and run away with it getting the dog to chase me. In that way, the dog is able to utilize its prey drive on something positive rather than on something negative (in a relatively controlled situation).


Love you and your show!: Victoria -- You and your show are awesome. Both my Somali kitten and German Shepherd watch the show with me. My German Shepherd is dog-aggressive on a leash and ignores treats when I try to distract her. I've had some success with making a funny noise before she goes into explode mode, to break her concentration, but that works sporadically. I've tried to change directions, but she's so strong she's onto me and circles around and will walk backwards. She despises the Gentle Leader. The only success for control I've had is with a pinch (prong) collar but I know that's frowned upon by positive reinforcement trainers. Any other advice??

Victoria Stilwell: Have you worked with a positive reinforcement trainer in your area who has experience with highly reactive dogs? This behavior takes very long time with lots of patience to solve. We recently got a Chocolate Lab called Sadie who has the same problem (we got her from a situation where she never went for walks, was grossly underweight and totally unsocialized around other dogs, with a lot of leash aggression.) It's taken about six months to rehabilitate her, and we're still not completely there yet. This issue takes time.

I first worked on her focus with me away from other dogs, and when I had that really down, we worked on her focus with me when there were other dogs in the distance. I gradually decreased the distance until she was focusing on me 100 percent as the dogs were walking by.

She's very food-motivated, so we used treats, but you can also use favorite toys, praise -- whatever motivates her most.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Victoria! Love your show. A neighbor has an older JRT who was born deaf. "Petey" is very aggressive to other dogs, barks and goes for the throat if he gets close enough. It took three years for Petey to allow my border terrier to be in the same yard with him. Now they are friends. What can my neighbor do to curb Petey's aggressiveness towards other dogs when walking him in the neighborhood? Thank you!

Victoria Stilwell: See above answer. The fact that he goes for the throat means that he's serious, so you need to take extra care to make sure this problem gets solved.

good luck!


Victoria Stilwell: Thanks to everyone for the great questions! Sorry I couldn't answer everything, but I tried to answer those which addressed different issues.

A lot of you sound like you have relatively serious behavior issues with your dogs, and I strongly recommend that you use the Association of Pet Dog Trainers ( to find a positive reinforcement trainer in your area. A new edition of my book is also available now which addresses a lot of these situations.

Hope you enjoy the show - remember, new episodes air every Saturday night at 9 pm on Animal Planet!

Happy Thanksgiving!



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