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Interview with Atlanta’s Victoria Stilwell, host of ‘It’s Me or the Dog’

Stilwell at a recent PAWS fundraiser. CREDIT: Rodney Ho

Stilwell at a recent PAWS fundraiser. CREDIT: Rodney Ho

My colleague Katie Leslie did a piece in the print edition today about Atlanta’s Victoria Stilwell, who is like the Supernanny for dogs on Animal Planet on “It’s Me or the Dog.”

Jennie Torres-Odom remembers watching Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog, ” a reality show about training unruly canines, and being overcome with emotion.
“I was watching and literally just crying, ” said Torres-Odom of Atlanta. “I thought, ‘Why are those dogs doing it, and why aren’t mine?’ ”

Torres-Odom and her husband, James, had their hands full with 3-year-old twin girls and four rowdy dogs. Their English bulldog and French bulldog had daily battles; their rescue Lab mix was racked with anxiety; and they were unwittingly heading down the dangerous path of training their puppy presa Canario, a large-breed muscular animal, to become a protection dog.

“It was a calamity of errors, ” Torres-Odom said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew that I had a big heart and thought I was doing the right thing.”

In over their heads with canine chaos, the Odoms contacted “It’s Me or the Dog” star Victoria Stilwell for help.

Stilwell, a British-born actress-turned-dog trainer, is in her second season of the U.S. version of “It’s Me or the Dog.” The show started in 2005 in the United Kingdom, but moved to Animal Planet in 2007, expanding from half-hour to hourlong episodes that air Saturday nights.

Stilwell has built her brand on a type of training called positive reinforcement, a philosophy in which dogs are rewarded for positive behaviors. She’s a counterpart to popular dominance-based trainers such as Cesar Millan, known for his work as “the Dog Whisperer.”

“I tell people that there are two relationships you can have with your dog. One, based on confrontation, in which your dog does something with you because it fears what will happen if it doesn’t, ” Stilwell said. “Or two, a relationship based on cooperation, in which a dog does something because it wants to. If you choose the latter, I’m your person.”

Stilwell began working with dogs while putting herself through drama school in England nearly two decades ago. She’s polite but stern, bringing to the families on screen a bit of the fair yet firm flavor seen on “SuperNanny, ” a reality TV show starring fellow Brit Jo Frost. And it was that show that gave Stilwell the idea for “It’s Me or the Dog.”

At the time, Stilwell and her husband, Van Zeiler, lived in New York with their infant daughter. Though they both were actors, Stilwell had built her dog training business to a full-time gig and was looking for a way to take her emphasis on positive reinforcement training to the masses.

“I was fed up with the waste of life, all of the dogs euthanized every year in New York, ” she said. “I wanted to highlight positive training because there are so many dominance trainers out there messing it all up.”

She e-mailed the producers of “SuperNanny” and heard back almost immediately. “It’s Me or the Dog” was born.

Nearly five years later, Stilwell and Zeiler, an Atlanta native, live in Decatur with their 5-year-old daughter, Alex. The family also has a rescued chocolate Labrador named Sadie. Stilwell criss-crosses the country for the show, taping episodes in Los Angeles and Atlanta.

The show may be entertainment, but it’s hard work for the crew and cast, dogs included. Stilwell said she’s usually called for issues such as separation anxiety, fear of other dogs and aggression, the latter seen in full-force at the Odom household.

Stilwell quickly got to work teaching the Odoms how to train their dogs to do everything from the basics to defusing combative situations. And to discourage them from training their presa Canario to become a protection dog, Stilwell took the Odoms to Marietta-based trainer Robert Leigh of Arete Canine, who uses positive reinforcement to train military and police dogs. Leigh gave the Odoms an eye-opening demonstration in what a presa Canario looks like when it attacks.

“When the family saw that, their faces went ashen, ” Stilwell said. “Robert told them this is a 24/7 job. If you don’t [train a protection dog] 24/7, don’t do it at all.”

The Odoms work with their dogs three times a day for 15 minutes at minimum, and are seeing big changes.

“She taught us to stimulate the brain and really get them to think, ” Torres-Odom said.

Now Stilwell and her husband, who volunteer with local charities such as PAWS Atlanta, have turned their sights to a new venture, simply titled Positively.com.

The Web site aims to raise awareness about the benefits of using positive reinforcement as a humane training tool, Zeiler explained. The couple are also building a global network of positive reinforcement trainers that can be accessed through the site.

“She doesn’t claim to have invented [positive reinforcement], ” Zeiler said. “But she has a platform to promote it.”

TV preview

“It’s Me or the Dog”

8 p.m. Saturdays on Animal Planet.

13 comments Add your comment

M. Johnson

January 28th, 2010
11:32 am

Four dogs and two young kids seems like a recipe for trouble. You have to learn when to say enough is enough.

I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to add the presa puppy as “protection,” but I’m glad Victoria showed this family a better option. We have several other dog owners in metro Atlanta who need the same reality check.

Ali Hemyari

January 29th, 2010
6:16 pm

Robert Leigh is a phenomenal trainer. His motivational methods and high energy create such a positive atmosphere for nonworking dogs and working dogs alike. We even had Robert Leigh come up to Nashville to give our team a seminar on his different positive methods and it’s really influenced the way we train dogs.

I’m glad that Robert Leigh brought Victoria up to speed on how to train these large breeds and he really is a privilege to anyone in the Atlanta area looking for a REAL expert on dog training.

Ali Hemyari
NashvilleK9.com

Lilah Delong

January 30th, 2010
1:20 am

About a year ago my husband and I were watching ‘It’s Me or the Dog’ and thought Robert would be great on the show, we both said it out loud! He’s trained two of my dogs over a 10 year period, and if I ever get another, we’ll be calling him again.

My first experience was with a rottie. He was just a pup when I adopted him for guard dog/companionship. I then got pregnant and had serious concerns about having a rottie with a newborn. Roberts training methods actually helped me feel more confident and my rottie responded in a secure, almost methodical growth with the training. As a toddler my daughter would of course get a little closer than I was comfortable with, but Ozark seemed to understand immediately that she was to be protected and even nurtured. That turned into them romping and playing in time, and I believe Ozark would’ve protected us to his death, and fortunately he never had to. Instead he was a loving dog who was every bit part of the family until the day he passed away.

My second dog was a Shepard named Montana. I thought training this pup just wasnt going to work out and then we remembered Robert. Despite what I believe is some sort of ADHD, Montana is stable, loving, gentle and alert. She responds to directions immediately, and I’m glad for both of our sake that we chose Positive Reinforcement training.

I was so stoked to read this article and see Robert had been contacted by the show! When we trained Ozark, Positive Reinforcement was thought to be a fad and I’m glad to see it has been accepted Mainstream. It’s more humane IMHO for the dog, as well as for those of us who believe beating a dog into submission will only make them mean and aggressive. Those are two qualities I’ve never had to deal with, despite the breed and size of my family pets.

Lilah Delong.

Amelia Roberts

January 30th, 2010
2:20 am

I love the show, but after reading the comment section I have to disagree with some points. Unless you want to go around with meat in your pocket the rest of your life smelling like a hot dog, there needs to be some kind of obedience training so your dog respects you. Just my humble opinion.

Tyler Verlander

January 30th, 2010
7:00 pm

Sounds like the Odems needed some help with all those dogs! Very smart they reached out to Victoria Stilwell!!!…. and from there to Robert Leigh with Arete Canine. I have been training with Robert for about 3.5 years. With a life long history in the equine world, Roberts training methods became an eye opening experience that I implement not only with my own dog… but also in training/riding my horses as well. He helps you, as a dog owner to see how you can build a positive relationship through inductive methods of reward, and release with your trusty canine.

I got my first schutzhund competition dog, Spot (bred by Robert- a Belgian Malinois) from Robert. He has helped me over the past 3 years train Spot so we are now almost ready to compete at the highest of levels in schutzhund (basically a triathlon for dogs). I now understand what it takes to make a true “working relationship” between me and my dog, which does not come from Making my dog do something… but encouraging my dog and giving him a clear definition of what I am asking and expecting, and rewarding him appropriately.

This does not mean that I have to carry hot-dogs and steaks in my pockets every time I take him out in order to get my dog to do what I want. He does what I ask because the positive and inductive foundation we gave him… made his mind clear to understand that the food is just icing on the cake if it’s there. The fact that he did something correct and he can verbally understand when I mark that good behavior with something as simple as saying “Good!” and then releasing him from what I asked him to do. His “positive” reward could be food… or it could be my telling him “good”.. or even me giving him a loving pat. With this, he continues to try to please me because he Wants to… not just because he will get a reward. My dog, with Roberts help, works WITH me…. not FOR me.

Rhynnah Bayne

January 31st, 2010
10:52 pm

I recently saw Robert Leigh’s methods in action during the nationals in Tampa and I was really impressed with him and his dogs. Unlike some of the other canines, Robert’s dogs seemed to be happy and relaxed, whether working on the field or off. Some of the other dogs didn’t appear to be able to “switch gears” and seemed hyperalert all the time, anxious and testy, but Robert’s dogs appeared more comfortable and easier to handle.

I will be delighted to see him on this program. Both of my teenage daughters gushed about him after the demonstration and we all thought that he looked very dashing as he worked his dogs. They watch Victoria’s program all the time and admire her but I expect they will be even more interested when this handsome guy appears!

Barbara Lender

February 1st, 2010
3:21 am

I actually she saw Robert recently at a demo down in Tampa during the nationals. I wasn’t aware of schutzhund and Ring and thought any dog that bites are Attack dogs. I learned differently! At first all of the dogs seemed intimidating, but after introducing myself to Robert and meeting his personal competition dog named Crack, I truely believes that whatever he is doing is working. I met other trainers that day also, and very few performances come to mind. I remembered Robert because I’m also from Marietta and was down on vacation. When I saw the article I just had to post! One of Roberts students that day placed second if I recall correctly, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves out there. You didn’t see that with other trainers. His confidence in his dogs and their performances showed a true working relationship, with emphasis on relationship. He has that with his dogs. Way to go Robert! Please post when the show will be on, I certainly don’t want to miss it!

Nick Wolkonsky

February 1st, 2010
11:53 am

Robert Leigh is probably hands down one of the best “dog trainers” that have come around in quite some time. I have had the opportunity to work with Robert with my Doberman and walked away with valuable insight on how to deal with certain behavorial with my dog. Robert understands mannerisms and habits of dogs and has the ability to quickly implement changes for the better.

Nick Wolkonsky, Davidson County Rescue Squad K-9 Team

Kristin Wickline

February 1st, 2010
12:29 pm

My husband and I rescued a year-old German Shepherd, Elvis. He was mistreated and not socialized, with strong tendencies toward dog aggression. I went through three different training programs without success. A coworker finally put my in touch with Robert Leigh. The training was not just focused on my dog, but also me, how I handled and reacted to him. The improvement in Elvis was substantial. What makes Robert the best at what he does is how he deals with each dog. The basic methods, clear rules and positive reinforcement, are the same, but he recognizes that every dog is motivated differently. Robert taught me that praising my dog, constantly and consistently for good behavior, will bring out what I want to see in him.

Even three years later, my husband and I remember to make Elvis sit before he enters or exits the house, then praise with a “good boy” and a treat or nice scratch behind his ears. Elvis’s behavior is fantastic; I get compliments from friends, neighbors, even random strangers during our walks. I highly recommend Robert for behavior correction or just basic obedience.

Alex Fedovskiy

February 1st, 2010
9:58 pm

What makes Robert a supperior trainer is the fact that he really loves what he does.His dedication is to training is unparalleled. I don’t recall one day when outside training session was cancelled due to bad weather.
He is also a friendly and outgoing guy which makes training with him fun. I have learned a lot and continue to learn from Robert, and since I started training with him I enjoy working with my dog a lot more because of the methods that Robert uses. He has a special skill in taking a handler and the dog to the next level.

Jason and Christina

February 2nd, 2010
8:20 am

I have trained with Robert for nearly 8 years now. the knowledge I have gained in that time has helped me tremendously. I have created relationships with my dogs that is unparalleled when compared to other trainers and methods. I have seen Robert time and again train dogs that other trainers were either unable or unwilling to train to the needed level. Whether training pets, competition obedience, schutzhund, personal protection, or police working dogs Robert’s training methods can help any owner and dog have a better relationship. Robert’s dedication to training and working with other top trainers has given him a thorough understanding of many different training methods. He has combined them in a way unlike any other trainer and provides excellent tools for all level of owners and dogs.

Mike Morgan

February 2nd, 2010
11:58 am

I think what is cool is that Victoria and Robert have taken the latest developments in behavioral science and applied them in different areas of dog training. Teaching our dogs HOW to learn with positive methods for pets or for working dogs is essential. In building a foundation of mutual trust and respect with our dog we have a dog that behaves because it wants to and will perform willingly and reliably over an extended period which is critical for military, police, search and rescue and sport.

I began training with Robert several years ago with my five year old pet, Jazz. He helped me switch from dominant methods to a reward-based method and we were able to successfully compete in obedience and tracking trials. I now compete at the highest levels in a sport called schutzhund. The three phases in tracking, obedience and protection demand a very high level of cooperation between handler and dog and it is because of Robert that we have done very well.

vesta patterson

March 13th, 2010
11:21 am

i think victoria is a wonderful trainer i learned so much from her how to train my 2 little dogs at first i started with treats now they work on my comands without the treats LOVE THAT VICTORIA