We spoke to Victoria to find out more about her fascinating work.
Positive dog training incorporates many techniques, all of which are based on humane training – without force, fear, pain or intimidation. It’s about creating boundaries, but using discipline to guide rather than instil fear. Instead of putting the emphasis on correction, we focus on teaching dogs what to do in a situation. For example, if a dog is lunging on the lead, we need to find out why they are doing it and then use a variety of techniques to teach them another way rather than just saying “No”. You’re giving a dog other options; that’s why it’s so effective. This approach is much easier for owners to put into use and, most importantly, it allows dogs to be more emotionally balanced and confident.
It’s a bit of a myth that positive training only works on puppies and ‘easy’ dogs. The beauty of positive training is that it helps you find out how to best motivate your dog to learn and enjoy the process at the same time – it even works with dogs that have been in crisis and are now transitioning to care.
I always tell my handlers, “You’re lucky you’ve got a German shepherd at the end of your lead, as it’s the Chihuahuas that are really hard to train!” (I’m allowed to say that, as I’m a Chihuahua owner!) In all seriousness, it’s not so much about the breed: it’s their age, how they’ve been bred and their life experience that greatly affects their learning capacity.
“The beauty of positive training is that it helps you find out how to best motivate your dog to learn. ”
Mayhew gives animals a voice, which they really need. Your message is one of humanity and kindness to both animals and people, and I think it’s really important to nurture people too. When I first came to Mayhew, I thought, “Wow, this is a great place. They are really doing things right.”
When I lived and worked as a dog trainer in New York, I saw thousands of dogs a year euthanised in municipal shelters. I knew I had to do something, so I worked with a rescue group pulling animals from the shelters before they were put down. I wanted to create awareness about what you need to do to be a responsible dog owner, and so It’s Me or the Dog was born. I never dreamed it would be as big as it became: going to over 120 countries around the world and lasting ten years.
Play! I think people are so focused on training, when actually for a puppy it’s an emphasis on play which really creates that human–animal bond. It’s important to establish that strong bond right from the start through shared life experiences.
In some respects, this has been good for shelters and responsible breeders, but it has also emboldened the puppy farm trade, which is now technically illegal in England. If you want a puppy, please do your due diligence and make sure your pup comes from a reputable source. The love and comfort a puppy or dog provides is understandably even more appealing at this time, but remember that it is a commitment for the lifetime of your animal.
Every dog is different. It could take two weeks or it could take months. My top tips are: don’t do too much, give them time and let them acclimatise before you have any friends or family over.
If your dog is already lunging at another dog, just get your pet out of the situation as soon as you can. Then start teaching your dog coping skills that will give them other ways to handle their discomfort and frustration when they are around other dogs – for example, activities that they can default to in an uncomfortable situation rather than lunging. Practise these in a calm, safe environment first and makes sure your dog is fluent before utilising these activities somewhere where they are less comfortable.
Victoria Stilwell’s latest book, The Ultimate Guide to Raising a Puppy is published in the UK by Hamlyn, and can be purchased here.
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