Victoria Stilwell advocates for positive reinforcement training

“I was watching and literally just crying,” says Torres-Odom, of Atlanta. “I thought, why are those dogs doing it and why aren’t mine?”

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 wrought 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 says. "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, the British-born actress-turned-dog trainer, is now in her second season of the U.S. version of “It’s Me or the Dog.” The show started in 2005 in the U.K., but moved to the Animal Planet in 2007, expanding from half-hour to hour-long episodes which air Saturday nights.

The slim brunette 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 counterpoint to popular dominance-based trainers such as Cesar Millan, known for his work as "The Dog Whisperer."

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior defines dominance training as a relationship based on force, aggression and submission.

“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 says. “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.”

“I was watching the first episode of the American "SuperNanny" and I said – that’s exactly what I do with dogs,” Stilwell says.

At the time, she 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.

Now, 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 says 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 says. “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.”

Leigh says he learned to train dogs using the "old school" method of dominance-based training, but became disheartened by the rough method.

"Every day I hated knowing I had to put my dogs through that," he explains. "I came to the conclusion that if I had to do that, I didn't want to train anymore."

Since switching to positive reinforcement-based training, Leigh's dogs have become national champions in a variety of competitions.

The Odoms now 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 says.

Now Stilwell and her husband, who volunteer with local charities such as PAWS Atlanta, have turned their sights to a new venture, simply titled The Web site aims to raise awareness about the benefits of using positive reinforcement as a humane training tool, Zeiler explains. 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 says. "But she has a platform to promote it."

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