Dogs may be man’s best friend, but plenty of owners have bitten off more than they can chew – even more so now since the pandemic has led to a big increase in the number of people buying dogs. So thank heavens for the return of It’s Me Or The Dog with renowned dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, the canine equivalent of Dr Dolittle, who turns problem pooches into perfect pets and restores harmony to despairing families.
But it’s not just about coaching the dogs, it’s about training the owners too. First up in the new series is seven-month-old Shelby, an angelic-looking cockapoo but one who’s making life hell for Aimee, Adrian and their five children in West Sussex.
Busy mum Aimee is at her wits’ end with Shelby’s lack of toilet training, having to clean up after him up to eight times a day. He’s also aggressive towards her husband Adrian, even biting him. ‘Adrian’s the disciplinarian in the house, and Aimee was the one who gave Shelby love,’ says Victoria.
Victoria Stilwell (pictured), from Wimbledon, trains naughty pets in the return of hit show It’s Me Or The Dog
‘So he was basically protecting her and himself. Our instinct is to tell off a dog because of bad behaviour, but I don’t label any behaviour as bad – it’s just behaviour, it’s just the way the dog feels and reacts.
‘So I had to teach Shelby that Adrian was good not bad. And training him to go from aggression to sitting happily next to Adrian took just 15 minutes. Positive training is about changing the picture, and it’s really fast.
‘So instead of Adrian coming into a room and the dog looking to attack him, Adrian came in and threw food on the ground, then left. Immediately you’re cutting out the anxiety this dog feels. We repeated this, with Adrian getting closer and closer, and then finally he stayed and was able to stroke Shelby, as the dog had completely changed his mind.
‘With the toilet-training, I think there was this idea Shelby would just learn. But they hadn’t taught him how to go outside. So they took him out every hour, giving him the opportunity to toilet outside, and eventually the dog thinks, “Oh, I go outside.” That’s a work in progress, and I make it clear in the show that they have to work at this after I’ve left.’
Then there’s Max, a 14st St Bernard who’s far too big for owner Christine to handle. ‘Because of his strength, Max had hospitalised her twice and she’d had to have surgery on her leg, back and a finger,’ says Victoria.
‘Max walked on a lead quite well but if he saw a cat, a person or another dog he’d just take off and Christine had to go after him. Max loves water too, and so he’d nearly drowned her jumping into a lake.
Victoria taught Max, a 14st St Bernard, to understand that his owner Christine (pictured right) is at the other end of his harness
‘So I switched his choke chain lead for a harness that leads the dog by the chest instead, which limits the pulling. Then I taught Max to understand that his owner was at the other end of the lead. It was also about teaching Christine to be unpredictable, to change direction so the dog has to keep its attention on you.’
Born and raised in Wimbledon, Victoria was an actor who started doing dog-walking to raise extra cash.
Realising she had a gift for training dogs, she then built her sideline into a full-time business and pitched the idea for a related TV show after she saw parenting series Supernanny and realised that what Jo Frost was doing with children and their behavioural difficulties was similar to her own work with dogs and their owners.
It’s Me Or The Dog was a big hit when it launched in 2005, and it’s aired in more than 50 countries.
‘It caused a stir at first because I was very different from 80s TV dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse,’ says Victoria. ‘People have said, “You’re too soft,” because I don’t wrestle dogs to the ground and I’m not constantly telling them off. Yet I still get success with big dogs with big issues because I approach it in a different way.’
It’s Me Or The Dog UK, Wednesday, 9pm, Really.