What is it about Nordic people that makes them so lyrical to listen to? It’s more than the accent—they just emanate gentleness. Nosework Search Games, a new DVD by Turid Rugaas (author of the wonderful classic book Calming Signals) and one of her students, Anne Lill Kvam, feels like the ’60s version of competitive nosework, focusing on games to exercise a dog’s mind rather than on how to play by the rules. They often call dogs “harmonic,” and talk a lot about letting dogs be themselves. There are step-by-step instructions on how to train for “the lost retrieve,” “the square search” and “search for treats” (which needs no instruction in my household). The structure is a little hard to get used to; they talk about the different games way before they get around to telling you how to do them, and the instructional portions were fi lmed at actual seminars conducted by the two women throughout Europe. But about a quarter of the way through, it becomes a somewhat Zen-like experience to watch. Be sure to wait for the credits at the end, during which Ms. Rugaas talks about her dog following her car tracks all the way to town without her knowing … you can see and hear the absolute wonder she has for dogs, and truly appreciate her love of the canine brain.
She likes to drive black convertible sports cars decked out in a black outfit and wearing driving gloves. She talks to the camera in a stern tone while shifting gears. And even though she was probably the best thing about The Great American Dog Show (which I stopped watching halfway through the season because I couldn’t figure out how being unafraid of an elephant would be an indicator of a dog’s greatness), I thought less of her for participating. So why would I want to watch Victoria Stilwell train dogs?
Well, it turns out, because she’s very good at it. It’s Me or the Dog was a successful half-hour show in the UK before it came over here to Animal Planet and was extended to an hour. I’ve watched both, and the longer format serves the show and Stilwell much better than the shorter version. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that her methods are not nearly as harsh as she likes to appear and, indeed, Stilwell knows her stuff. From “bite inhibition” to “desensitization” to “stress signals,” she clearly understands a dog’s mind and is determined to stick to positive methods no matter the issue.
These kinds of shows tend to be deceptive because they must be manipulated to entertain, and training is not usually entertaining (it is to me, but I’m weird)—things are speeded up with strategic editing, which ends up making training a dog seem like an easy task. But this show, which focuses on a household’s problems with its dog(s), works hard to stress the effort involved, and often illustrates how long it can take to teach a dog to respond.
For example, in one episode, a Toy Poodle with an attitude was terrorizing the man of the house. When he tried to get in bed with his wife, the dog—who was on the bed—would growl at him. Stilwell recommends that the dog be promptly put on the floor every time she growls. The husband walked into the bedroom over a dozen times (they actually counted it down) and each time he approached the bed and the dog growled, the wife (who was holding the pooch) set her on the floor. Finally the dog got the message and, voila, she stopped. Stilwell’s advice worked, and what a great feeling of accomplishment you shared with that family when it did. Stilwell also convinces a naïve single mom who bought a Mastiff mix for protection to neuter the dog when the mom admits she’d like to breed him because “he’s pretty and he’d make a good daddy.” I don’t know how Stilwell keeps from screaming at these owners sometimes … oh, yeah, sometimes she screams at the owners. Not sure what’s with the car and gloves, but, hey, they look good.