Victoria Stilwell, star of It’s Me or the Dog on Animal Planet, judge on CBS’s Greatest American Dog and internationally known dog trainer, will be the keynote speaker at Petfood Forum 2016 on April 19. Ahead of the show, she provided her insights on the importance of nutrition as a component of overall pet health and wellness, consumer trends she’s seen in her work, and why she thinks pet owners need to choose the best pet food for their animals.

“I think, in general, health and wellness have become dog owners’ top priorities,” says Stilwell. “And not reactionary health; I’m talking preventative health. So [I’m seeing] more devices for owners to understand what their dogs need, and to be able to keep their dogs fit and healthy.” Among these items, which Stilwell says she’s seen used most on adolescent and adult dogs, are virtual treat dispensers and GPS devices that track a dog’s physical movements, like a Fitbit for animals. When paired with other remote technologies, dog owners now have the ability to build a fuller portfolio of their pet’s health—even when they’re away and their dogs are home.

“There are many more people using technology—through webcams or smartphones or iPads—who are able to communicate with their pets throughout the day,” says Stilwell. “So you’re able to view the dog when the dog’s at home, but you’re also able to speak with your dog, as well, and dispense treats."

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Victoria Stilwell, star of “It’s Me or the Dog” on Animal Planet, will be the keynote speaker at Petfood Forum 2016 on April 19. | Courtesy Victoria Stilwell

These technologies are part of consumers’ ever-increasing desire to maximize the overall well-being of their pets, and Stilwell says she stays tuned in to the pet food industry because of the key role it plays in that goal. “Feeding a good, healthy diet is so important,” she says. “For example, if I’m working with people who have anxious or aggressive dogs, I will always look at diet first, and how diet exacerbates the dogs’ behavior. I will always recommend that my dogs have a more natural diet that complements the rest of the behavior treatment that I’m giving."

“I do believe dogs are what they eat, and I believe that food does influence the way a dog behaves, exactly the way it does with humans,” she says. “And I’ve had great success [with diet adjustments]. If, for example, the dog has been on a particularly additive-rich diet, and I switch them to a food that is much more natural, I have seen a change.”

Nutrition, says Stilwell, is an important part of her complete approach to pet wellness, and it is always paired with other behavioral modifications. “I believe that when I go into these homes, I am treating the whole dog,” she says. “I’m really looking at the whole dog and how I can treat that whole dog so that the [undesirable] behavior never happens again, so that they’re less anxious, have no reason to bite, etc. Diet is extremely important when it comes to having a modification plan.”

The pet food industry is richer than ever before, says Stilwell, in terms of options for consumers looking to provide a healthy diet for their pet—something that can be seen as a bit of a double-edged sword from the consumer perspective. “There is such a wealth of food out there,” she says. “It’s almost become too much. There are so many options. When I first started the show It’s Me or the Dog 10 years ago, there were fewer natural and/or organic foods for people to feed their dogs. Now there’s just been this explosion of different products, different foods and different treats, which I think is marvelous. We have so much choice out there. But it can get a little confusing, because there’s almost too much choice. It’s getting harder for people to make the right decisions.”

The pet food industry, says Stilwell, needs to ensure that consumers are educated enough to be able to realize what they’re feeding their pet, and in particular to understand the potential necessity for supplemental food items in a world of limited ingredient and other restricted specialty diet options. In other words, consumers need to be further educated about animal nutrition. “I think it’s really confusing for consumers to do that, and to be quite honest, they don’t have time to do it,” says Stilwell. “They just want to buy a food, know that the food is going to be a complete diet for their dog, and feed their dog that food. There’s nothing that I’ve seen as yet that makes it easy for consumers to make a choice.”

Stilwell’s keynote on April 19 will provide a multimedia experience and behind-the-scenes look at her travels and work with some of the world’s most unruly and dangerous dogs. Her dog training takes a positive, “fear-free” approach that she says has served her well over the years, whether she’s working with companion animals or working animals, such as K9 police dogs. “I’m very excited to be at Petfood Forum,” says Stilwell. “I think it’s going to be a fun, entertaining day!”

For more information on Petfood Forum, being held in Kansas City, Missouri, USA, April 18–20: www.petfoodforumevents.com

For more information on Victoria Stilwell and her work: www.positively.com