A tribute to Barbara Woodhouse

By James Burleigh

The 1980 television programme, Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way made its star, seventy-year-old Barbara Woodhouse a household name all over the world. When she ordered us dog lovers to bark out ‘sit’ or ‘walkies’, we all did as we were told. Her methods have since fallen out of fashion but have we thrown the puppy out with the bathwater? 

In 1980, I finally persuaded my parents to let me have a dog. I was 12 years old. What swung it was a television series called ‘Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way’ featuring a dog trainer called Barbara Woodehouse. Mrs. Woodehouse was a formidable woman then aged 70! When she ordered us dog lovers to bark out ‘sit’ or ‘walkies’, we all did as we were told. Nowadays, the ‘dominance’ dog training methods she championed are considered inappropriate and even harmful. Indeed, she has been much criticised by more recent behaviourists. I think this is a bit unfair. True, she promoted the use of choke chains – something no one would condone nowadays. On the other hand, most people who used to use choke chains had no idea how to employ them and did not follow Mrs. Woodhouse’s instructions. Anyway, if you take time to read her books or watch some of her programmes (all available in YouTube) Mrs. Woodhouse clearly had a natural affinity with dogs. She loved them. Wanted the best for them. And dogs clearly loved her. We live in a very sanctimonious age where it is fashionable to criticise others. Back then, Barbara Woodhouse, waving jauntily and striding on the screen, dressed in her uniform of blue sweater, plaid skirt, and no-nonsense shoes, was an inspiration to us all. Below I have chosen an extract from The Complete Guide to Dog Training. I think it demonstrates her genius very well.

Barbara Woodhouse on the mind of the dog

The mind of a dog is forever open to take in, by touch, by telepathy, and by talking, the feelings, ideas, emotions and wishes of its owner. That is, if the dog loves its owner. To get through to a dog’s mind you don’t need a couch and sweet music or probing questions from a psychiatrist. You need hands that on touching the dog send messages of love and sympathy to its brain. You need eyes that tell the dog who watches them what you are feeling towards it, even though it may be hidden from the outside world, and above all you need telepathy so that the dog thinks with you. These things are not always born in people. They can be developed as any sense or gift can be developed. That is, providing the person who wishes to develop them is honest in mind, because with animals you cannot cheat; it is useless watching a trainer handling your dog with hatred or fear in your heart, or dislike of all the things she is doing which you think unnecessary or harsh, or both. If you give an order to your dog by word of mouth and are feeling sorry for it inside, you are doomed to failure. Dogs above all creatures love honesty of purpose. If you pat a dog and your fingers are not carrying a loving message you don’t deceive the dog.

No one knows why touch is so important. I think probably blind people know more than any of us about the sensitivity of touch; which is why guide dogs are usually so faithful. But the ordinary handler can develop this touch which calms the wild dog, which produces ecstasy in dogs when you caress them, but it has to come through the fingers or face direct from your heart. In every training school the words: ‘Praise your dog’ are heard constantly; by those words in my school I don’t necessarily mean a big hearty pat. I mean a communion of brain and touch. I lay my face alongside that of the dog with its face cupped in my hands, and I sense a deep love and admiration for it passes right through its mind, often in silent communion, for I have already said: ‘What a good dog’ and clapped my hands to show approval at the end of the exercise.

But a dog needs more than that if you are to get its complete mind in tune with yours. Unhappy are the handlers who think this is all stuff and non­sense. For it makes dogs truly happy. Lots of dogs have to put up with second-best praise, but if you can’t let yourself go, you must at least mean what you say when praising. The tone of voice must con­vey great joy to the dog. It must convey to him that you think him the most wonderful dog on earth, and you must never mind what other people in the school are thinking. Half the trouble in training schools is the natural restraint and reserve that sti­fles people in public. They cannot forget themselves and abandon themselves to working and praising or correcting the dog.

It is extraordinary how dogs pick up praise straight from your brain almost before you have time to put it into words. A dog’s mind is so quick in picking up your thoughts that, as you think them, they enter the dog’s mind simultaneously. I have great difficulty in this matter in giving the owners commands in class for the dog obeys my thoughts before my mouth has had time to give the owner the command. I find it extremely difficult to correct a dog for this, although it shouldn’t really be obeying me; it should be tuned to its owner who of course doesn’t know what I am going to say until I have said it – that is unless the owner is also telepathic.

Barbara Woodhouse Quotes

I have caught more ills from people sneezing over me and giving me virus infections than from kissing dogs.

There is no such thing as a difficult dog, only an inexperienced owner

I can train any dog in 5 minutes. It’s training the owner that takes longer.

The eyes of a dog, the expression of a dog, the warmly wagging tail of a dog and the gloriously cold damp nose of a dog were in my opinion all God-given for one purpose only-to make complete fools of us human beings.

The dog has an enviable mind; it remembers the nice things in life and quickly blots out the nasty.

Talking to animals isn’t a matter of words used, it is a matter of your thoughts, your expression, and above all the tone of your voice. A harsh voice from me can make my cows jump in terror. I shouted at old Queenie once and she got such a shock that she fell down just as if she’d been shot.

You need eyes that tell the dog who watches them what you are feeling toward it, even though the message may be hidden from the outside world. Above all, you need telepathy so that the dog thinks with you. These things are not always born in people. They can be developed as any sense or gift can be developed. That is, providing the person wishes to develop them is honest in mind, because with animals you cannot cheat.

I believe that animals have been talking to human beings ever since we were all made and put into this world.

Dogs understand your moods and your thoughts, and if you are thinking unpleasant things about your dog, he will pick it up and be downhearted.

One has to give a great deal of oneself to animals if one is to get the best out of them.

Animals are so much quicker in picking up our thoughts than we are in picking up theirs. I believe they must have a very poor opinion of the human race.