Purebred Preferences: Good Dogs & Bad Owners

From the June 2019 Issue of  ShowSight. Click to subscribe.  Pictured above: Most of the dogs that appeared on Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way were purebreds. Photos courtesy of No Bad Dogs: The Woodhouse Way by Barbara Woodhouse.

This is the third article in a series that considers America’s preference for purebred dogs through the pages of a single book. This month’s literary source is No Bad Dogs: The Woodhouse Way, published in 1982.

When the American Kennel Club Centennial Dog Show and Obedience Trial was held in Philadelphia in 1984, the purebred dog’s appeal in the U.S. was on the rise. Families enthusiastically embraced the predictability of the pedigreed dog and understood the value of having a faithful friend that was also well-behaved. Puppies typically received basic obedience training and many adult dogs were offered a chance to earn CD, CDX and UD titles. In the 1980’s, having a title on both ends of a dog’s registered name became a goal for many. In fact, the sport of Obedience was so popular that one English dog trainer became a best-selling author and a television sensation throughout the English-speaking world.


The (Inexperienced) Owner

By the time No Bad Dogs: The Woodhouse Way was published in the U.S. in 1982, Barbara Woodhouse had reportedly trained over 17,000 dogs through the weekend courses she offered in Wiltshire, South West England. Surly and self-assured, the lady’s prodigious success was due, in part, to her wonderful way with dogs (often at the expenses of the owners’ feelings). As viewers of her syndicated television series Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way came to learn, Mrs. Woodhouse didn’t suffer fools kindly. “There is no such thing as a difficult dog, only an inexperienced owner,” she asserts in her book. “Many owners are far too unimaginative in their characters ever to achieve this standard of intelligence in their dogs.” Mrs. Woodhouse notes that a lack of imagination isn’t the only reason people sought her out for dog training. As the lady writes, “My casebook is full of dog owners of every description. Oversentimental owners, owners in need themselves of immediate psychiatric help, owners who never should be owners, owners who have problems but who respond immediately to help given and whose lives are thereby changed for the better.” The methods developed by Mrs. Woodhouse proved ideal for television audiences, largely because the majority of her students proved a quick study in the transformative nature of the human-canine connection.

Pictured to the right: Thanks to her syndicated television show, Barbara Woodhouse became an unlikely celebrity.

According to Mrs. Woodhouse, one of the reasons why people typically come to view their dogs as a problem is simply because they’ve abandoned training too quickly. “Dogs like training if the owners make it exciting enough,” she writes. “The best owners are outgoing, full of fun, yet gentle and loving as well as firm, and if necessary can appear angry if the dog transgresses.” In addition to a lack of commitment, Mrs. Woodhouse notes that a dog can behave badly in response to its owner’s delusion or denial. “The worst cases under the title of ‘phobias’ are those who project their own faults in character makeup onto their dogs,” she reports. “One lady arrived with a tiny Poodle and said the dog had a terrible fear of loud noises, hated water, which the owner said was ‘eerie,’ and would not get onto a bus or a car without terror in its heart.” It didn’t take long for Mrs. Woodhouse to diagnose the root cause of the dog’s neuroses. “The moment the owner stepped out of the car with a subdued husband following in the background I knew where the fault lay,” she flatly states.

It is noteworthy that the author refers to her students (subjects?) as “owners.” This label, often derided today, implies responsibility on the part of the human as well as subservience from the dog. Mrs. Woodhouse expresses no hesitation with either concept. “Owners fail to realize that if they use firm, confident, kind jerks and a happy tone of voice, most dogs can be cured of nerves in a few hours,” she declares without apology. “Never sympathize with a nervous dog.” The lady also shares the fact that many owners fail to understand that dog trainers cannot solve their problems over the phone. As Mrs. Woodhouse puts it, “The owner has to be met and summed up.” The author’s approach to dog training, though militaristic, is genuinely rooted in her desire to help both dogs and people. “I sincerely hope this book will open the eyes of many to their dog’s nature, help those in trouble and give hope to the despairing,” she writes. “Many will criticize what I say, but I have spared no one, least of all myself.”


A Dog’s Point of View

“People should understand life from a dog’s point of view before blaming him for everything that goes wrong,” Mrs. Woodhouse advises. She suggests that dog owners (today’s dog moms and dads) take a tip from parents of human babies. She offers, “Mothers-to-be buy every book they can on baby welfare, but hundreds of people buy dogs with very little knowledge of them and then blame the dog for behavior they don’t approve of.” Mrs. Woodhouse claims that dogs can be trained “to almost human standards” and taught “to reason thing out.” To the naysayers who might claim this is impossible, Mrs. Woodhouse remarks, “I have proved with my own dogs many a time that dogs reason if the owners make an effort to develop their brains from the moment the dogs come into the house.” She offers sage advice to new dog owners: “Make up your mind what role the dog has to play in your home.”

Mrs. Woodhouse writes that many owners will let their dogs get away with disobedience out of a distorted sense of kindness. “I am appalled at the number of dogs whose eyes show little intelligence, whose knowledge of the meaning of words and thoughts is strangely lacking, and whose main idea is either copulation or hunting,” she laments. “It is sad how much these owners have missed in companionship and in understanding their dog.” Mrs. Woodhouse also claims that many dogs show a lack of respect because their owners fail to use their own voice as a tool. “My first instruction is for the owner to learn the correct tone of voice and the command ‘Talk,’ for it will be on this word ‘Talk’ that the whole training is based,” she explains. “They [dogs] learn from experience of the tone of voice of the owner, or the jerk of a choke chain, or by being put into their kennels when naughty or any other punishment that the owner has thought to be suitable.” No doubt, some of Mrs. Woodhouse’s methods are likely to be frowned upon today among those who employ “all-positive” training methods.

“Only by repetition do dogs know what is right or wrong when very tiny,” Mrs. Woodhouse says. “Their minds cannot reason what is right or wrong.” In the author’s opinion, the dog’s lack of morality allows for the use of training methods both positive and negative. “That is why, in my school, I am very loathe to correct a keen and loving dog from jumping up in the early stages of training, for if you repress its natural exuberance and show of affection in the only way the dog knows, you may also be inhibiting the dog’s natural love for you.” Mrs. Woodhouse instructs owners to gauge “the natural reaction of the dog’s mind” so as to be sympathetic to the needs of the individual dog without judgement.

Pictured below: The ‘Woodhouse Way’ encourages owners to see things from their dogs’ point of view.


Psychology or Telepathy?

“To train a dog with sympathy and understanding one must try to understand the dog’s mind,” Mrs. Woodhouse offers. “The dog has an enviable mind; it remembers the nice things in life and quickly blots out the nasty.” The author claims that, despite the dog’s ability to learn and its capacity to forgive, “a lot of rubbish” has been profferred to “psychoanalyze” problem dogs. “I feel I must help them further by debunking many ideas about dogs and their minds,” she asserts. As Mrs. Woodhouse explains, “‘Psychiatry’ is defined in the dictionary as ‘the study of mental disorders’: ‘psychoanalysis’ as ‘the treatment of nervous ailments in which the causes are traced to forgotten concepts in the mind.’” The author’s contention is that, by definition, psychoanalysis cannot be applied to dogs since their minds are incapable of reimagining experiences “recalled and probed and changed, cast out or anything else.”

Pictured to the right: Mrs. Woodhouse utilized telepathy, rather than psychology, in her dog training.

Mrs. Woodhouse suggests that dogs are, however, quite adept at living in the moment. Without the burden of traumatic memories or anxious anticipation, dogs can be trained to live comfortably in the modern world without needing support from a mental health professional. “This does not mean that anyone cannot understand the working of the dog’s mind or thoughts, however you wish to put it, for telepathy on the part of dog and owner plays a vast part in the happy companionship between dog and mankind,” Mrs. Woodhouse clarifies. “Hundreds of times in my life I have shown pupils that I know exactly what a dog is thinking at a certain moment, but I utterly refuse to believe that anyone knows what it was thinking in the past, and this is essential to the skill and work of a psychiatrist.” The author believes that dogs benefit most from training that is intuitive. As Mrs. Woodhouse reveals, “Many trainers of dogs develop a marked telepathy with their pupils which also covers the owner’s thoughts, so be careful what you are thinking in case the trainer can read your mind like a book.”

In her classes, Mrs. Woodhouse refused to take dogs without their owners. The “Woodhouse Way” emphasizes leadership on the part of dog owners. Without it, dogs are more likely to suffer emotional upsets during training. “The phobias I meet are very often connected with the show ring,” admits Mrs. Woodhouse. “Dogs that won’t be handled by judges, men or women, and who all would be champions according to their owners if only they would stand still for examination—not bite the judge, or stay put on a table, or keep their tails up while being looked at, or sit in the ring.” The lady claims that with a little intuition on the part of the owner, any dog can be convinced it is a champion. “The mind of a dog is really very simple to understand,” Mrs. Woodhouse alleges. “I know I can make a dog do almost exactly as I wish when alone with it,” she writes. “Without the disturbing mental reactions of the owner, the dog is mine in will and thought.”


Sex, Dogs & Birth Control

The inclusion of a chapter titled simply, “Sex,” distinguishes No Bad Dogs from most training guides published before or since. Despite the fact that breeding dogs was not the subject of her book, Mrs. Woodhouse nevertheless understood that dogs are (in most cases) male or female and are endowed with a sexual nature that can periodically affect their ability to be trained. “At certain times its mind is almost exclusively on sex; then it is not easily controlled by the owner,” Mrs. Woodhouse admits. “Sex is a thing no so-called psychiatrist can fathom, for the dog again cannot answer questions as to whether his sex life is normal or whether he had unpleasant sexual adventures when young. Therefore the dog owner must rely on experience of sexual behavior in dogs and use that knowledge to make the dog’s existence healthy and happy.”

Before “spay and neuter” became a mantra for many “pet parents,” the majority of dog owners needed to be proactive in their training of dogs that could, potentially, have an active sex life. Mrs. Woodhouse’s opinions on the subject betray her rather “old-school” approach to the sexes. “A bitch is better-tempered than a male dog on the whole, for the fighting instinct for supremacy over other dogs is not so prevalent, although females do become extremely jealous, especially of their own offspring,” she maintains. (These expressions of gender bias are likely to seem outdated by many of today’s dog trainers.) Mrs. Woodhouse doesn’t explore heat cycles specifically, but she does address the subject of male sexual desire head-on. She asks, “What goes on in the mind of the oversexed male dog?” The answer she provides is obvious: “Nothing but the desire to copulate. It doesn’t really matter whether the bitch it meets is in heat; it often doesn’t matter whether the dog it meets is male or female; it is quite happy to carry out its sexual exercises on the leg of a child or even the furniture.” Only a dog trainer with sufficient livestock experience could put it so plainly.

Mrs. Woodhouse reports that without sexual distractions, most dogs and their owners are able to live far happier lives together. Why then, she asks, are so many owners hesitant to “fix” their companions? “Over four hundred dogs have been altered on my advice, and in every case the owner and dog are happy, where formerly the dog was impossible, the owner fed-up and the partnership in grave danger of being ended,” she reports. Mrs. Woodhouse encourages a strict diet and continued training of neutured dogs and spayed bitches for three weeks following surgery. “A neuturing operation does not adversely affect a dog’s mind,” she contends. “Dogs who have no desires don’t fret because they have lost those desires; they love their owners more deeply…”

Pictured below: The sex life of dogs is a subject Mrs. Woodhouse addresses without reservation.

P.S. I Love You

“In a dog’s mind, a master or a mistress to love, honor and obey is an absolute necessity,” Mrs. Woodhouse avows. “The love is dormant in the dog until brought into full bloom by the understanding owner.” The author notes, however, that the dog that appears to welcome its owner home with a flourish of its tail is not necessarily expressing an affection that is deep and true. According to Mrs. Woodhouse, this outward expression of love is not enough to convince the experienced observer. She professes, “The true test of real love takes place when the dog has got the opportunity to go out on its own as soon as a door is left open by mistake and it goes off and doesn’t return for hours. That dog loves only its home comforts and the attention it gets from its family; it doesn’t truly love the master or mistress as they fondly think.” Mrs. Woodhouse maintains that, in this instance, a dog’s “true love” for its owner would become apparent only if the dog stays happily within earshot when the door is left ajar. “For the owner must be the be-all and end-all of a dog’s life,” she argues.

As television’s first celebrity dog trainer, Mrs. Woodhouse was able to share her message of tough love with millions. Her belief that people need to earn their dogs’ love—not just receive it—was a revelation. “To achieve this [love] the owner has to master the dog at some time or other as the leader of the pack did in bygone days,” Mrs Woodhouse asserts. “There must be no question as to who is the boss of the house; it must be the owner.” Her approach is, no doubt, offensive to many readers today. However, it can be argued that the lady’s firm and fair training methods are every bit as loving—if not moreso—than many of the passive and overindulgent practices that are employed by dog trainers today. Barbara Woodhouse believed that dogs are subservient by nature, “longing to trust his true love to someone’s heart.” More than most dog trainers, perhaps, she understood that love is a two-way street. Despite her no nonsense approach to training, the lady simply wanted “bad” owners to find love with a “good” dog.

As Mrs. Woodhouse notes, “I think this love is of paramount importance, and I constantly hug, kiss and play joyfully with my pupils even if I have had to be extremely firm with them to achieve initial obedience.” 












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