“There’s no such thing as a difficult dog,” proclaims Barbara Woodhouse, “only an inexperienced owner. “As host of the BBC’s Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way, seen on PBS, and author of the newly published No Bad Dogs (Summit Books, $12.50), Woodhouse has taken her message to millions of pet owners on both sides of the Atlantic. Preaching her three Fs of canine education—”firmness, friendliness and fun”—she is considerably more autocratic with the people who appear on her program—ordering them about and scolding them on the air—than with their four-footed protégés. She no longer has pets of her own because of an unforgiving travel schedule, but Woodhouse, now 71 and a grandmother, grew up surrounded by animals. During World War I army horses grazed on the grounds of St. Columba’s College outside Dublin, where her father was headmaster, and her mother raised rabbits for food. Woodhouse began training dogs at 13 and since 1951 has personally advised 17,000 owners. In the Hertfordshire farmhouse she shares with her husband of 41 years, retired physician Michael Woodhouse, the woman voted England’s top female TV personality of 1980 gave Fred Hauptfuhrer of PEOPLE a lesson in how to talk to the animals.
Do you recall your first contact with dogs?
Oh, I do! I got bitten on the nose by a puppy I had bought from a gypsy boy when I was 4. Of course, it was entirely my fault for having hugged it too tight. I still warn parents not to let their children do that.
You had little formal training yourself with animals. What makes you so good with them?
A God-given gift. I have been called up by radio stations all over the world to give animals commands from thousands of miles away. The dogs in, say, Sydney have obeyed me over the phone. It must be my tone of voice. And I have no fear. When I went to a private safari park in Hollywood, a leopard came up, lay across my lap and licked my hand.
What is it about your voice that works?
The animals would have to describe it. Your voice should have a wide range of change—from severe if they do wrong to fun if they do right.
Is there anything else that helps you with animals?
I am very telepathic. I think animals pick up your thoughts.
Did you teach your children the same way you taught your dogs?
In my household, the animals and the children had exactly the same rights. My dogs were never put into kennels. They came everywhere with us.
How long does it take to train a dog?
I reckon nearly any dog, except one that’s mad or very oversexed or vicious, can be trained in basic obedience in about six minutes. That means trained to walk, heel, sit, stay and come on command. It can take up to six months to train a dog to win top obedience awards in shows.
What breeds are the most trainable?
German shepherds, probably, and poodles and Great Danes. On the whole, you’ll get obedience with every dog if you use the right tone of voice, the right words of praise and the proper commands.
Are any breeds more difficult?
Terriers. They are sporting dogs, meant to go out and kill things. They are not really meant to obey.
If terriers are natural hunters, are there any natural guard dogs?
A loved dog will always guard you and make noise. But dogs shouldn’t be trained as guard dogs because I think it is dangerous. Most people don’t have the experience to control a dog that has been so trained. If a dog loves you, he will protect your home.
Why do you seem to abuse dog owners on your show?
Well, it isn’t abuse. It’s fun. I say the most dreadful things jokingly. By ticking them off, we get more response.
Do you think animals display any human characteristics?
The dogs in our family loved jokes. We used to laugh, and the dogs definitely enjoyed the joke, even though they didn’t understand what it was about. All dogs like praise and admiration. They like to be told they are beautiful, which every woman likes. But they also get very depressed. If a family quarrels, they hate it. I recommend that people, when they come home from work or on weekends, give the dog something new to learn. A dog must have interests. Otherwise, it will often become nervous and neurotic.
You attribute some canine personality disorders to too much protein in a dog’s diet. Why?
In my opinion excessive amounts of certain proteins can cause a severe allergy in dogs. They suddenly have a change of personality. Then, if you change to a low-protein diet, the animals often return to normal.
What are your favorite animals?
Dogs and horses, mostly. I have never been bucked off a wild horse. I have been bucked off other people’s horses because the owners haven’t trained them kindly. But I believe that if you speak to an unbroken horse and greet him in his own language—which is breathing up his nose the way horses do when they meet—he won’t do anything wrong. The other day I went to a safari park where I had been challenged by the BBC to try my breathing-up-their-nose trick. The giraffes loved it. I used my “little voice”—a quiet, soothing voice which I use for frightened or upset animals—and they all galloped up to me. Great big giraffes brought their heads down, breathed up my nose and licked my face.
What other animals do you prefer?
I love spiders. For years we had a pet spider. He had a hole in the fireplace and used to come out at night and sit on my lap and watch the telly.
How about cats?
I like cats but they are difficult to train. They do respond to bribery, but you can’t train them in the same way as dogs.
Are there any animals you don’t like?
Snakes. They are horrible cold things, not nice at all. I couldn’t hug a snake. Some people can, but I wouldn’t.
In what countries do animals receive the worst treatment?
Spain, I should think. The number of strays in the street is absolutely awful. And of course, there is this dreadful business in the Philippines and other parts of Asia of killing dogs purely for eating. But I have seen cruelty to animals wherever I go. I’ve seen horses in Egypt being flogged until they die in the street. In the Argentine, the horses are worked to death. Naturally, the more civilized countries look after their animals better. But they still have their problems.
How would you rate the U.S.?
I was in the States recently and found Americans tremendously thoughtful toward their animals. The only thing I found rather difficult was the behavior of some of the police dogs I saw being trained in Beverly Hills. On attacking a criminal, they would kill if they weren’t muzzled. Our police dogs aren’t allowed to do that. As long as the man stands still, the police dog mustn’t attack.
Is there anything American pet owners do wrong?
I think we all treat our animals very badly these days. People buy a dog and leave it alone in the house all day while they go to work and then get angry if it tears the house up. I think it is downright cruel.
What do you think of the ostentatious things people do for their dogs, like buying them diamond-studded collars?
Some of it is ridiculous. I have seen dogs dyed to match people’s dresses. I don’t approve of it at all, but then the main thing is to have true companionship. If it gives pleasure to the person, I don’t think it does any actual harm.
What do you think of pet cemeteries?
I strongly believe in a life hereafter, and I don’t think I could face not meeting my dogs again. I’ve been to a pet cemetery in Los Angeles, and it is very touching.
After a while, do people start to resemble their dogs?
No, a person’s pet starts to resemble him. I know my Great Dane used to wrinkle up her eyes when she smiled, showing her teeth—just like me.