While visiting my home in England last year (1971) on a quest for a Landseer Newfoundland, an almost extinct breed, I took the opportunity of telephoning Barbara Woodhouse whose book, Dog Training My Way, I had read and whom I hoped to be able to meet in person. As it turned out, she was just starting another course that weekend and she invited me out to observe. Before describing her setup and methods, I should note that it seems that Mrs. Woodhouse is England’s foremost obedience authority – she has authored several books, made a record on dog training, trains dogs for television, and operates the largest training school in England (apparently the concept of the training club does not exist).
Administratively her basic course is set up more like what we consider a weekend clinic – it consists of four three-hour sessions compressed into two days, Saturday and Sunday – rather than an 8 to 12 session course spread out over an equal number of weeks. During this time, the customary exercises – stand, down, stay, heeling, and come – are taught. The cost of the course is about $50, rather expensive by our standards (in the Washington Metropolitan area the fee for a basic course ranges from $8.00 to $25.00). Handlers are enrolled on the basis of a personal interview with Mrs. Woodhouse at which time she also works with the dog for about 15 minutes. In addition, handlers are instructed to familiarize themselves as much as possible with the material they are going to learn by means of her record prior to attending the course. In the particular course I observed, 10 handlers participated.
On the whole, the methods used were not too terribly different from what one would expect to find here – Mrs. Woodhouse stressed the importance of praise, the fun aspect of training, the importance of timing, reinforcement, use of voice, etc. There were some things, however, that I had not seen before. One was her technique of teaching the come. In a lightly wooded area, the handlers were instructed to spread out and all the dogs were permitted to roam free and play. Then the owners were told to hide from the dogs and one by one were instructed to call their respective dogs. Should one of the dogs go to a handler who was not its owner, that person was instructed to swat the dog with the leash, the theory being that this unpleasant encounter with a stranger would cause the dog to go immediately to its owner. Since I had some questions concerning the wisdom and effectiveness of this technique, I discussed it with Mrs. Woodhouse. I told her first of all that I would not be too keen on the idea of untrained dogs running loose and mingling. What if two of them got into a fight? Second, that I had always been taught never to hit a dog with a leash for obvious reasons. Third, that I felt that this approach was not conducive to teaching the dog the stand for examination, an integral part of every basic course. Being swatted by a stranger would tend to make a dog rather suspicious the next time he was approached. Fourth, and last, that for reasons of personal safety I would be reluctant to participate in such an exercise. I am much too much of a chicken to take a swat at a strange dog who is loose and who just may decide to repay me in kind. Mrs. Woodhouse assured me, however, that in her years of teaching there has never been an unpleasant incident and that as far as she was concerned, this method worked well.
We then talked about some other aspects of the program which I felt were being handled somewhat mechanically, such as the use of the collar and the correction. Most of the collars I thought were improperly fitted and were much too big. I had always considered a properly fitted collar to be an important element of dog training. In regard to the correction, I was astounded to see the uniformity of its application – all dogs were worked on the live ring and a very severe correction was the answer to whatever behavioral deviation beset the dog. No distinction was made between the shy, the bouncy, the aggressive or the essentially willing dog. What we take for granted in this country, i.e., that the instructor knows that no two dogs are alike, that a shy dog must be treated differently than the aggressive dog, that some dogs train easier on the dead ring than the live ring, etc., etc., etc., seemed unheard of over there, or at least it was not applied. Perhaps this sort of an approach is necessary when compressing a basic course into two days and progress must be instantaneous; there is no way to say to the handler “practice this during the week and see how far you get.” At any rate, Mrs. Woodhouse did not think these points were too important. The main thing for her was that the dog did what he was told without too much thought being given to the dog’s point of view.
As for her results, this is difficult to evaluate. Too many of the dogs came out of the course frightened out of their wits, as did quite a few of the handlers. Also, eight of the ten dogs attempted to bite her at some point during the course which I attributed to needlessly heavy-handed handling. No doubt the handlers had learned something about how to control a dog and perhaps the techniques they had learned, tempered by an owner’s love for his dog, would enable them to work with their dogs in a meaningful and constructive way. It seemed like a hard way of doing it, though.