Walking the gentler way - what is your legacy?

karen wild foot prints and dog paw prints walk together across sand

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said in the 1800's, “The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example.”

When I was a young girl, I was dimly aware of a doyenne of dog training known as Barbara Woodhouse. When I say aware, it was one of the programmes my Dad used to watch whilst wiping tears of amusement from his eyes. “Listen to her!” he used to exclaim “She’s really telling them off!”. Of course, he meant the hapless dog owners of course, and not the poor dogs. Her resounding “Walkieees!’ command I still hear today, mostly when my friends and sometimes even my clients, are teasing me mercilessly about my job. Even James Bond got in on the act, telling a tiger to ‘SiiiiT!’ in the film, Octopussy.

This legacy is worth studying since as they say, history repeats itself, so let’s delve in a little closer.

I own shelves crammed with dog books, psychology books, behaviour books of every possible description from every sort of author (the Karate books are in separate bookcases by the way). My friends are hunter-gatherers of these books, too, and happily pass them over to me from purchase at car boot sales, charity shops, but mostly, their lofts… There’s almost always one or two Barbara Woodhouse ones. My friends haven’t read them of course. They still quiz me about their own dogs vagaries. They hand the books over with a wry smile and an embarrassed shrug.

Mrs Woodhouse went on TV in the UK and the USA doing live shows, in which she claimed she would train any dog within 5 minutes to a high standard. This given the proviso that ‘any dog’ did not include those that were ‘mentally unsound’. Her training school motto was ‘Be firm, be fair, and be fun’ and she was an advocate of training a dog ‘properly and kindly’.

It’s odd, then, that my enduring memory of Barbara Woodhouse is watching a Yorkshire terrier being yanked on a choke chain causing it to scream and yelp. That people fondly look upon these methods as times of yesteryear with a tweed-clad old lady who appeared to be well meaning but faintly batty. That most people nowadays would chuckle fondly and say “We loved the show – she was so bossy! I don’t like check chains and aren’t they really called choke chains? Don’t they hurt the dog?” Recently my new friend and ongoing conscience, Kirsty, reminded me of a Woodhouse book chapter advising that to prevent a dog chasing chickens, “pick up the (dying) chicken and hit the dog everywhere with it”.

My positive and fundamental message about this is not to attempt resurrection of a dying breed of trainer (or the ill-fated chickens that went along with it). Instead, let’s take a step back and look at how on earth, with this kind of huge legacy, we truly kind, educated and fundamentally gentle trainers and gentle dog owners have ever had success?

One thing Mrs Woodhouse continually stated was that the owners need to be ‘sensible’. Owners were ordered to act with clarity of purpose. She was rudely abrupt with folks that did not comply – immediately – to her instruction, the endless source of my aforementioned Dad’s hilarity.

I would say that, methods aside, successful trainers do this without hesitation, if a little more politely.

Mrs Woodhouse was hugely determined and she loved her animals – her dream was for every dog to be well behaved, because she knew that in this way they could be a useful part of society. Sounds familiar?

In fact, if we were to take a fine scalpel and dissect away the necrotic areas of yanking chains and harsh punishment, these same messages would be the ones we carry today on our gentler path.

  • It’s not what you do, but how you do it. Results speak volumes. Kind methods just need the volume turning up to the maximum. And that moment is now.
  • It’s the people who are responsible for training the dog – not the other way around, because we bring dogs into human society. We are making the choice to be humane, because despite all excuses, there is ALWAYS a choice.
  • It is easy to persuade people to do it your way, no matter what way that is, because people want results. 5 minute results ARE possible with gentle methods. Owners and viewers will gasp – so let’s make sure it is in amazement and not in horror at what we do.

If you live by harsh methods, you have to live with the results, and the reactions that go along with it, and any damage that you may have caused along the way – and sadly, and perhaps deservedly, that is what you are remembered for. I am certain that the deja-vu behaviour of current harsh method trainers will only result in a similar legacy to that of Mrs Woodhouse. Mass entertainment with a faint sense of disbelief, discomfort and lack of realism.

Returning to Mr Disraeli, “Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action”

Let’s walk the gentler way as loudly as possible to make our legacy the enduring one.


Picture courtesy of Bethan. Article copyright www.karenwild.co.uk

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