I’m a dog whisperer

Canine behaviourist, Tricia Wills, had always wanted to work with animals. Her understanding of how dogs' minds work means that she's able to help them and their owners when there's a problem.

I was given a dog for my 14th birthday on condition that I trained him. It was a good thing I didn’t know that Irish setters are one of the most difficult breeds to train: they have selective hearing and can be very contrary! I went to a dog-training club and worked at it, though, and it was worth it: he was a lovely dog.

Learning the ropes

At school, I didn't get the grades to become a vet so I ended up going into hairdressing instead. Then, when I was in my 20s, I offered to do some voluntary work at my local animal rescue centre and took to it straightaway.

I also worked in a local boarding kennels for six months, where I met a huge, black and hairy briard. I fell in love with the breed and vowed to have one at some stage in my life.

I advertised my services as a girl Friday in the local paper and the work came flooding in. It was great fun: I’d house-sit for people who needed someone to walk their dogs, turn their horses out, look after a few sheep and pick up the chickens’ eggs.

I decided to specialise in dogs and over the years I built up my skills by working with people’s pets, especially with show dogs. My husband and I had four dogs of our own at the time, and I mentioned to our vet that I’d like to board dogs in my home, as an alternative to kennels. He was very encouraging as nobody in our area was offering that service at the time.

Dog days

My dog-boarding business took off unbelievably quickly and as I watched my charges, along with my own dogs, I became more and more fascinated by their behaviour.

They were always falling out about something. When my sons were still in highchairs, one of them would drop a piece of toast on the floor and our dogs would all squabble over it. Every morning, when I came downstairs and opened the door for them, they’d mock-fight with each other as they bundled out. I had so many questions about their behaviour that I signed up for a course on the subject.

The most useful thing I learned on the course was the fact that dogs have a hierarchy and a group of dogs will quickly sort this out between them.

Tricia with dogs in countrysideAs humans, we can’t always see how this works, and if we try to interfere it can cause problems. The dogs know what's what in their group and it's usually a female who takes the lead.

I also learned that you can modify a dog’s behaviour but you can never completely change it, because temperament is partly down to breeding. Years after falling in love with briards, I got one of my own. He was beautiful, but he barked all the time. It used to drive us mad! If I’d researched the breed before buying him, I’d have known that briards are bred for guarding sheep in the Alps. In essence, they are bred to bark.

Sometimes, a client will ring me up and say, "My dog’s driving me mad – it’s out on the lawn barking for no reason." My first question will be: "What breed is it?" If it’s a doberman, or any of the guarding breeds, it’s no surprise that they bark.

Thinking of getting a dog?

Most people don’t do enough research into the breed of dog they’re considering. They think: that’s cute, it doesn’t look as if it’ll need much grooming or bring much mud into the house.

You need to think about your lifestyle and how much time you’ve got. I find it bizarre how many dog owners don’t like walking. The amount of exercise a dog needs depends on the breed. A springer spaniel, for instance, is bred to go on shoots and flush out birds all day long: it needs a lot of exercise.

It’s great to rehome a dog from a rescue centre, but some of them come with baggage: they might have behavioural traits that their previous owners couldn’t cope with. However, if you’re not careful, that can also happen if you buy a dog from a breeder.

Word of mouth is good. If you see a well-behaved dog that you like the look of, ask its owner where it was from. A home-bred puppy is always a better bet than a kennel-bred puppy, because it will have been more socialised.

If you do buy a puppy, ask lots of questions. If the person you're buying from has nothing to hide, they won't mind. Meet both parents, and be suspicious of the breeder who won’t let you.

Dogs and children

There’s no breed that won’t make a good family dog, as long as you introduce it to your children carefully and socialise and train it properly.

Never, ever leave a baby or a young child alone with a dog, however well behaved it usually is. Babies and toddlers are inquisitive: if they find a pen on the floor and try to poke it into the dog’s eye or ear, you can't expect the animal not to retaliate to the pain or fear.

When our sons were born, we were very careful to ensure that our dogs associated the babies with positive experiences. Both boys were really colicky, so we used to put them in a sling and take them for long walks every evening, because that was the only thing that would settle them. The dogs came too, and every time we got the sling out, they’d get really excited because they knew they were going for a walk.

Dog tip

If you’re wary of dogs and one comes bounding towards you, stand still and don’t make eye contact with it. If it tries to jump up, block it by bringing your knee up to your chest.

If your dog does this and you can't control it, you should either take it to training classes or seek advice from a canine behaviourist.

Environment and behaviour

In order to get a nice, balanced family dog you can take anywhere, you need to expose him to sights, sounds and people.

Tricia dogs on leadsYou need to be in control of your dog when you’re out. I don’t care how well trained he is: if a rodent or squirrel runs out, he might run across the road. The chasing instinct is very strong and dogs off leads on roads can cause accidents. Let them off the lead in a safe place by all means, but not on a main road.

When at home, some people choose to use a crate for their dog. I don’t own one as I’ve seen so many terrible, sad scenarios where they have been misused and dogs have been shut in them for hours at a time. If you want something that sits in the corner of the room in a crate, why not get a canary?

Having said that, I do have a boarding dog who turns up with a crate. He likes to sit in it with a blanket thrown over the top, like a den. However, his owners are responsible people who have used the crate properly, and we always leave the door open.

All dogs have the ability to bite. My dog, Fly, a lurcher, has never bitten anyone, but he could, and if he was in an extreme situation, he would. For instance, if he was tethered and unable to escape, he’d have two choices: fight (bite) or flight (run away). If he was tied up, he wouldn’t be able to run away, so biting would be his only option.

Dog training: tricks, clicks and treats

It’s very important to train your dog. Like bringing up children, it’s all about being consistent, putting down rules and boundaries, and sticking to them. Dogs have to know you mean business and will follow through.

There is no magic to training. It takes time and consistency – and that goes for everyone in the household. It’s no good you insisting that the dog isn’t allowed on the furniture if your husband lets the dog sit next to him on the sofa.

If your dog is misbehaving and has had enough exercise (if he hasn’t, you can’t blame him for trying to let off steam!) tell him firmly to ‘leave it’. If that doesn’t work, pop him outside the room for a couple of minutes. Then invite him back in. Repeat this until he settles down.

Tricia sitting with dogsWhat works for your dog may vary depending on the breed and the situation. Food-oriented breeds, such as labradors and retrievers, respond well to treats, but collies work better with gadgets, such as clickers, and toys. Clicker training is simply positive reinforcement: you use the clicker so the dog hears the noise at the same time as you give a command. Then you reward them with a treat.

People worry about giving food treats on the grounds that it’s bribery, but this is an animal, not a child. If a treat reinforces the behaviour you want, go with it. Over time, you can phase out giving the treats and just use your voice instead. Before you know it, you won’t need to carry around a pocket of treats any more.

Never underestimate the power of walks in training your dog. It’s no coincidence that homeless people have a very good relationship with their dogs: that’s because they get plenty of exercise. Their dogs don’t jump up, either. Walking dogs regularly is important on so many levels. If you don’t like walking, you should think about getting a cat instead.

Paw problems

One dog I worked with used to growl and snap at its owners when they tried to wipe its muddy paws. So they stopped trying to wipe the paws and put it in the conservatory until its paws were clean. But that sort of approach doesn’t work long-term, because at some stage somebody will have to touch its paws: it might need a grass seed extracting from its paw, for instance. That would normally only take a few seconds for a vet to tweezer out, but if the dog growls and snaps, it might require an anaesthetic.

With this particular dog, I showed his owners how to put a little soft muzzle on him, and desensitise him by touching his paws every day. Because they knew he couldn’t bite them, they were no longer afraid of their pet. He got used to having his paws stroked and the problem was resolved.

When it’s time to say goodbye

Tricia with dogs in gardenPeople often ask my advice about the end of life, but I think most owners know when their dog has come to the end of the road. When your dog stops eating, starts falling about and loses control of its bodily functions you need to talk to your vet. You'll know if your dog's in pain, as they tend to pant heavily and some dogs also howl.

My last dog had an injection to sedate him and then the final injection to end his life and he just went to sleep. It’s a horrible thing for us to go through, but it’s a very dignified way to die. My parents have both passed away and after seeing how much they suffered, I wish we could do the same for people. It would be a blessing for those who are suffering from cruel diseases and illnesses.

Tricia runs dog-training classes and individual sessions for dogs with behavioural issues, in Devon and further afield.

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What a brilliant career.

What a brilliant career. Lovely to read about someone who has every dog's interest at heart. If you're thinking of adopting a puppy, it's important to check and see evidence that both parents have good health test results. For example, a golden retriever's parents should have hip scores of less than 15 in total, with each hip being no more than nine. Elbow scores should be zero and the parents must have clear eye test results.

I'm a bit scared of dogs so

I'm a bit scared of dogs so it's very reassuring to see the emphasis that Tricia puts on training. If only some of the dog owners at my local park could read this!



Great article.

The Dogs Trust currently have over 1000 dogs in their care looking for a loving home.

There are too many unwanted dogs because of unscrupulous breeders, especially those breeding staffordshire bull terrier types (nice dogs just too many end up in re homing centers).

Please think carefully before adding a dog to your family at this time of year and as this article explains, if you do decide to add a dog to your family, please do your research first.

Thank you.

What a fantastic job!

What a fantastic job!
I so wish more people would think seriously before getting a dog.

Hear hear Tally15!

Hear hear Tally15!

Clara, I've just read a wonderful news story about a dog called Jed, who's been rehomed after being overlooked by around 14,000 potential owners during his seven years with the Dogs Trust… aaah.

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